Brookings Institution fellow, political author discusses polarization during first talk of Seminars at Steamboat

Seminars at Steamboat hosted its first in-person talk since the pandemic with William Galston discussing political polarization Monday, July 11, 2022.
Katy Pickens / Steamboat Pilot & Today

Seminars at Steamboat returned to in-person lectures on Monday, July 11, for its 20th season with a talk from noted political thinker and author, William Galston, about the polarized state of American politics.

The talk took place at the Strings Pavilion with a couple hundred attendees, and was moderated by Jane Stein, co-founder of Seminars at Steamboat and current board member.

“For two decades, Seminars has presented an impressive number of prescient nonpartisan public policy talks by distinguished experts,” said Walt Dabberdt, chair of the board of directors for Seminars at Steamboat, to open the talk. “We continue that tradition with this summer’s lineup of five seminars on very timely and compelling topics.”

Galston has worked on six presidential campaigns, worked for the Clinton administration, written several books and publishes a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. He discussed what he characterizes as one of the most pressing threats to America’s democracy in his talk “Deeply Divided and Closely Divided: Why the Temperature Has Been Rising in American Politics.”

He outlined the historical context of what led to such staunch opposition between the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as potential steps forward to begin easing the country’s divisions. 

Galston noted, as the title of the talk suggests, that Americans are divided “deeply” and “closely,” referencing the intense nature of polarization and the relatively similar number of Americans on either side of the aisle respectively.

“We have moved from pervasive consensus to record polarization, partisan polarization, not only with regard to substance, but also emotional polarization,” Galston said, referencing the broad political agreement of the 1950s and early 60s as compared to today.

He rooted some of the context of this shift in the political turmoil of the 1960s, with the Civil Rights era, the second wave of feminism and widespread protests about the Vietnam War reigniting debates about ideology after a relatively non-divided era of politics.

Adding the Watergate scandal in 1972, trust in government plummeted from 1965 to 1975, Galston explained.

“What happened during that period was just the beginning of what might be thought of as the great unraveling of America,” Galston said. “Our ability to live together despite our differences had been replaced by an obsessive focus on differences and a growing sense that maybe we can’t live together.” 

Bringing it to the present day, this division and lack of trust in government and other public actors has only intensified, he added. Citing Gallup polls, Galston said that confidence in institutions has declined acutely in the past few years.

This makes actually enacting policy and achieving bipartisan ends difficult, Galston explained.

“Unfortunately, when the two parties are closely divided, not compromising with the other party frequently means that you end up empty-handed and then the American people are deeply disappointed that yet another presidency that began with such high hopes has seen that ship of state wrecked on the shoals of reality,” he said.

Harsh dividing lines also make maintaining power and creating long-term, thoughtful policy difficult, Galston said.

“My argument, in short, is that this combination of deep division and close division has produced a substantial portion of the toxic politics of our time,” Galston added.

Toward the end of his remarks, Galston said he hoped to end on a positive note — drawing laughter from the audience — by describing a few actionable steps individuals could take to ease polarization.

He said that supporting grassroots movements for organized dialogue and candidates who were firmly in favor of reuniting the country could be good first steps. Additionally, he added that getting involved with national organizations that strive for bipartisan legislation could be another option, such as No Labels, which Galston co-founded.

He also advised that voters avoid candidates that feed into polarization, even if you agree with their policy agenda.

Seminars at Steamboat will continue next week with a talk from Scott Kennedy on  “U.S.-China Strategic Competition” at 5:30 p.m. on July 18 at the Strings Pavillion.

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