“Polarization” is perhaps the ultimate dirty word in America’s political lexicon.

Dire warnings about the rising polarization of American society have long been a staple of cable news commentary and newspaper op-ed sections, and politicians in both parties regularly vow to resist or reverse it. As a consequence, the idea that “divisive behavior” of any kind is inherently bad has become about as axiomatic as anything can be in American politics.

During a weekend appearance on CNN’s State of the Union alongside Jake Tapper, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg became just the latest figure to trade in this all-too-familiar trope. Using much of the interview to contrast his strategy and policy aims with those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (the two candidates in the field running decidedly to his left) the mayor of South Bend made a banal but revealing remark:

My concern about the vision from the Sanders/Warren approach is that it can polarize Americans when we have other ways to deliver bold solutions without dividing the American people further.

Earlier this month, Buttigieg’s campaign released an ad in the same vein, declaring:

As a veteran, and as a mayor, I’ve seen what we can achieve when we have each other’s backs. But in today’s divided America, we’re at each other’s throats. Our rivers and oceans are rising, health-care costs are soaring, and our kids are learning active shooter drills before they learn to read. To meet these challenges and to defeat this president, we need real solutions, not more polarization.

Like denunciations of “partisanship,” warnings about polarization often resonate because they contain an element of truth. Few, after all, would deny that American society is deeply divided, culturally and politically, or that politicians and media figures alike often lean into these divisions for purely cynical reasons. Widespread disgust, particularly at the latter, is precisely why centrists like Buttigieg believe there’s political capital to be harvested in condemning opponents for attempting to “polarize” the electorate.

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