Tag Archives: polarization

We Need A New Version Of The GI Bill

Among the multiple newsletters I receive is one called The Signal. It recently had a thought-provoking report on a growing gender divide among young Americans.

Apparently, over the past few years, young women have become more liberal than young men. Forty-four percent of women aged 18 to 29 consider themselves “liberal,” compared to only 25 percent of men in the same age range—a major change from 30 percent of young women and 27 percent of young men considering themselves liberal a decade earlier.

The article attributed the increase in progressive politics to a series of trends: fewer women in that age bracket are married than was previously the case;  more are educated and religiously unaffiliated, and they “spent formative adult years during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom a strikingly high ratio of them disliked.”

The bulk of the article was an interview with the researcher, and his observations (and their implications) were all interesting, but what struck me was the following.

Politically, climate change is important to Get Z. Gun policy is important. LGBTQ issues are important. I expect abortion to become tremendously important. Yet there isn’t one preeminent, animating political issue for this generation. What’s happened instead is that political identity has become increasingly central to people in defining who they are. It’s become a stand-in for character or even personality. That’s unfortunate in some ways. It leads Americans to be more politically segregated and to shut down political conversations based on the belief that knowing someone’s politics means you know what you need to about their whole life story and whether they’re part of your good tribe or not. We’re on track to become even more politically segregated—more politically polarized—and I believe the decline of institutions and the unraveling of our civic life are playing important roles in that process.

That analysis leads to the question “What can we do to ameliorate this political segregation?”

How about a requirement for national service, an updated version of the wildly successful GI Bill?

Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one or two-year program of civic service. Upon satisfactory completion of that service, the government would pay for two years of college at a state university or trade school. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

Civic service would require young people from disparate walks of life and different political “bubbles” to work together. Service performed for local government and vetted nonprofit organizations would also focus their attention on the common good–a concept missing from the worldviews of far too many Americans, young and old.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans. That disparity is especially pronounced among the young.

Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an affordable opportunity to go to college or trade school—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year or two of civic service—would do three extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt; and it would cut across the “political segregation” that is turning Americans who disagree with each other into enemies who cannot communicate with each other.

As we’ve seen in the current discussion of Biden’s debt forgiveness program, the need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. The massive level of student loan debt is also a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans prevents large numbers of  graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families–all activities that keep the economy humming.

As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

A new version of the GI Bill along these lines would require young Americans to meet and work alongside people from outside their “bubbles;” enable informed civic participation, and begin the task of permanently reducing our horrific levels of student loan debt.

It would be a win-win-win…..

 

Choosing To Believe

In the mid-1990s, after publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was a guest on a call-in radio show in South Carolina. My publisher had asked for my travel schedule, and booked me on the show–while failing to tell me that it followed three hours of Rush Limbaugh…

It was rough.

One caller shared a “quote” by James Madison to the effect that the Founders gave the Bill of Rights to people who lived by the Ten Commandments. I responded by saying that, not only had that “quote” been debunked by Madison scholars, it was contrary to everything we know Madison did say. The caller yelled, “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

Today, echoes of that conversation are everywhere. The phenomenon even has a name: belief polarization.

Belief polarization has been the subject of substantial scholarly research, as Thomas Edsall recently reported in an essay for the New York Times.

In a paper that came out in June, “Explanations for Inequality and Partisan Polarization in the U.S., 1980 — 2020,” Elizabeth Suhay and Mark Tenenbaum, political scientists at American University, and Austin Bartola, of Quadrant Strategies, provide insight into why so much discord permeates American politics:

Scholars who research polarization have almost exclusively focused on the relationship between Americans’ policy opinions and their partisanship. In this article, we discuss a different type of partisan polarization underappreciated by scholars: “belief polarization,” or disagreements over what people perceive to be true.

In a finding that is especially disheartening to naive people who (like yours truly) harp on the importance of credible evidence, scholars have found that two people with opposing prior beliefs often “both strengthen their beliefs after observing the same data.”

In a 2021 paper, researchers found

“ample evidence that people sustain different beliefs even when faced with the same information, and they interpret that information differently.” They also note that “stark differences in beliefs can arise and endure due to human limitations in interpreting complex information.”

Edsall quotes an explanation of belief polarization authored by professors of philosophy at Vanderbilt.

