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.