Is Peace the Cause of Political Polarization?

Everybody likes to attribute bad trends to other bad trends they don't like. Liberals may say political polarization is caused by inequality, while conservatives may say it's caused by the decline in religion. Recently I've been wondering if a good trend caused a bad trend: is political polarization just a result of decades without a major war mobilization?

A lot of egalitarian reforms and social projects seem to happen during or around wartime. The U.S. abolished slavery during the Civil War, gave women the right to vote on the heels of World War I, and World War II had all sorts of social effects from racially integrated units to gay soldiers to women in factories. When I read about the history of Rome, I remember great land reforms tending to coincide with major wars. (Lex Licinia Sextia, the first major land reform, happened on the coattails of the Roman-Etruscan wars.) The idea of war triggering social egalitarianism also fits with folk psychology ideas of how people behave in foxholes.

A recent paper, "Can War Foster Cooperation," finds solid
 evidence that war promotes local social cohesion:

In the past decade, nearly 20 studies have found a strong, persistent pattern in surveys and behavioral experiments from over 40 countries: individual exposure to war violence tends to increase social cooperation at the local level, including community participation and prosocial behavior. Thus while war has many negative legacies for individuals and societies, it appears to leave a positive legacy in terms of local cooperation and civic engagement. We discuss, synthesize and reanalyze the emerging body of evidence, and weigh alternative explanations. There is some indication that war violence especially enhances in-group or "parochial" norms and preferences, a finding that, if true, suggests that the rising social cohesion we document need not promote broader peace.
The internal social cohesion, of course, seems to come with a helping of hostility toward outsiders. Overall, the researchers describe the findings as optimistic, given that much of the work takes place in the context of post-war African countries. It has me thinking, though: maybe the rise in U.S. polarization is happening not because of the presence of some new phenomenon (the Internet, wage stagnation) but because of the absence of an old one (war). Maybe politics were more functional in the postwar years because they were postwar.

It would be pretty unsatisfying if the lack of a major war is the cause of contemporary political polarization. Still, there might be things we can do to get the good parts of war without the bad. A national service is one option, and focusing on a common social goal (a new space program?) could be another. If we consider stranger and less appealing descriptions of the problem of political polarization, we might end up finding better solutions.

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