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Polarization Means Dislike and Distrust, Not Just Policy Divergence

Earlier this year my family decided to add a dog to the household.  A lovely woman whose aging knees were a bit overmatched by the rigors of puppy-parenting was searching for a good family to adopt her dog, Riley.  As my wife, Suzanne, prepared to pick Riley up, she decided it would be best to peel the Obama bumper sticker off her car.  Without knowing anything about the dog owner’s politics, Suzanne worried that she might not want to give her beloved Riley to a Democrat because many in our dark red county perceive that Democrats are not good people. 
Recent survey results suggest Suzanne might have been right to peel the sticker off before picking up the dog.  The American National Election Study has been asking people since the 1970s to place different groups on what they call feeling thermometers.  People can rate groups they like as high as 100 degrees and groups they do not like as low as 0 degrees.  As the graph below shows, Democrats’ feelings about Republicans and Republicans’ feelings about Democrats have grown much more negative of late.  During the Reagan years, the average score that a Republican rated the Democratic party was 45 degrees, and the average score that a Democrat rated the Republican party was 44 degrees.  In the Bush II years, those average scores had plummeted to near freezing temperatures, 36 and 33 degrees.  To put those scores in perspective, the average score that all Americans gave to “illegal immigrants” – no one’s favorite group – during this period was 40 degrees, significantly warmer than partisans’ ratings of the opposite party.

When scholars talk about polarization, policy disagreements have received most of the attention.  As evidence of polarization, they are looking for a picture of opinion in the electorate that looks like the picture below.  It would require the distribution of opinions to be what social scientists call “bimodal” (two humps) with most opinions clustering toward the extremes and very little overlap.

That kind of analysis is a rigged game.  Since a high percentage of Americans don't care about politics, responses to policy items will inevitably cluster toward the middle, reflecting the public’s lack of understanding.   Moreover, even well informed partisans do not want to think about themselves as ideologically extreme.  Rather it is those on the other side who, in their minds, are extreme.  Hence analysis of policy preferences will continue to produce significant overlap and muted differences between the parties.  To be sure, there is somewhat more distance and less overlap between partisans today than a few decades ago, but separation remains very far from complete
But let’s step back and think about exactly what polarization is, and why we should care about it.  At the heart of polarization is when people believe that those on the other side are bad people with dangerous ideas.  When people believe that, compromise is impossible.  You don't make compromises with the devil.  You don't look for common ground.  Instead you do whatever is necessary to minimize the danger that the other side presents.  That means all political measures are in play.  Partisans, both elites and masses, can shade the truth or change the rules without feeling too badly.  Argument quality ceases to matter.  In a polarized system, anything required to stop the other side can be justified.  Such feelings won’t show up in an analysis of policy preferences.
Whatever form of public opinion we choose to examine instead of policy preferences should capture these characteristics and be relatively easy for political experts and non-experts alike to make sense of.  How much people trust the government has potential.  People do not have to be experts to know how much they trust something.  Most people have a lot of experience with forming judgments of trustworthiness of others in their everyday lives.  Trust in government is just an extension of a familiar task.  Moreover, scholars have shown that political trust is a very meaningful attitude, strongly linked to how much people want the government to do at any given point in time.  This is especially true when a government policy requires people to make a sacrifice.  For people to make sacrifices for others, they have to trust the institutions that will carry out the policies to treat them fairly.
In 2010, I included a trust in government question on a survey.  It asked “how much of the time do you trust the government to do what is right:  just about always, most of the time, some of the time, or never.”  In the graph below, I have broken down the distribution of responses by party.  By the traditional definition of polarization (bimodal distribution with peaks toward the poles), we see far too much overlap to suggest polarization.  Indeed, 58 percent of Democrats say they trust the government only “some of the time”.  From the traditional perspective, then, the story would be over.  No polarization. 

