Years ago, in a different professional existence, I wrote a news article on two farmers — each the other's closest neighbor geographically — who were running for the same state legislative seat. (One was a Republican, the other a Democrat.) Both candidates said respectful things about their neighbor/political opponent, but I remember the exact response from one of them. She said, "He's a good neighbor. We just disagree on some things."

Sadly, that we-can-disagree-but-still-get-along attitude has dwindled in recent years, or so it has seemed to me. Now, a study recently published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing of the American Marketing Association concludes that things really are getting worse. More information on the study, written by researchers from six universities, is available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0743915621991103?journalCode=ppoa& and at http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2021/02/researchers-find-broad-impacts-from-political-polarization.html.

According to the paper:

"Partisan incivility is a major reason for failed dialogue: Uncivil exchanges result in disagreement and greater polarization regardless of the evidence presented."

Further, "Political polarization increases the salience of political identities, alters inter- and intra-group dynamics, and amplifies cognitive biases. These effects negatively impact consumer welfare, including financial welfare, relationships, mental and physical health, and societal interests."

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Translated into everyday English, the study says, "More people are so locked into their own beliefs that they won't listen to opposing viewpoints. And that's hurting us mentally, socially, physically and financially."

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(The study also concludes — accurately, I think — that "some level of conflict is good and natural for society," and that more research is needed to determine “what types and levels of societal conflict result in positive versus negative outcomes.")

The study doesn't directly address the nastiness that so often comes with political polarization. But spiteful, censorious scorn for anyone with an opposing viewpoint clearly is on the upswing. There's plenty of blame to go around; both the political left and right are guilty of it.

Unfortunately, agriculture isn't immune from that polarization or nastiness. Agriculturalists are not exempt from making mean-spirited verbal attacks on people with whom they disagree. It's increasingly common for agriculturalists (a minority, to be sure) to ridicule any argument with which they disagree and to demonize the messenger who bears it.

Though generalizing is risky, that's at least partly because "liberals" tend to live in cities and suburbs while "conservatives" tend to live in small towns and the country. And urban liberals sometimes advocate policies — restrictions on production livestock, for example — that threaten the livelihood of many rural conservatives.

I really do understand the passion with which many agriculturalists — I'm one myself — defend their beliefs and way of life. They genuinely believe, usually with good reason, that their future is under direct, relentless attack. Trouble is, that good-and-proper passion can become infected with nastiness, weakening the clarity and credibility of what they're saying and angering people with differing views. The nastiness reinforces the polarization, which in turn strengthens the determination of people on the other side to get their own way.

Polarization is bad for our society, our country and our communities. It's bad for us as individual human beings; it makes us less wealthy, less healthy and less happy. And it hampers protecting and promoting modern agriculture.

Limiting polarization and nastiness requires effort from all of us, whether we're in ag or not. All of us, when we deal with people with opposing viewpoints, need to respectfully explain why we believe what we do. We need to avoid treating them as if they're dumb or foolish or evil. And it surely can't hurt to remember, as I sometimes do, that farmer/political candidate who said of her opponent, "He's a good neighbor. We just disagree on some things."