Part of what makes belief polarization so disconcerting is its ubiquity. It has been extensively studied for more than 50 years and found to be operative within groups of all kinds, formal and informal. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Like-minded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste, or questions about value. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Like-minded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take, and they polarize also when there is no specific decision to be reached. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status, and level of education.

Short version: humans of all kinds are irrational.

The most recent examples of belief polarization, of course, involve Trump: in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, MAGA supporters remain convinced by the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen; Democrats and independents are equally certain it wasn’t. And more recently, Right-wingers (and of course, Fox News) are calling the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago a corrupt politicization of federal investigative authority. The rest of us counter that the raid is consistent with the rule of law, a reassuring demonstration that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law.

Edsall explores Americans’ polarized beliefs about the economy, poverty,  climate change, and gender identity. Then he delivers a profoundly depressing statement: “There is further evidence that even people who are knowledgeable about complex issues are sharply polarized along partisan lines.”

He quotes from a paper titled “More Accurate, but No Less Polarized: Comparing the Factual Beliefs of Government Officials and the Public,” demonstrating that even though “political elites are consistently more accurately informed than the public,” that increased accuracy doesn’t translate into reduced belief polarization”. The study challenged the assumption that we will disagree less about the facts if we know more.

And most depressing, albeit unsurprising: it turns out that racism plays a central part in America’s polarization Researchers have found that–while political campaigns don’t change levels of prejudice–” they can prime these attitudes, or make them more or less salient and therefore more or less politically relevant.”

As one set of researchers found,

Trump not only attracted whites with more conservative views on race; he also made his white supporters more likely to espouse increasingly extreme views on issues related to immigration and on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings of African Americans.

In other words, political rhetoric can sharpen racial attitudes–and (like my long-ago caller) reinforce and legitimize what we choose to believe.

 

 

Meanwhile…

On the Late Show, Stephen Colbert has a recurring comedy bit he calls “Meanwhile.” Not part of the opening monologue, it’s a collection of brief–usually weird or ironic– items culled from the news of the day.

But “meanwhile” also has application to those of us who are fixated on contemporary threats to America’s Constitution and democratic norms. While we worry about the increasingly bizarre behavior of our fellow-Americans who live in a fact-free reality of their own devising, we ignore or just miss the daily challenges posed by technology–everything from the way social media is altering attention spans, to the mounting inability of the nation’s utilities to cope with the damage being done by climate change, to the rush to turn our highways over to self-driving vehicles.

That last item–the (debated) imminence of self-driving cars– is just one element of another under-appreciated threat: the loss of millions of jobs, and the issue of how we will handle the transition to a world where most labor (not just manual labor) is performed by machines. An enormous amount of research suggests that, sooner or later, AI–artificial intelligence–will replace a significant percentage of tasks that now require human performance.

It is easy to “pooh-pooh” those predictions, and to dismiss the likelihood of significant social disruption, by pointing out that someone will have to produce and program those machines, and noting that past technological progress has created as well as destroyed jobs. The cheery optimists insist that nothing is certain, so why worry? (Tell that to the estimated five million people who make their livings driving…)

The Brookings Institution has weighted in. In a paper aptly  titled “Preparing for the (non-existent) future of work,” the researchers write,

We analyze how to set up institutions that future-proof our society for a scenario of ever-more-intelligent autonomous machines that substitute for human labor and drive down wages. We lay out three concerns arising from such a scenario, culminating in the economic redundancy of labor, and evaluate recent predictions and objections to these concerns. Then we analyze how to allocate work and income if these concerns start to materialize. As the income produced by autonomous machines rises and the value of labor declines, we find that it is optimal to phase out work, beginning with workers who have low labor productivity and job satisfaction, since they have comparative advantage in enjoying leisure. This is in stark contrast to welfare systems that force individuals with low labor productivity to work. If there are significant wage declines, avoiding mass misery will require other ways of distributing income than labor markets, whether via sufficiently well-distributed capital ownership or via benefits. Recipients could still engage in work for its own sake if they enjoy work amenities such as structure, purpose, and meaning. If work gives rise to positive externalities such as social connections or political stability, or if individuals undervalue the benefits of work because of internalities, then there is a role for public policy to encourage work. However, we conjecture that in the long run, it would be more desirable for society to develop alternative ways of providing these benefits.

You can download the entire paper at the link.

