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Divided We Stand
On the roots of polarization.
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In the Army, your world shrinks to the people standing to the left and the right of you. But on the outside, the world is often politically bifurcated by a divisive us-vs-them paradigm. The consequences of this are profound. You cannot have a functioning democracy — you cannot be a functioning nation — without maintaining a certain level of comity, and that comity is much harder to sustain when geographically, ideologically, and spiritually, the country is separated by fissures that render our commonalities moot. That so many of us live in a world defined by a Blue/Red achromatopsia drastically impinges on our ability to coexist.
In his 2009 book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop details how the United States slowly but surely geographically divided itself between Red and Blue as a result of millions of people clustering in like-minded communities. Every election map has followed the same pattern since the turn of the century: Blue Coastal Bastions, Red Heartland. This political migration wasn’t by design; it’s been a decades-long process in which people have subconsciously gravitated toward enclaves delimited more so by similar beliefs or ways of life than by age, employment, or income.
Below is a map of the geographic distribution of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. The urban-rural divide between political parties couldn’t be more stark.
Marketing analyst J. Walker Smith has described this self-sorting phenomenon as a kind of widespread process of “self-invention,” a desire to shape and control our identities and surroundings by migrating to more ideologically congenial environs. Technology, migration, and material abundance all allow people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making,” Smith wrote. The result has been a sharp geographic pattern of political belief, one that has grown more distinct in presidential elections since 1976.
There have been consequences to this self-sorting. Social psychologists who’ve studied like-minded groups can predict how people living in homogeneous enclaves evolve. American legal scholar Cass Sunstein refers to this as the “law of polarization”: When like-minded people gather, they grow more enthusiastic in their beliefs and agreements. Eventually, this process reaches a tipping point where enthusiasm transitions to extremism.1
“For example, people who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to support gun control are likely, after discussion, to support gun control with considerable enthusiasm; people who believe that global warming is a serious problem are likely, after discussion, to insist on severe measures to prevent global warming.”
But what’s happened over the past four decades or so isn’t the result of a simple increase in partisanship; rather, it’s been a tangible kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social fracturing. As geographic proximity has decreased, political divisions have been amplified, deepening ideological fault lines. The same polarization that’s come to define Congress has been reprised and reinforced by the economy, the church, and civic institutions, and it has manifested in the nation’s geography, in the places people are choosing to live. The tendency for Americans to cluster in ideologically homogeneous hives has been all but normalized at this point. The extent of this sorting is easy to grasp by looking at the 2020 election results. For example, Biden won 86% of voters in San Francisco, 71% in Los Angeles, 92% in D.C., 80% in Denver, and 75% in Seattle. Trump, meanwhile, won 81% of white evangelical Protestant voters, the majority of whom reside in the South.2
This evolution has obviously harmed relations between ordinary Americans—people who, in reality, know next to nothing about one another. The moral and ideological absolutism that is the gentle conceit of political monogamy has atomized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible. This intolerance for a diversity of opinions has made national consensus impossible; it has so polarized our politics that Congress is in a perpetual gridlock and presidential elections are no longer just about policy issues but are instead bitter contests between ways of life.
The cult of identity’s intersectional religion (“wokeism”) has in recent years escaped the classrooms of neurotic academics and infected a stunningly large swath of American society. The sheer scope and rapidity of this conversion, as evidenced by pretty much every major institution and industry getting down on one supplicatory knee, has been akin to the spread of Christianity within the Roman Empire during the early 2nd Century. But even outside the Church of Woke, more and more people are using self-defining characteristics, both mutable and not, to determine who they are, taking to the interwebs to broadcast these traits as part of the tribalistic imperative to identify oneself in relation to others.
Though I suppose I shouldn’t have been, I must admit my surprise upon learning of a recent study out of Stanford University which revealed that the strongest attachment Americans have is the connection to their political party. So why is “partyism,” as the researchers refer to it, more important to people than affiliations like race, gender, and ethnicity (which during the Time of Woke is really saying something, I feel)? Much of it has to do with the simple fact that who you support politically is your decision, while characteristics like race and gender are assigned at birth. Where someone falls on the political spectrum is not a matter of chance, but a cognizant choice that many people use to convey a certain message to the world. “Because partisan affiliation is voluntary, it is a much more informative measure of attitudes and belief structures than, for example, knowing what skin color someone has,” the study states.
