Is America Truly Polarized or is the Nature of Polarization Misconstrued?
By Glenn Geher and Jordan Wylie. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.
Political Polarization is Growing and Moderate Ideologies are Disappearing
By Glenn Geher – Professor of Psychology, State University of New York at New Paltz
Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you’ve got to admit that political polarization in the U.S. is so palpable that it could be cut with a plastic spoon. Consider all the rhetoric and activity regarding the 2016 election. And the 2020 election. And the 2021 Capitol riots. And Black Lives Matter and the Blue Lives Matter movements. And on and on.
Is Political Polarization in the US Real?
While many of us seem to perceive a large increase in political polarization over time, some argue that this polarization is actually illusory and is more reflective of redistricting processes. A different study on polarization in the U.S. by More in Common found that while there are all kinds of attitudinal fissures in the U.S. these days, there is actually more common ground than often seems to be the case. When you look at things deeply and thoroughly, there may be more commonalities among various sub-groups of Americans compared with differences.
Based on my examination of extensive data on this issue, it seems clear that the extreme political polarization that so many of us perceive is, in fact, quite real in many respects. And it’s really growing at a dangerous pace with time. Consider a high-profile report by the Pew Research Center, based on data from approximately 10,000 adults, which found that political polarization is increasing. Compared to past years, people are more likely to identify as “very” liberal or conservative rather than “moderately” liberal or conservative. Across time, people are more likely to describe members of the “opposing side” as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” Further, people tend to increasingly believe that others in their world share their political views. This report clearly tells a story of increasing political polarization.
Measuring Political Polarization Through Elections
There was some provocative research on this topic presented a few years ago by social psychologist Matt Motyl. This work, presented at the first meeting of the Heterodox Psychology Workshop in 2018, included an intriguing method for quantifying political polarization. Dr. Motyl generated maps of the U.S., including all counties in all states, for every presidential election year between 1992 and 2016. Counties for which the presidential election was won by more than 20% in the Republican direction were shaded red. Counties that leaned more than 20% Democratic were shaded blue. Counties that did not have such large discrepancies in either direction were left as white.
In 1992, a large majority of the counties were left unshaded. They were toss-ups. They included nearly equal proportions of Democratic versus Republican voters. In 1996, a higher proportion of the map was characterized by red or blue, with fewer areas left as white (toss-up areas). Provocatively, the coloration consistently changed in exactly this same direction – to the point that by the 2016 presidential election, toss-up counties were few and far between. A large majority of counties were either strongly leaning left or strongly leaning right.
When Dr. Motyl presented these data, the entire audience could feel, in a visceral manner, just what political polarization in the U.S. looks and feels like. To say it was eye-opening would be an understatement.
Dr. Motyl presented additional information showing how many basic moral and cultural values seem to strongly map onto political orientation within a region. In relatively “blue” areas, for instance, people tend to report respect for authority as a relatively unimportant moral value. On the other hand, people in relatively “red” areas tend to see respect for authority as extremely important when it comes to moral values. All kinds of cultural phenomena seem to similarly map onto these same political orientations. People in red areas, on average, prefer Lynyrd Skynyrd and ATVs compared with people in blue areas. People in blue areas, on the other hand, tend to show a stronger preference for hybrid automobiles and NPR.
Basic Psychological Processes that Amplify Political Polarization
Modern social scientists are scrambling to understand the roots of political polarization. While the literature related to this question is huge and includes all kinds of phenomena, I’ll summarize a few basic psychological processes that seem to be catalyzing polarization in our world.
Belief Perseverance: When it comes to our beliefs, for a broad array of reasons, people are slow to change their minds. If your life is anything like mine, you become less optimistic with age that you will be able to change others’ minds about much of anything. People tend to agree with information that is consistent with and discount data that is inconsistent with their beliefs. Similarly, we tend to befriend others who share our beliefs. Clearly, these processes all have the capacity to increase polarized thinking between groups.
In-group/Out-group Bias: One of the longest-standing and strongest psychological phenomena is found in the in-group/out-group bias. Characterized by a strong tendency to think that “we” are right and superior relative to “them,” people naturally form in-groups and out-groups based on all kinds of criteria. They then tend to see members of “their” group as right and members of the “other” group as wrong. This all can be thought of as the foundation of the psychology of “othering,” and it really sets the stage for a polarized approach to society.
