Tag Archives: polarization

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.


What’s Driving America’s Polarization?

I recently “guest lectured” in a colleague’s class; my assignment was to address the issue of America’s extreme polarization. As you might imagine, that’s a topic that could consume several hours, if not days, of discussion.

I had twenty minutes….

I began by sharing my version of  The American Idea—the conviction that allegiance to an overarching governing philosophy–one that that emphasized behavior rather than identity- could create unity from what has always been a diverse citizenry. This nation was not based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but on a theory of social organization, a philosophy of governance that was meant to facilitate e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. The American Idea set up an enduring conversation about the proper balance between “I” and “we”–between individual rights on the one hand and the choices and passions of the majority on the other.

Admittedly, that approach doesn’t seem to be working right now.

As I told the students, I think it’s important to note two things about our current divisions:  our political polarization has been asymmetric—during my lifetime, the GOP has moved far, far to the right, abandoning genuinely conservative positions in favor of authoritarianism and White Supremacy. When that movement first began, public notions of what constituted the “middle” prompted the Democratic party to move to the right also;  what is today being called a move to the left is really a return to its original, center-left orientation.

Today’s GOP is a cohesive, White Supremicist cult. For a number of reasons, the Democratic party is a much bigger tent than the GOP—making the forging of party consensus very difficult. 

So yes, we are polarized. At the same time, however, it’s also important to recognize that many of America’s apparent social divisions are exaggerated by media outlets trying to grab our attention and by people pursuing political agendas. (The current coverage of fights over Roe v. Wade is an example. Polling tells us that three-quarters of Americans support Roe–hardly the even division often suggested by the media.)

 The research is pretty clear about the source of our current divisions: White Christian Americans—predominantly male—are incredibly threatened by the social and demographic changes they see around them. White Evangelicals overwhelmingly tell researchers that only White Christians can be “true Americans.” Their belief that White Christian males are entitled to social dominance—to “ownership” of the country– is being threatened by the increasing improvements in the positions of “uppity” women and people of color.

There are other factors, of course, but the underlying reality is frantic resistance to social change by Americans who harbor racial resentments, misogyny and homophobia.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of our current media environment, which enables confirmation bias and allows us to choose our own realities. The death of local journalism, and the influence of Fox News and its clones, are huge contributors, and recent revelations about the business model of Facebook and other social media demonstrates the impact those platforms have and their role in disseminating misinformation, conspiracy theories and bigotry.

To be fair, media bubbles aren’t the only bubbles Americans occupy. I’ve posted before about “The Big Sort,” the”Density Divide,” and the immense and growing gaps between urban and rural Americans.

I continue to believe that a majority of Americans are sane and reasonable, but several painfully outdated governance systems have enabled a not-nearly-so-sane minority to exercise disproportionate power. Those outdated systems include the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the filibuster–not to mention that each state gets two senators regardless of population (by 2040, about 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states. They will have only 30 senators representing them, while the remaining 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them.)

Our current low-key civil war has illustrated our problems. How we fix them is another matter….


America’s Troubling Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” means different things to different people.

Historically, the phrase was embraced by politicians pandering to voters’ belief in America’s superiority. We were the inventors of “freedom,” with a national “can do” spirit. “Exceptionalism” was a nicer word than “best,” a way to proclaim that we were Number One.

The dictionary definition of exceptional is neither positive nor negative: one can be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. It simply denotes something unusual or atypical. One way that America’s political structure is definitely atypical is our two-party system, and as a recent post to FiveThirtyEight makes clear, that bit of exceptionalism is a significant source of the country’s current dysfunction.

The post begins by reiterating what is obvious to anyone who follows American politics:

As the “Big Lie” of a stolen election continues to dominate the Republican Party, GOP-controlled states enact restrictive voting laws and pursue preposterous election audits, aspiring candidates embrace the fiction of a stolen 2020 election, and a majority of GOP voters still believe Trump is the “true president,” the obvious questions follow: Where is this all headed? And is there any way out?

In one telling, the Republican Party will eventually come back to its senses and move past former President Donald Trump and Trumpist grievance politics, especially if Republicans lose a few elections in a row and realize that it’s a losing strategy. But there’s another possible outcome: More contested elections, more violence and, ultimately, a collapse into competitive authoritarianism enabled by electoral advantages that tilt in one party’s favor.

The post, by political scientist Lee Drutman, refers to historical patterns of democratic decline , and attributes the “cracking of the foundation of American democracy” to hyper-polarization. That polarization has given us a political environment within which one party can break democratic norms with impunity– because, as he notes, winning in the short term has become more important than maintaining democracy for the long term.

Drutman says that the hyper-polarization that threatens us is–to a significant extent– a product of the two-party system.

