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.