But there’s another reason that people care more about their political affiliation, one that bespeaks much of what currently ails us as a polity: Unlike race, religion, and gender, where social norms influence behavior, there are few, if any, limitations on the expression of hostility toward people who subscribe to an opposing political ideology.
“There are no corresponding pressures to moderate disapproval of political opponents. In fact, the rhetoric and behavior of party leaders suggests to voters that it is perfectly acceptable to treat opponents with disdain. In this sense, individuals have greater freedom to discriminate against out-party supporters.”
Notably, partisans discriminate against their opponents to a degree that exceeds discrimination against members of religious, linguistic, ethnic, or regional out-groups. In fact, partisans are motivated more by out-group animosity than in-group favoritism. In other words, people hate their political counterparts even more than they like their political friends.
While similar social trends as those we’re experiencing now have affected other wealthy nations, the U.S. stands out for the degree of divisiveness that afflicts it.
When the Pew Research Center recently surveyed people in 17 countries in Europe, Asia, and North America, Americans were the most likely to say their society was split along partisan, racial, and ethnic lines. Also noteworthy: The U.S. was one of five countries in which more than half the public said their fellow citizens can’t agree on basic facts.The growing sense that conflict is increasing here in America is borne out by Pew’s numbers: In 2012, fewer than half of Americans said they thought “very strong conflicts” existed between Democrats and Republicans; today, some 90% of Americans say they see strong or very strong conflicts between supporters of different political parties.
Compared to other countries, that number is startlingly high. The average level of perceived strong political conflict was just 50%, and the only country in the same ballpark as America was South Korea at 92%. (FYI, North and South Korea are technically still at war, so.) Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew, believes that international comparisons offer a clue about why the U.S. and South Korea, along with a few others like France and Taiwan, report higher levels of political conflict: All have systems in which two major parties compete for power and have roughly equal levels of support. And for the U.S., this political era has been one of closely divided power. Since 1994, when the Republicans gained a House majority for the first time in 40 years, control of the chamber has flipped four times—a stretch of volatility not seen since the 1880s and 1890s.
It’s important to note that America’s virtually nonpareil political animus cannot simply be blamed on the polarizing pressures of the mainstream media and social media, and it’s not like we’re the only country with cultural and geographical divisions. What makes the U.S. unique is that this enmity is interwoven with high levels of ethnic, racial, and religious conflict. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. ranks at or near the top in all conflict categories, in part because these conflicts often overlap, and also in part because one of Americans' more cherishable peculiarities is our ability to freak the fuck out about everything.
Our inflexible two-party electoral system has a tendency to haphazardly assemble a variety of political and social issues into opposing camps separated by an ideological battle line, which makes it seem as though our differences are much greater than they really are. It doesn’t help that for nearly three decades now, Democrats and Republicans have been neck and neck in terms of electoral advantage. This has had the effect of turning elections and politics more generally into cutthroat competitions between warring factions, each of which believes the other is poised to destroy the country.
The cult of identity encourages people to define themselves in the most diverse way possible; that means collecting identities to make one mega-identity instead of just adopting a self-conception based solely on partisan affiliation. Because of this, ideology, race, and religion now align with partisan identity in much different ways than was the case back when our two parties weren’t so homogeneous. This has only served to intensify polarization.
In their study of polarization across nations, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue argue that political animosity runs especially deep in the U.S. because American polarization is “especially multifaceted.”
“[This] powerful alignment of ideology, race, and religion renders America’s divisions unusually encompassing and profound. It is hard to find another example of polarization in the world that fuses all three major types of identity divisions in a similar way.”
If your identity depends on seeing the world through an us-vs-them lens, chances are that it’s going to distort how you experience everything else. We’re saddled with an American sectarianism that encourages partisans to view one another less as fellow citizens and more as enemies who represent a profound threat to their identities. I believe that it’s because of the sheer number of people who now see the world in this way — an interpretive paradigm in which politics becomes more about identity than disagreement on issues — that the U.S. is so toxically polarized.