There’s no shortage of plausible explanations for why U.S. politics has become so polarized, but many of these theories describe impossible-to-reverse trends that have played out across developed democracies, like the rise of social media and the increased political salience of globalization, immigration and urban-rural cultural divides. All of these trends are important contributors, for sure. But if they alone are driving illiberalism and hyper-partisanship in the U.S., then the problem should be consistent across all western democracies. But it isn’t.

Drutman points to four ways in which America’s polarization is different from–and arguably more dangerous than–that of other countries (I encourage you to click through and evaluate that analysis for yourselves) and notes that in other countries where two parties dominate its politics, populations also display more unfavorable feelings toward the political opposition than populations in multi-party democracies.

In fact, in a new book, “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” another team of scholars, Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne, shows that citizens in majoritarian democracies with less proportional representation dislike both their own parties and opposing parties more than citizens in multiparty democracies with more proportional representation.

This pattern may have something to do with the shifting politics of coalition formation in proportional democracies, where few political enemies are ever permanent (e.g., the unlikely new governing coalition in Israel). This also echoes something social psychologists have found in running experiments on group behavior: Breaking people into three groups instead of two leads to less animosity. Something, in other words, appears to be unique about the binary condition, or in this case, the two-party system, that triggers the kind of good-vs-evil, dark-vs-light, us-against-them thinking that is particularly pronounced in the U.S.

Even the urban-rural split, which can be seen globally, is substantially less binary in proportional systems, partly because multiple parties can still win seats in geographically unfriendly areas, resulting in coalition governments with both urban and rural representation.

But it’s not just the lack of a stark urban-rural divide. As Drutman points out, there isn’t a strategic benefit to demonizing the opposition in an election that has more than two parties.

In a multiparty election, taking down one party might not necessarily help you. After all, another party might benefit, since negative attacks typically have a backlash. And because parties can take stronger positions and appeal more directly to voters on policy, there’s less need to rally your supporters by talking about how terrible and dangerous the other party is. Moreover, in systems where parties form governing coalitions, demonizing a side you’ve recently been in a coalition with (or hope to be in the future) doesn’t ring quite as true.

Can the U.S. change its political system to be more proportional? Unlikely. After all, today’s Republicans aren’t even willing to support the right of their opponents to vote….



The Crux Of The Problem

I was reading an article about Substack–the digital platform that has increasingly recruited media personnel to write newsletters for which recipients pay. (The only one I receive is the free version of Heather Cox Richardson’s.) The article considered Substack’s claim to be the “future of journalism.”

If that claim intrigues you, you should click through and read the whole article, which was interesting. But it was the very last sentence that grabbed me, because it is, in my opinion, the crux of the problem–“the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.

How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

As regular readers of this blog know, for several years, I taught a university course in Media and Public Affairs, and I was fond of complaining that every time I taught that course, our constantly-morphing media environment required a new preparation.  It isn’t simply “a media landscape comprised of individual writers and their followers”–it is a dramatically fragmented media landscape that includes not just those individuals (with their individual and contending “takes” on the news of the day) but literally hundreds of media news sites focused upon different aspects of human activity, and doing so through a lens of different partisan and ideological commitments.

As I used to tell my students, this is truly uncharted territory. When printed-on-paper newspapers and three television networks served communities, residents of those communities at least occupied the same news environment. Good or bad, right or wrong, the local newspaper provided the only reporting most of us saw. Even if some people picked up the paper only to look for sports scores or wedding announcements or whatever, they had to browse past the same headlines that their friends and neighbors were seeing. 

People in a given city or town thus occupied the same general reality.

The same phenomenon played out on a national scale. Edward R. Murrow and his two counterparts delivered much the same information to a majority of Americans via the evening news on television, and a few “national” magazines and newspapers–notably the New York Times and the Washington Post–homogenized the national news.

Those days are long gone.

One of the books I urged my media and policy students to read was The Filter Bubble.It was an early analysis of the most challenging effect of the online media environment–our new ability to “shop” for news that feeds our preconceptions, and to construct a “bubble” within which we are comfortable. (As I used to tell my students, if you want to believe that the aliens really did land in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites offering pictures of the aliens…)

The angry souls who want to believe that the election was stolen and Donald Trump really won can find sites that reinforce that fantasy. People susceptible to conspiracy theories can  find “evidence” that Hillary Clinton is abusing and eating small children in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, or confirmation that those California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. Whatever the deficits of newspapers “back in the day”–and those deficits were very real–this sort of “reporting” was relegated to widely-scorned rags like the National Enquirer that graced supermarket checkout counters. (My favorite headline: Osama and Saddam’s Gay Wedding.)

When the digital counterparts of those scandal sheets are visually indistinguishable from credible sites, not to mention easily and privately accessed (your neighbor isn’t watching you purchase the Enquirer as you check out), is it any wonder that the very human trait of confirmation bias leads us to occupy different–and incommensurate–realities?

And if that’s where we are– if Americans currently reside in dramatically different realities– how will we ever be able to talk to each other?