Us And Them, Again

One of the most troubling aspects of America’s current political gridlock is the degree to which the citizens who choose political leadership are currently polarized. A recent essay from The Conversation considered the extent to which that polarization is implicated in the the country’s widely reported “downgrade” as a “backsliding democracy” by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

One key reason the report cites is the continuing popularity among Republicans of false allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

But according to the organization’s secretary general, perhaps the “most concerning” aspect of American democracy is “runaway polarization.” One year after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Americans’ perceptions about even the well-documented events of that day are divided along partisan lines.

Polarization looms large in many diagnoses of America’s current political struggles. Some researchers warn of an approaching “tipping point” of irreversible polarization.

The author of the essay, who has recently published a book on the subject, identifies two types of polarization: political polarization and belief polarization. 

Political polarization is simply the ideological distance between opposing parties. When–as now–those differences loom large, they produce the sort of gridlock we are experiencing, especially at the federal level.  As the author points out,  although political polarization can be extremely frustrating, it isn’t necessarily dysfunctional. (It does offer voters a clear choice…) 

Belief polarization, also called group polarization, is different. Interaction with like-minded others transforms people into more extreme versions of themselves. These more extreme selves are also overly confident and therefore more prepared to engage in risky behavior.

Belief polarization also leads people to embrace more intensely negative feelings toward people with different views. As they shift toward extremism, they come to define themselves and others primarily in terms of partisanship. Eventually, politics expands beyond policy ideas and into entire lifestyles.

That hostility toward members of the other party leads members (“us”) to become more conformist and thus increasingly intolerant of the inevitable differences among “us.” The rigidity of our identities as “woke” or “anti-woke” demands conformity from others of our own tribes. As a result, the Left loses Al Franken; the Right loses Liz Cheney. And as the essayist writes, “belief polarization is toxic for citizens’ relations with one another.”

Even more concerning is the way that political and belief polarization work together in what the author calls “a mutually reinforcing loop.” When a polity is divided into two clans –an “us” and a “them” increasingly fixated on what is wrong with the other guys–the situation provides political actors with incentives to amplify hostility toward their partisan opponents.

And because the citizenry is divided over lifestyle choices rather than policy ideas, officeholders are released from the usual electoral pressure to advance a legislative platform. They can gain reelection simply based on their antagonism.

As politicians escalate their rifts, citizens are cued to entrench partisan segregation. This produces additional belief polarization, which in turn rewards political intransigence. All the while, constructive political processes get submerged in the merely symbolic and tribal, while people’s capacities for responsible democratic citizenship erode.

I think this analysis is exactly right, and–unfortunately–an accurate description of today’s  American public (at least the portion of that public that is politically engaged).

In a recent guest essay for the New York Times, Rebecca Solnit considered an important element of “belief polarization,” the tendency of partisans to accept propaganda produced by their “tribe” as fact. (This happens on both the Left and Right, but is particularly widespread on the Right. Sandy Hook was a hoax. Hillary Clinton was trafficking children in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Bill Gates has inserted chips in COVID vaccines…Donald Trump really won the 2020 election.)

Tribalism, it turns out, enables and encourages gullibility.

Distinctions between believable and unbelievable, true and false are not relevant for people who have found that taking up outrageous and disprovable ideas is instead an admission ticket to a community or an identity. Without the yoke of truthfulness around their necks, they can choose beliefs that flatter their worldview or justify their aggression….

But gullibility means you believe something because someone else wants you to. You’re buying what they’re selling. It’s often said that the joiners of cults and subscribers to delusions are driven by their hatred of elites. But in the present situation, the snake oil salesmen are not just Alex Jones, QAnon’s master manipulators and evangelical hucksters. They are senators, powerful white Christian men, prominent media figures, billionaires and their foundations, even a former president. 

The problem–as both essays conclude–is that while  autocracy requires people who will obey orders about what to think as well as what to do, democracy requires independent-minded people who can reason well. 

We desperately need more of those people.


  1. “belief polarization,” the tendency of partisans to accept propaganda produced by their “tribe” as fact. (This happens on both the Left and Right, but is particularly widespread on the Right. Sandy Hook was a hoax. Hillary Clinton was trafficking children in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Bill Gates has inserted chips in COVID vaccines…Donald Trump really won the 2020 election.)

    OK – I see 4 clear examples of the BAT SHIT CRAZY stuff the R’s believe. I am not aware of a similar group of bat shit crazy beliefs that motivate the D’s. Perhaps I am missing something but I do not see the D’s motivated by crazy crap.