Becoming hyper-partisan leads one to lose sight of commonalities. Unconscious psychological processes take place that make compromising with them seem like a weakness or betrayal; when they benefit, it's always at our loss. Blinkered, a series of cognitive biases and mental shortcuts actually change how we take in information about society, leading us to tune out anything that conflicts with our core beliefs and emphasize too readily with those in our in-group at the expense of others. The extent of this conditioning can be observed in the simple fact that people no longer seek to persuade others, but to impose their own facts and to blindly discredit the facts cited by others. In this sense, politics has become a sort of intellectual holy war led by a mainstream media comprised of elitists snobs, for whom critical thinking is anathema. Think about how much of their content functions as a reminder that “Democrats are right; RepubliKKKans are wrong,” or “Coastal elites are educated and sophisticated; people who live in the heartland are loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of unrefined moonshine and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex.”
A toxic twist of myopia and infantile solipsism, much of it driven by social media and the self-aggrandizing nature of mass technology, has led people to contract their horizons so that they stretch no further than their eyes can reach. This is why so many are utterly bewildered by disagreement; when your identity becomes inextricably tied to your politics and you shrink your world so that everything outside the boundaries of your in-group constitutes abject wilderness, someone challenging your precious beliefs is going to feel like an assault on your person. You’re also liable to find yourself steadfastly sure of such idiotic hyperbole as the faddish notion that Republicans are abettors of Literal Fascism™, and that all Trump supporters — all 74,000,000 of them — are Actual Nazis™, and that to cater to their sensibilities or seek compromises or (God forbid) try to understand where they’re coming from would therefore be a grievous moral wrong.
This mindset contributes to what political scientists call “negative partisanship”—political division driven by fear and anger directed at the opposing party. In this framework, our two political parties are united more out of sheer hatred of the other team than because of a shared sense of purpose. This largely explains why recent elections have been characterized by unprecedented party loyalty and straight-ticket voting.
The Perception Gap
So much of this toxic polarization stems from one key misperception: That they — the people across the aisle — hate us more than they really do, and this misperception negatively tints our every interaction. We start to believe that not only is it impossible to reason with them, but that they’re galvanized by irrational motivation against us.
A recent study by the non-profit Beyond Conflict revealed that there are three key psychological divides in which Americans hold significant misperceptions about one another (the “Perception Gap”). People incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do. Basically, Americans believe we're more polarized than we really are—a misperception that can drive us even further apart. Another study, this one from the non-profit More in Common, found that the more news people consumed, the larger their Perception Gap. People who said they read the news “most of the time” were nearly 3x more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news “only now and then.”
Even more interesting, however, is the effect that education has on the Perception Gap. You’d think that the more “educated” someone is, the more they’d understand what makes people tick. But actually, the more educated a person is, the worse their Perception Gap— with one critical exception. This trend only holds true for Democrats, whose lives are increasingly circumscribed by galactic reservoirs of ignorance. Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. So strong is this effect that Democrats without a high school diploma are 3x more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.
Why? Well, the evidence suggests it’s because highly educated Democrats are the most likely to say that “most of my friends” share the same political beliefs. But not so for Republicans. More educated Republicans report having about as many Democrat friends as less educated Republicans. And Democrats whose friends are similar to them politically have a significantly wider Perception Gap than those with more political diversity in their friendship groups. Polling also indicates Democrats are more ideologically calcified and siloed than Republicans. Axios found that 37% of Democrats said they wouldn’t be friends with someone from the opposite party, compared to 5% of Republicans; 71% of Democrats wouldn’t go on a date with someone with opposing views, versus 31% of Republicans; and 30% of Democrats — and 7% of Republicans — wouldn’t work for someone who voted differently from them.
The Perception Gap matters because when people wrongly perceive others as extreme, they become more hostile towards them. Per More in Common, the bigger the Perception Gap, the more likely someone is to describe their across-the-aisle counterparts as “hateful,” “ignorant,” and “bigoted.” This points toward the spiraling nature of polarization: Americans who are most engaged with political issues and debates are the people who spend the most time soaking up the mainstream media's coverage, whether by reading or watching or listening, and as previously discussed in this here letter of news, the MSM is the number one contributor to America’s number one growth industry: The manufacturing of synthetic indignation, which relies on exactly the kind of content that further increases hostility and distrust and misperceptions.
Here’s the thing. It’s very hard to hate someone you understand. The more you come to understand one another — not agree with, but understand — the more you come to realize that despite the superficial polarity, we’re all the same underneath. If you’re exceptionally perceptive, you see maybe 5% of another American. The goal should be to attune oneself to the hidden 95%.
And this gets at why online “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” are so worrisome.