But, wait a minute.  When we consider what polarization really means, might it not be significant that fully 52 percent of Republicans say they never trust the government in Washington to do what is right?  And a mere 2 percent say they trust government even “most of the time”.  Has there ever been a time in the history of polling when this has been the case?  (The answer is not even remotely so). This is evidence of polarization of the sort I described above.  It says that one side is completely unwilling to even consider engaging the other side’s ideas.  People do not make compromises with those whom they find completely untrustworthy.
One could object to my interpretation of these results by suggesting that they merely reflect the GOP’s long standing antipathy toward government.  Except that isn’t true.  In the graph below, I break down the amount of trust in government by party and presidential administration going back to Lyndon Johnson’s presidency when the trust question started to be asked regularly by the American National Election Study.  It shows that Republicans have often trusted the government to do what is right quite a lot.  Indeed Republicans have consistently expressed more trust than Democrats when Republicans have occupied the White House.  In fact, during George W. Bush’s presidency, when the GOP also mostly enjoyed majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans in the electorate trusted the government more than any time since the 1960s when pretty much everyone trusted the government.  Republicans in the Bush years trusted the government more than they did during the Reagan years.

What is perhaps most striking about this graph is just how wide the Republicans’ swings are, especially lately.  Since trust collapsed after Vietnam and Watergate, Democrats’ average trust scores have fluctuated within a relatively narrow 10 percentage point band between 30 and 40 percent.  For Republicans, that band is nearly five times as wide.  In fact, trust in government among Republicans dropped an incredible 50 percentage points between the Bush II years, when their party controlled government, to the first two years of the Obama administration, with Democrats firmly in control.   
Also remarkable is how much the gap has grown between Republicans’ and Democrats’ trust in government at given points in time.  Of course, there has always been a tendency for people to trust government more when their side has been  in office, but the differences have generally not been that large.  The average party difference during the first six presidencies in the time series was about 9 percentage points.  That party difference nearly doubled to 17.75 points in the George W. Bush years, and then tripled to 28 points during Obama’s first term.  Something fundamental has changed.  Never big fans of being governed by Democrats, Republicans are now completely rejecting the notion.
Why is this important for the debate about polarization?  These data may help explain why the federal government all but ground to a halt in 2010.  Gridlock does not require Republicans and Democrats to disagree fundamentally about specific policies.  Indeed, in his recent New Yorker piece, Ezra Klein ably notes just how many policies Democrats pursued in Obama’s first term (e.g. individual health care mandate, cap and trade) that were very recently Republican ideas.  Furthermore Ronald Reagan himself was something of a Keynesian in his approach to reviving a flagging economy in the early 1980s, and George W. Bush had no fear of deficit spending either.  More important than specific policy disagreements is how one side regards the other.  Do they dislike them?  Do they distrust them?
The design of American political institutions requires compromise.  Compromise requires both sides to make sacrifices.  That is, for public consensus to emerge and to motivate policy change, a sizable number of conservatives or liberals must be willing to sacrifice their general ideological principles to allow their ideological opponents leeway to pursue their policy goals.  Those who trust government more are most willing to make such sacrifices.  With next to no Republicans willing to make such sacrifices these days, it makes the country far more difficult to govern. .  That captures the essence of polarization and helps us understand why Washington is so dysfunctional today.

- Marc Hetherington, Vanderbilt University

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Going to Extremes: Sunstein’s Take On How Like Minds Unite and Divide


In Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Cass Sunstein reviews the social scientific research documenting how people polarize and become increasingly extreme in their views. The process of polarization is often triggered when people are in groups of like-minded others and have little exposure to alternative views. When these groups are isolated from mainstream society and feel marginalized, they tend to share grievances, leading to further radicalization. It is when these conditions are met that polarization can take a dangerous, sometimes lethal, turn. Sunstein argues that one way to reduce this most extreme, dangerous form of polarization is by providing a “safe space” where people feel comfortable discussing their views that is not insulated from divergent perspectives.

Application to Civil Politics
Sunstein’s book explains that extremism and polarization are natural human phenomena to be expected under certain circumstances. In Going to Extremes, he points to a shortcoming of the “deliberative democracy” movement which brings group of diverse citizens together to discuss issues. Some researchers have shown that this strategy of forcing cross-cutting political communications may activate a “tribal” mindset where people are motivated to use their reasoning abilities to support their beliefs and pick apart alternative beliefs. Hugo Mercier and Helene Landemore (2010) suggest that “reasoning is for arguing” and that when people engage in public deliberations, they are particularly likely to exhibit a strong confirmation bias.
Segregation is an important prerequisite for polarization. Bill Bishop’s research (see Lauren Howe’s excellent review here) documents that liberals are tending to live in liberal communities and conservatives are tending to live in conservative communities. With this domestic political migration into ideologically-homogeneous communities, it is no surprise that politically-active Americans are rather polarized today (or, perceive that they are more polarized today; see Fiorina & Abrams, 2009).