Out-group Homogeneity: Connected with a strong and natural tendency to form in-groups versus out-groups is the phenomenon of out-group homogeneity. This phenomenon is essentially the tendency to see those whom we perceive to be in “other” groups as, essentially, all the same as one another. We tend to see people in “our own” groups as showing all kinds of variability. Applied to the political divide in the U.S., we can think of it this way: progressives seem to think that there are all kinds of different progressives while thinking, concurrently, that conservatives are pretty much “all the same” and vice versa. This bias can lead to problematic social outcomes.
Cognitive Dissonance Reduction: One reason that we don’t like to think we might be wrong about anything, including the attitudes we hold or the company we keep, is found in what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance reduction processes.” In short, we tend to feel most comfortable when our thoughts are all aligned with one another. So, thinking “I’m right, my friends and family are also right, and those on the other side are simply wrong” is a very human way to proceed when it comes to all kinds of attitudes and behaviors. The second we start to acknowledge one thought that is inconsistent with our other thoughts, we start to question ourselves and feel uncomfortable. The thought that “the other side” may have something to it is an ego-threatening, dissonance-increasing kind of thought. So, people will quite often adjust their attitudes and behaviors to reduce any such inconsistencies. Whether we are “right” or not, we sure like to feel that we are. And this fact of human psychology plays a major role in setting the stage for polarization.
The Social Media Problem: From a deep evolutionary perspective, social media provides an extremely unnatural and evolutionarily mismatched form of human communication. Social media allows people to communicate anything with anyone at any time. Our minds did not evolve for such communication. People hide behind screens on social media. This can often lead to anonymous communication with a nasty edge. Add to this the fact that social media leads to the amplification of attitudinal echo chambers, and you have a new social world that has the capacity to exacerbate political fissures of all kinds.
Is the United States experiencing significant political polarization these days? Based on my assessment of the data, I’d say absolutely. With time, fewer people are likely to identify as “politically moderate,” with a large proportion of people now reporting that they identify very strongly with one broad political ideology. While it can be good to have strong beliefs on important issues, the belief that “my way is completely right, and the other way is completely wrong” can cause all kinds of difficulties at all levels of society.
With social media dripping into all facets of our worlds, people are increasingly exposed to messages that already match their world views. Belief perseverance combined with the social media problem are exacerbating political polarization. The political polarization problem is real. It’s here. And if major change does not enter the picture, it’s only going to get worse.
Is Polarization Real? Depends on What You Mean by Polarization
By Jordan Wylie – Ph.D. Candidate, The Graduate Center, CUNY; Research Fellow at More in Common; Affiliate at the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding
The debate about whether polarization exists in America is a complicated one. This is in part because the concept of polarization is tricky. The definition of political polarization is often a moving target — referring broadly to deepening divisions between affective, moral, perceived, and expert beliefs. However, a closer look at these different facets of polarization reveals that this issue requires some specificity in language in order to deeply understand the very real divisions and critically, the very real commonalities between Americans on opposing sides of the political spectrum.
What is Political Polarization?
A good way to start to understand political polarization in America is to look through the lens of history. Polarization is certainly not unique to this period in our country’s history. There have been many potent instances of polarization in the political and in the moral domain — from the Civil War to WWII, the norm was polarization. When the Roe v. Wade case was decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, backlash, moral division, and more was spurred. Political polarization often follows large moral or cultural shifts, while Americans work to navigate them.
Thus, an important place to start is in the definitions that we use to describe political polarization. The rifts between Democrats and Republicans, the left and the right of the political spectrum, span across and differ between distinct conceptions of polarization. That is, polarization comes in many flavors. It can be affective, which refers to dislike and distrust between political opponents. It can be ideological, largely pointing to rifts in world-views (e.g., abortion). It can be elite, referring to the polarization of political elites (e.g. senators or members of Congress) and pundits. It can be social, referring to divides present between political positions of regular Americans (comparisons of which notably do not differ much today from the past), or even those divides on online platforms like Twitter. It can even be cognitive or “meta” — referring to the perceptions of division that we have in reference to our political out-group.
Looking first to the rich body of literature on affective, ideological, and elite polarization, it seems that those kinds of polarization certainly exist and are maybe even getting worse. For example, one study comparing affective polarization trends across multiple countries revealed that the United States has seen a particularly large increase relative to the other countries studied. This is very real, and it has consequences that may stem from or bleed into the polarization of elites or ideology. Take, for example, the recent events which seek to undermine the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the United States and the appropriateness of historical context in the education system. A mixture of affective, ideological, and elite polarization has animated changes that have far-reaching consequences.
