Impact Stories
December 8, 2021 – Free Speech & Peace

How Practicing Principled Dissent Will Reduce Polarization in America

How Practicing Principled Dissent Will Reduce Polarization in America

Do you ever wonder what you can do to reduce political polarization in our society? Consider embracing principled dissent. 

For every contentious issue, some people seem to see those with opposing views as an enemy to be defeated. There is little tolerance for dissent — especially when political or legislative victory is on the line. In fact, dissenting from your group or political party is a sign of disloyalty, and we know what happens to traitors.

Under such conditions, it takes tremendous courage to publicly dissent when you believe your side is going too far in order to secure a political win. Yet this is precisely what we need: people who see the complexity of issues and reject simple, overreaching solutions designed to give their side more power. 

Many people are deeply disturbed by ideological or partisan extremism, but criticize the other side more than their own. While this tendency is well documented in social psychological literature, it is more useful to observe extremism, identify the warning signs, and vigilantly guard against extremism from your own quarter. If we choose to channel our energy toward staying committed to our values, even when the other side compromises theirs, we are engaging in principled dissent.

The importance of principled dissent is clear regarding two contentious current issues: COVID vaccine mandates and bans on critical race theory (CRT). On vaccine mandates, many on the left believe the only people who dissent are right-wing science deniers who do not care about COVID deaths. On CRT bans, many on the right believe dissenters must be radical leftists who want white children to be made to feel guilty about historical racism.

These partisan narratives are most effectively debunked by dissenters on the left who oppose vaccine mandates, and by dissenters on the right who oppose CRT bans. When left-wing dissenters oppose vaccine mandates, they are not denying the reality of COVID or the efficacy of vaccines. Rather, they are making principled objections to government enforcement as a solution, and are worried about the precedent that mandates set for government interventions in the future. When right-wing dissenters oppose CRT bans, they are not denying that certain teaching curricula are divisive. Rather, they are rejecting  censorship as a solution, and offering justified worries that bans will make it more difficult to teach important facts about our country’s history of racial injustice. 

On both of these issues, dissenters are fundamentally opposed to solutions they perceive as extreme, even when they acknowledge that their side is attempting to solve a problem that is real and severe. Herein lies the quality that makes these dissenters principled: they share with their side a strong desire to fix the problem, but nevertheless refuse to allow their side to take extreme actions that may exacerbate the problem or create new ones. 

When principled dissenters examine a problem, they do not see it through a narrow partisan lens. Instead, as many have noted, these individuals see a web of intractable, inextricably linked problems, none of which have a clear solution. Among these problems is their own side’s willingness to implement bans, restrictions, or mandates without asking critical questions about the potential negative repercussions of such measures. Principled dissenters ask: if we grant the government authority to intervene when we want them to, how do we know they will not intervene in future when we do not want them to intercede? They also ask whether considering a problem so dire that it needs to be fixed by any means necessary means that we are willing to infringe on individual rights in ways that would otherwise be out of the question.

When dissenters ask these questions, they are often ostracized by their side. Dissenters on the left who have long advocated for progressive causes are routinely characterized as right-wing and alt-right for dissenting from the left-wing policy prescriptions.

Meanwhile, dissenters on the right who have long advocated for conservative causes are labeled squishes and Republicans in Name Only (RINOs) for criticizing the right. These examples indicate that cancel culture is real (contrary to what many on the left claim), it is bipartisan (contrary to what many on the right claim), and it often targets principled people (contrary to what partisans on both sides claim).

The organization I work for, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), works to protect our right to dissent. But it is not enough for us to have that right. We must exercise it — especially if we know our own side is wrong. It is one of the best tools we have to fight polarization. When faced with intense political disagreements, those who are able to rein in their side’s excesses add immense, underappreciated cultural value. 

Principled dissent requires that we acknowledge extremism exists in all quarters, and specify the point at which our side goes too far. It also requires that we explain the risks of extreme actions. Importantly, we must be willing to do all of these things even when our side is attempting to solve a problem that we believe is real and severe. And when our side tries to silence or slander us for dissenting, we must recognize such actions for what they are: yet another partisan “solution” that actually exacerbates the problem it hopes to address, and also creates new ones in the process.

Komi German is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Individual RIghts in Education (FIRE). The views presented are those of the author and are not necessarily the views of FIRE.

This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Discovery. In this series we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on how openness drives human progress.