Detailed Chapter Summaries
Chapter 1: Polarization

Generally, when people find themselves in groups of like-minded others, they tend to become more extreme in the views which they share with those around them. Simple laboratory experiments have shown that people arbitrarily assigned to sit with people they think share their views exhibit this polarization effect, where they become more extreme in their views on whatever it is that researchers tell them they share in common. When this occurs in the real-world and the point of division is of the sacred moral values variety, polarization is even more profound and may carry with it many negative consequences for the functioning of the disagreeing groups. This shift towards extremity may be accentuated when there are authorities reaffirming people’s beliefs and confirming their biases.
Intuition leads many people to think that groups may become less extreme and less polarized if they can discuss the issues with each other. Rather, deliberation often leads people to taking more extreme positions.

Chapter 2: Extremism: Why and When
Sunstein argues that the way people within groups obtain and share information is one of the essential ingredients for polarization, and likely extremism, too. Generally, what people know is already skewed in a certain direction and when they speak with each other they basically confirm what each of them already believes. Consider Marc Sageman’s research on the radicalization process for terrorists. He finds that, “a group of guys in an echo chamber communicate with each other spiraling to a further extreme until they are moved to join a terrorist group.” Many members of terrorist organizations explain that they joined because of political goals that they have and believe they can best achieve through joining these organizations.
In obtaining information through social networks that are ideologically homogeneous, people tend to assimilate information that leads them to a desirable conclusion. For example, one Pew Poll found that while 93% of Americans believe that Arab terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, only 11% of Kuwaitis believe this. One explanation is that people in Kuwait are isolated from the United States, receive a particular source of information, and are motivated to view the “enemies of America” as very distinct from themselves.
A similar pattern can be seen in politics in America. People tend to view websites, read newspapers and blogs, listen to radio shows, and watch television programs that support their pre-existing views.
Social psychological research shows that people are biased in how they assimilate information. When presented with the same set of facts and each side’s argument in favor of or against capital punishment, the participants tended to only believe the facts that supported their views and while they tended to discredit the facts supporting the other views. Often, when encountering information challenging pre-existing beliefs, people respond by labeling the uncongenial points as silly or stupid, and derogate the people espousing those points. This can be viewed as “tribalism,” where people rally to defend their tribe and attack other tribes.
Sunstein also notes that political extremists are typically far from irrational. Rather, they tend to have a very narrow set of knowledge on an issue, and what they know supports their extremism. It’s also important to recognize that extremism is not necessarily bad. In fact, extremism is sometimes defensible and right (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela).
Chapter 3: Movements
Groups that live in isolated communities are more prone to polarization, as they are more likely to have shared concerns, shared grievances, and a shared identity. However, if a group is diffused within the general population, they have less opportunity for discussion with like-minded others and, thus, lack a polarized group consciousness. Successful reform movements often occur because of these processes of polarization, as being in like-minded groups makes it easier to organize and mobilize.
Extremists do not usually suffer from a mental illness. Nor are they typically irrational. Rather, they likely do not have personal and/or direct information about an issue in question. In these cases, people will often rely on what other people think—especially people they view as reliable sources of information. Thus, people who believe in conspiracy theories like the idea that the Central Intelligence Agency was behind the Kennedy assassination (or, perhaps, the view that President Obama was not born in America, or may be the “anti-Christ”) are acting rationally using the limited information they have.
Furthermore, once people hold a certain belief, they are motivated to confirm that belief by accepting confirmatory data while rejecting any disconfirming data (possibly, by saying that it was gathered through bad science, or was being espoused by someone with a political bias).
People tend to feel an “unrealistic optimism” and extremists tend to have the highest levels of unrealistic optimism. In other words, extremists tend to have an inflated perception that their actions will lead to the desired results. If we think of extremists as irrational, it becomes more difficult to understand and prevent their actions. Therefore, it’s important for us to recognize that polarization and demonization are products of basic human psychology which affects most people at some point in their lives.
Chapter 4: Preventing Extremism
Sunstein proposes that there are three primary means that nations typically use to combat “unjustified extremism.”
1) Edmund Burke argued that following tradition provides stability for a society, and, in doing so, protects a country’s citizens from the changes advocated by groups of people stirred by passions of the day. He viewed tradition as a check on extreme movements, as respecting tradition may encourage people to be wary of radical ideas that challenge the status quo. Thus, people who have a high respect for tradition may be the least likely to polarize. Many political philosophers have taken issue with this traditionalist model arguing that tradition is not necessarily good, or inherently better than modern reforms. James Madison famously argued against traditionalism in stating, “Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for customs, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense?
2) Jeremy Bentham proposed that careful consideration of the consequences of actions can stifle “bad extremism.” A problem with this consequentialist viewpoint is that people tend to selectively interpret evidence and can reach opposing conclusions from the same information. The process of deliberating on these facts with others may lead the groups to become more polarized than they were initially.
3) The third, often associated with James Madison, is checks and balances. The founding fathers of the United States’ constitution had extremism and polarization in mind when developing the system of checks and balances. Specifically, the founders expected the House of Representatives to be a more mercurial branch of government that would craft policy guided most by the popular passions and group polarization. The Senate, however, was to ensure that ill-considered legislation did not become law.
Importantly, group deliberation does NOT necessarily lead to truth. The Jury Theorem suggests that large groups of people can make better decisions than smaller groups, IF the people deliberating in the groups are more likely to be right than wrong. If people the people in the group are more likely to be wrong than right, then the likelihood that the group’s majority will decide correctly drops to zero as the group size increases. Thus, group deliberation is more likely to work well if the deliberators are cognitively diverse (i.e., having different approaches, training, and perspectives).
Chapter 5: Good Extremism
Barry Goldwater was correct in stating that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Extremism is not always bad. Thomas Jefferson even wrote that social “turbulence can be productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to… public affairs. I hold… that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” In addition to maintaining the legitimacy of the government, extremism and polarization can promote political engagement and lead to greater political participation.
The problem is not simply polarization, rather it is when people are isolated and have minimal contact with others who have alternative viewpoints. This isolation and the feeling of marginality are the factors that make polarization particularly dangerous. To prevent this type of polarization, Sunstein argues for the creation of spaces where people can discuss their views that is not insulated from those outside of the group (perhaps groups such as The Village Square are doing this).