Social Media’s Role
Looking at social media, the picture is complicated. Social media ecosystems can undoubtedly become dangerous settings for extreme political opinions and actions. However, politically engaged social media users represent a relatively small fraction of all total users, and most social media users engage in respectful conversation online. This pattern coincides with the research done at More in Common on the Hidden Tribes report. In this report, researchers crafted questions about moral, cultural, and other value-based beliefs to better understand how Americans interact with politics. This analysis revealed that a large fraction of Americans is not all that politically engaged — instead feeling exhausted by constant conversation about political division. One reason why America seems so polarized is because of the frequency of political information encountered on social media, giving the impression that a majority of people hold extreme opinions — impressions that may influence other forms of polarization (e.g., affective) in real ways.
This discrepancy between what people think the average political out-group thinks and what the average political out-group member actually thinks is often referred to as a meta-perception gap. The mental model of the political landscape that individuals hold is often one with deep divisions. A report from More in Common perception gaps found that while only about 30% of Republicans or Democrats hold extreme views, people think that a majority of out-group members (55%) hold extreme views. This is both in a sense a real area of division and polarization (it is indeed felt by many), but in another sense, it is illusory since the foundations of these meta-perceptions are mostly false.
Polarization surely exists in American politics today, just as it has throughout our nation’s history. But the beliefs of Americans that help to scaffold polarization are flimsy at best. Many Americans share pride in being American, in beliefs about democratic norms, and more. Social media intake alongside mistaken beliefs about the political out-group have cultured an artificial polarization “monster” but luckily, not a real one.
On the Psychological Roots of Polarization Today
While the foundations of polarization in America may not be as real as they appear on the surface, their consequences have been real, and those consequences stem in large part from general psychological tendencies. As noted by Dr. Glenn Geher, there are many human psychological features (or bugs) that contribute to the causes and perceptions of political polarization in today’s America. I won’t recapitulate each of the psychological features that influence or cause polarization, but instead will highlight two — tribalism and how shifts to the medium of communication have in turn shifted norms.
One core aspect of our psychology is that we are group-based creatures. This confers significant advantages for us in many aspects of life, but it also underpins the tendency to see another American as the “other” or the “out-group”. Contributing to the issue is the two-party system in America, which forces a large majority of the United States to choose one side or the other, my team versus your team. As other scholars have noted, our kind of political system is particularly pernicious because it makes it easy for tribalism and other intergroup processes to come online and shape the conversation and core values that individual Americans seek to uphold. These deep-seated psychological roots of group-ness are known, and they are real contributors to both the present and illusory polarization in the U.S.
Further, there are differences in today’s world that have roots in our human psychology that make the polarization of today somewhat unlike that of previous times. Much of our political discourse plays out on the social media stage — concretized by Donald Trump’s Twitter usage during his presidency. The medium of communication has changed and continues to change as we move even more into online spaces, which has downstream effects on expectations, norms, and culture. The shift to online discourse, the sheer volume of available information, and misinformation about politics have changed what people believe and critically, what they think others believe. Today, the norm is to get a large portion of our moral information from social media, which we know is just the kind of content to spread far and wide on social media. These patterns have effects on how we construe political ideas of both in and out-group members. They have been exasperated by social media algorithms, shaping what we see as normative of one political party or the other, and thus shaping meta-perceptions of both.
But, as noted above, social media is again only a snapshot of the beliefs of average Americans. The fragmented and siloed nature of political discourse on social media has served to widen gaps even when those gaps offline might not be as wide or as entrenched as they appear.
In short, the answer to whether polarization exists is “yes, but.” Our culture is changing rapidly alongside changes in technology and mediums of communication, which has shaped our norms, and has consequently shaped the perceived political gap between America’s majority parties. But the good news is that the core beliefs that underpin gaps between Republicans and Democrats are not as wide as they appear on the surface. A push to correct erroneous meta-perceptions, temper elite polarization, and restructure algorithms and media intake may be solutions to the polarization that is often felt by everyone.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Paul Oshinski, Noelle Malvar, and Mark Milbrandt for their helpful comments.
If you liked this post, you can read more of our Encouraging Bipartisanship series here.