The likelihood that much of world’s work will eventually be done by machines that don’t get sick, don’t need benefits, and can work 24/7 is part of what leads me to support a Universal Basic Income– an “alternative way” of providing a social infrastructure.

Analyzing America’s current polarization provides another argument for a UBI.   As political rhetoric makes clear, policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Currently, we’re stoking resentments. (Consider public attitudes toward welfare programs aimed at impoverished communities, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare–universal programs to which virtually everyone contributes and from which virtually everyone who lives long enough  benefits.)

I’ve previously observed that we don’t hear angry accusations that “those people” are driving on roads paid for by my taxes.  Beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma. If work disappears for a significant percentage of our population, an approach that doesn’t require lawmakers to pick and choose who deserves help would be far less likely to tear the country further apart.

Of course, the armed and dangerous Americans who currently live in crazy-town may make attention to these “meanwhile” matters irrelevant. They involve questions of governance that they disdain, because they involve how best to achieve the common good, and they have absolutely no interest in helping anyone but themselves.

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.

 

Feeding The Wrong Wolf

The title of this post refers to a story usually attributed to the Cherokees (although evidently its origins are murky). Commenters to previous posts have occasionally referenced it.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Like many of you, I’ve loved this parable; it reminds us that we have moral/ethical choices (no matter what psychological researchers tell us…).  What brought it to mind, rather forcefully, was an article from Politico, analyzing the business model employed by cable news channels. Apparently, their practices aren’t all that different from those employed by Facebook. And it isn’t only Fox. All of the cable networks–CNN, MSNBC, etc.– “behave more like political players — emphasizing one side while disparaging the “enemy” — than they do independent news organizations.”

By flattering the perceived political prejudices of their audiences and avoiding a story when the news becomes inconvenient to their agenda, the networks behave like vendors of political entertainment.

There’s nothing immoral or unprofessional, of course, in pursuing a partisan news agenda. There’s a long tradition of partisan, activist journalism in America, starting with the colonial era and extending to today. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, labor organizers like John Swinton, naturalists like John Muir and anti-corporatists like Ida Tarbell and Ralph Nader, just to name a few names from the past, reported the news through ideological lenses, and magazines like Mother Jones, Reason, and the National Review continue that practice. But these activist journalists made it apparent where their reporting was coming from. The cable networks, on the other hand, pretend, to use the old Fox slogan, to be “fair and balanced.” By attempting to have it both ways — tilting while at the same time posing as straight news — cable news tarnishes journalism’s good name and needlessly increases viewer tribalism.

I would quibble with the Politico story’s portrayal in degree–“They all do it” elides the rather obvious evidence that Fox “does it” to a far greater degree than CNN or MSNBC. (Confusing fair coverage with false equivalence really isn’t analytic rigor.) But that said, the article raises an issue that has no identifiable solution.

The problem is that, unlike the out-and-out propagandists and liars I posted about yesterday, news anchors–even on Fox– aren’t lying. (The pundits–the Tucker Carlsons and similar “personalities”– are a different matter, and it’s troubling that most viewers don’t recognize the difference between actual news and the wildly distorted commentary they are being fed.) Like all of us, news anchors and reporters can only view the world through their own eyes. Their individual lives and backgrounds inevitably form the context of what they see and report.

Yesterday, I cheered on the growing number of lawsuits against the most egregious propagandists–the individuals and websites trafficking in (sorry for the expletive) obvious bullshit.

The dilemma presented by the “slant” of the cable networks, falls into a different category. For one thing, omitting coverage of events that may be considered unpalatable or inconvenient or simply un-newsworthy isn’t technically lying, although in many cases it certainly is intellectually dishonest. For another, “spin,” intentional or unintentional, is ubiquitous–again, because we all see and filter events through our own world-views.

Saying that we all inevitably see the world through our own eyes isn’t simply another way of saying that we bring our own biases and prejudices to our news consumption. It also involves bringing such knowledge as we may have to bear, which is why I keep harping on the importance of civic education. (If your favorite “personality” is attributing the failure of Congress to pass the XYZ bill to President Biden, for example, it helps if you are aware of the GOP’s constant misuse of the filibuster and a President’s legal inability to do anything about that particular form of obstructionism–or actually, if you just understand that American Presidents aren’t kings.)

The Politico article was troubling, however, because it demonstrated one of the many, many ways in which Americans today are feeding the wrong wolf.