About The Author
Cass Sunstein is an American legal scholar, former professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and current professor at Harvard Law School, in addition to serving as President Obama’s Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He has authored 36 books on law, decision-making, and politics. One of his books, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, was named “Best Book of The Year” in 2008 by The Economist.


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How is the Lunatic Fringe Hijacking America? John Avlon Explains in Wingnuts

Image of Book Cover



The culture wars pit the Democrats in the blue corner against the Republicans in the red corner in an epic battle featured by all major news outlets. This political pugilism is fought by hyper-partisan liberals and conservatives who claim victory by screaming louder than their opponents. In Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America,  John Avlon (a former speech writer for Rudy Giuliani) discusses how these extreme Democrats and Republicans, or Wingnuts, represent a small minority of people who care more for their political ideology than they do for their country as a whole.

Avlon documents how Wingnuts on the left and right sides of the political spectrum are actually quite similar to each other and use similar logic and tactics. This timely, engaging book is replete with interviews with liberals who attacked former President Bush as a “domestic terrorist,” a “Fascist,” and “an enemy of humanity” in the years before conservatives used similar attacks on President Obama. 

Application to Civil Politics
In the psychological research on group conflict, members of each group tend to exhibit mirror image perceptions of each other. Members of each group think that they are on the side of good defending the world from the evil perpetrated by the other side. Some of my past research argues that the most passionate defenders of belief systems are particularly likely to view themselves as righteous and all opponents as threats to the proper way of the world. Similarly, each group views themselves as arriving at their beliefs through a rational and objective evaluation of the facts. On the other hand, groups view other groups as arriving at their beliefs through an irrational or ideologically-biased evaluation of the facts.  