  2. There is a vital lesson to be learned as we watch Putin’s war in Ukraine as his primary goal appears to be total destruction of cities and the people living in them. President Zelensky has taken the lead from the beginning and has united his people to fight to the death if they must. Ordinary citizens have been trained and armed and are fighting in the streets; educators, businesses men and women are fighting alongside of their military and police.

    My jazz musician friend Royce Campbell contacted his Ukrainian musician friend who told him the musicians have united; they are making molotav cocktails, have been trained by the military and are armed and fighting for democracy and their country. One of their greatest difficulties is watching children die of dehydration because Russians have cut off their water supply. I watched a report about the Ukrainian Ballet Company who are now trained armed and fighting in the streets. The once UNITED State was capable of coming together, but not now. We can no longer come together in our cities and towns or our neighborhoods to unite our races, religions and sexes and accept others have a right to their political beliefs. Should we be invaded at this time we would not survive as the Ukrainians have for this 26th day of Putin’s attempt to successfully carry out his “military occupation”.

    The once political division in this country has become an abyss; Trump’s presidential approval of violence and supporting White Supremacy, neo-Nazis and racism with aid from McConnell have maintained the division within the government and divisions within both parties. We would not survive an attack; when there are still those Trump millions of supporters believing he was actually elected would maintain the current “Us and Them” by believing “The Big Lie”.

  3. Every day there seems to be further analysis of our “problem”. What is lacking is any suggestion about how we might FIX the problem. What good is analysis, if it doesn’t go any further than that? I understand that these questions are harder to fix in a democratic society, but we have to find a way out, if we are to survive as a functioning democracy, so how about spit balling some ideas?

  4. I know there is political hooey on the left (I expect it will show up presently), but it doesn’t seem nearly as focused/in power as it does on the right. It’s easy to come up with examples of Q style ridiculousness, but I struggle with its leftwing equivalent. Not many politicians I can name are really into some kind of liberal conspiracy.

    Certainly members of the population at large buy into some silly things, but is there an organized power structure that backs silly/stupid on the left? I like to try and be aware of my biases and I would hate to think I’ve been blind to my side’s dumb. I mean, I think universal healthcare is a good idea, most progressive types do. I don’t think there’s any real justification for our current system, but I suppose that could just be me wearing blinders (but, I don’t think so). What are the in power crazy beliefs of the left?

  5. Peggy, I personally came to the conclusion that the only way to fix this problem is for the “more-or-less–sane” element of our society to politically and culturally overwhelm the “bat-shit-crazy” element in every possible elected office in every state and territory until such time as age takes its toll on the latter group, as vast majority of it is composed of Boomer and GenX white people.

    This will requires D’s to continue to focus on two things:

    1) Focus FAR more energy on state and local elections and not fritter time and money on a few visible but largely lost causes. The DNC spends most of its money and expertise on a few very visible Governor and Congressional races that are high risk and more often lost than won. And until 2020 the Indiana Dem party did the same thing.

    2) Continue to work on getting out the vote among young people and people of color – two demographics where turnout rates are lower than older whites. Voting registration and casting ballots may be harder in 19 states because of state laws but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to vote. It requires more determination.

    As for the article cited, I struggle to see the real difference between political and belief polarization. It seems more like an intellectual construct than based in reality. Beliefs and values have always been very strong drivers of political identity and choices, not policies. Again, it isn’t a set of policy choices that inform the bat-shit-crazy crowd. It’s the feeling of satisfaction that they “own the libs” if their side wins.

  6. There is a third polarization to be considered – the “we” v/s “me”. More are more people, especially in Gen X/Y/Z, are focused on their or their small group’s identify/brand than on any greater sense of community or country. They are distant from any thinking about polarization, which may be, to them, just a swirl of media “stuff” around and outside of their personal world.

  7. Yes. It is the 25 – 30% of the “bat-shit crazy” elements of our society that are screwing everything up while the corporate-sponsored media froth all over this divide. Yes, I know. That’s a tip of the cap to Todd. Not my intention, but…

    What’s missing from the left is a dedicated program of messaging the facts and the truth along with promoting those policies that PROVE that more people with money to spend improves the quality of life, reduces poverty/crime and returns us to some semblance of the ideals of our founders.

    But as long as the “bleeds it leads” media keeps frothing over the negatives, nothing will change, except the divisiveness will continue. Take, for example, the mindless ravings of Hawley, Cruz and Graham at the confirmation hearing yesterday – please. What a collection of wankers, yet there they were all over MSNBC and all things FOX. How else is white, rural America supposed to see things? They have NO idea what’s in their best interests, because NOBODY is telling them the truth.

  8. There are two kinds of Russians now. One group believes what they are told by Russian state media and they are angry at Ukrainians for their nazification and poor treatment of Russian speaking Ukrainians and soldiers. The other group searches for real news of what is going on around the world from the perspective of global others and they are increasing angry at Putin for conducting his war at their expense.

    The same is going on among the States formerly United except “state” media is only Republican media but the goal is the same, to maintain power.

    Those in the thrall of being told what they wish was true absolutely believe that the world of their dreams is available to them except for those who believe otherwise who are taking over the “real world”.

    Why are so many so readily and completely deluded? The answer is modern social/entertainment media overt advertising and and covert propaganda in our lives 24/7 using all of the tools fathered by Edward Bernays continuously improved for over a century.

  9. Too sadly true.
    JoAnn’s point about the Dems seems spot on. Maybe that has to do with the demographics, especially in the “rust belt,” where so many
    have long seen themselves as Republicans, and have recently, supposedly, felt left behind by the larger society; ignored by Hillary in the 2020
    But, here, too, in the sweat belt, I’ll call it, the Evangelical sweat belt, where so many of the old Dixiecrats still, love their Dixieness, and hold onto
    their race based beliefs, the tribalism is rampant. And people like DeSantis, and the toxic state legislature play to the divide, as in Texas, creating
    laws that 30 years ago would have never been given any sort of serious consideration.
    Another piece of this is that the political manipulators seem to have a much easier time working with the minds of those who already live comfortably
    with black and white views of the universe, and fairy tale gods.
    Of course, I am saying all this from my very own perspective

  10. We are really very lucky that our nation is so diverse. I have read that 58% of Russians approve of Putin and the war in Ukraine. The invasion may fail, but dictatorship in Russia will live on to menace us for the rest of our lives because their lack of diversity curses them with the unity of nationalism.

    The reality in the U.S. is that minorities voting for Democrats save us from being a Christian nationalist right wing dictatorship just like Russia. If you analyze the electoral results of Indiana, which for the sake of this argument let’s assume is about the 20th most insanely right wing state in this country, something like 75% of white people voted for Trump.

    Without minority electoral participation the U.S. would be a hellish, backward-looking nightmare. Before you curse polarization, consider the alternative.

  11. Back in the early 1970’s, Stanislav Andreski wrote about the “pretentious nebulous verbosity” that characterized the social sciences in a book entitled Social Science as Sorcery. He accused social scientists of too often simply translating common knowledge into impenetrable jargon. The coining of the term “belief polarization” doesn’t remotely rise to that level, but it seems to me to simply re-state what many have already described—as Americans (especially on the Right, to a lesser extent on the Left) retreat into online and daily social networks that aren’t much more than echo chambers.

  12. Lester is on to something today. The fragments are further fragmenting. Should this continue to its dry logical if theoretical end, the world will be me vs. the world at the expense of the term “united,” Locke’s social contract, and innumerable socioeconomic understandings of days gone by. In view of such a possibility, perhaps we should elect sociologists to political power positions rather than some of the “homo saps” (as my old World Politics professor insisted on calling us) we have elected.

    For instance, I can remember when a Republican senator and foreign relations expert from Michigan, Vandenburg, enunciated the doctrine of “Politics end at the water’s edge,” that is, that we speak with one voice to the world, a policy both parties agreed was a good one. Now we have such foreign policy experts as Boebert and Greene advising us on everything from how to deal with Putin to complex international trade issues, all while putting down our president (with the help of Fox) who is constitutionally charged with carrying out our foreign policy. Me has supplanted we, as noted daily (also with the help of Fox) in the Moscow press. Goodbye, Vandenburg doctrine. Hello, Putin enablers.

    Professor Kennedy’s offering today lends credence to my long-held observation that while we are fighting for tribal positioning on issues only government can solve, real and uncontrived issues are going wanting for solution, issues such as looming environmental disaster, chronic wage and wealth inequality, global hunger (exacerbated by war in Europe’s breadbasket, Ukraine), acidic oceans etc.

    Our futures are not only bound by what is happening in a number of societies with their power – lusting Trumps and Putins and Xis and others; it is what is NOT happening as political opportunists here at home have discovered the me crowd will vote for attacks on their opponents rather than their stands and rationales on the real issues of the day. Why talk of enormous deficits in trade balances with China when “owning the libs” is more effective in bringing support at the ballot box (which itself is subject to legislative manipulation at the state level)?

    Perhaps We the People should let sociologists run things for a while before returning such authority to (hopefully chastened) politicians to legislate on the real issues of the day sans putdowns via the use of debate and compromise, as envisioned by our forefathers.

  13. Vern, yep!

    I believe we should call our informational pipeline that’s readily available, Lies’R’Us!

    What’s your favorite brand of lie? A little old white lie? How about a vinal lie? A hateful lie? A self-aggrandizing lie? A conspiratorial lie? The list can go on forever! Whatever flavor one savers, there’s a lie to quench that desire.

    There is no cohesiveness in society anymore. And, without cohesive structure, there cannot be any sort of foundation for society to be stable.

    Christ basically had it correctly when he stated in Matthew the 7th chapter verse 24 – 27. A house that’s built on sand is foolish and it’s collapse was great, but a house built on a rock Mass will not cave in.

    This is exactly what we have in society today, a bunch of sand. And, that really points to a collapse.

    If we look at the the character Don Quixote, he was deceived by his imagination. He saw enemies everywhere. He developed his own conspiracies, and self-aggrandized himself to slay those conspiratorial enemies.

    So in our current society, imagine a bunch of Don Quixote’s listening to lies r Us constantly, do you think that that would be conducive to a successful society? I think we are looking at the collapse of society because the deception is too well entrenched, the horse is out of the barn, the cats out of the bag, pick your cliche! And, it’s too bad because history pointed to this a long time ago, but humanity is too ignorant to see the warnings of history.

  14. I read a novel that included a land where the rulers saw themselves (and were considered by the people) as “The Sacrifice”. The leaders were sacrificing day to day for the nation.

    An interesting concept.

  15. Gerald – have heard of a “philosopher king”, but not a “sociologist king”…

  16. I have a friend that had a Russian passport, but currently hold Canadian citizenship, but is in the US on a work visa. They immigrated from Belarus in 2003. She was a doctor in Kiev and actually treated Chernobyl radiation victims. She still has lots of friends in Belarus and Russia, and with her face time calls, the first question is she safe in USA? Don’t they hate Russians? Have you been threatened? I can say in our group the conversation has been engaging and interesting. We love to hear a different point of view.

    She has had more conversations, and now she has been called fascist, and nazi. Nobody believes what she has to say about Putin or Ukraine. She has been blocked and unfriended from several long time friends.

    Of course Putin has cracked down on anything but official state media. Meta (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) have been called terrorist organizations and blocked.

    I suspect that the right wing media complex have become dangerous to American democracy, and maybe we are just steps away from the kind of totalitarian rule that Russia has, but I still hold hope that there is still enough truth out there that the darkness will not win.

  17. OK – Here I will express my dissent – and amplify a bit on ideas from patmcc and Dirk.
    Polarization is like saying “there were good people on both sides” in Charlotte.
    NO – there were not!
    With a nod to Pete – Do we really believe that Putin and Zelensky represent “polarized” views of Ukraine’s future? One side (Putin), is a brutal, vicious aggressor. The other side (Zelensky and the Ukrainian people) are people who want to live their lives in a more “western” style and don’t really care about what Russia does for itself.

    Talk of polarization lulled too many into closing their eyes to an autocratic take over of the Republican Party. Yes, there are crazies on the Left, but where is the elected equivalent of Boebert or Greene, or the Democratic version of Lindsey Graham who asked a Supreme Court nominee her religion on the floor of the Senate (a constitution scholar there)? Which Democrat endorsed the Progressive Labor Party or the Weathermen?

    Polarization is misdiagnosis. One party has decided to embrace autocracy and the rest of us are “circling the wagons” in an attempt to save democracy. We may look like a tribe polarized on the other side, but we aren’t. We are as divided as ever (Hillary vs. Bernie) where people still complain about the “intransigence of the left”, who compromised, but accept the “my way or the highway” attitude of Manchin.

    Perhaps the real polarization is between those who respect facts/truth/reality and those who believe whatever makes them feel vindicated.
    If any polarization is to be looked into, Colbert had it right – Truth or Truthiness – that is the polarity.

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