Detailed Chapter Summaries
Ch. 1 Introducing the Wingnuts

In the past few decades, extremists, or Wingnuts, have hijacked the political debate in the United States by screaming louder than everyone else. They divide the world into false dichotomies of “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil,” “black” and “white,” “Democrats” and “Republicans.” This tactic of division creates a sense of ingroups and outgroups which makes it easier to wish ill upon the other team, as elections are zero-sum contests where losses for one team are victories for another. This is exemplified by the change in the evolving aspirations for political opponents. Specifically, following the 1960 election of JFK, John Wayne stated, “I didn't vote for him, but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job." However, after the 2008 election of President Obama, Rush Limbaughstated “I hope he fails." Despite the decline in party membership and the fact that only 11% of Americans identify as liberal Democrats and 15% identify as conservative Republicans, these Wingnuts are increasingly commanding the political debate. In doing so, these extremes are echoing and confirming each other’s worst stereotypes of each other.

Ch. 2 Of Tea Parties and Town Halls

In this chapter, Avlon asserts that political “extremes end up resembling each other.” This point is perhaps best illustrated by the strategic playbook used by extremists across time. During the civil rights era, far-left activists adhered to the principles promoted in the classic text by Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, which suggests that on the political battlefield, the ends justify any means. In the summer of 2009 as elected officials headed home to their districts to discuss healthcare reform in town hall meetings, far-right activists had adopted Alinsky’s strategy. In a now-famous memo by Bob MacGuffie of Right Principles, he implored conservative wingnuts to “use the Saul Alinsky playbook of which the left is so proud: freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it.” He continued on telling the protestors at these town hall meetings to “put the Representative on the defensive…You need to rock the boat early. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Representative’s statements early. If he [the Representative] blames Bush for something or offers other excuses—call him on it, yell back, and have someone else follow up with a shout-out… Look for these opportunities even before he takes questions.” As this movement gained steam, these town hall meetings became increasingly hostile. The hostility boiled over culminating in fist fights in Florida, scuffles between senior citizens, brawls between members of the Tea Party and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with some participants being arrested and hospitalized, and even, in one particularly gruesome case in California, one healthcare reform opponent had his finger bitten off at rally.

Chapter 3: Obama Derangement Syndrome

Avlon describes “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” which is the conservative form of Bush Derangement Syndrome (recall when liberal wingnuts would say things like “Hang Bush for War Crimes,” “Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush,” and “Bush is the Only Dope Worth Shooting). In Obama Derangement Syndrome, conservative wingnuts began espousing similar rhetoric as liberal wingnuts had just years earlier. As news spread on election night that Obama had won, one commenter on the FoxNews website stated, “Let’s have a huge parade. How about November 22… in Dallas… Barack can ride in the back of a convertible with his wife… they could drive by the school book depository.” The day following his election a school bus full of second and third graders in Madison County, Idaho reportedly was chanting “assassinate Obama.” Ministers were making similar statements from their pulpits that Sunday, too. For example, Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church gave a sermon titled “Why I Hate Barack Obama.” In this sermon he preached, “I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don't like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don't like his policies. No, I hate him… I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.” He continued by offering to make an imprecatory prayer condemning Obama. This prayer read: “Break his teeth, Oh God, in his mouth; as a snail which molteth, let him pass away; like an untimely birth of a woman–that he thinks–he calls it a woman's right to choose, you know, he thinks it's so wonderful, he ought to be aborted. It ought to be, "Abort Obama," that ought to be the motto."

Chapter 4: The Birth of White Minority Politics

The 2008 Presidential Election made the existing racial differences between the Democratic and Republican parties more apparent. African American voters greatly preferred Obama, even more so than they usually prefer Democratic candidates. This strong support was a big factor in Obama’s success in some places that Democrats had not won since the civil rights era like Virginia. However, white, older voters in the Deep South greatly preferred McCain. In fact, in the 49 counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi where whites comprise more than 90% of the population, Obama did far worse than previous Democratic candidates and lost every single one of those counties. Avlon suggests that Obama’s race may have implicitly served as more fuel on the fire stoking conservative’s fears that their ideal of America was under assault and that it needed to be defended.

Chapter 5: Polarizing for Profit

In a tough media market where audience members have countless choices of places to get their news from, media corporations are competing for regular and frequent viewers. This premium audience tends to be more extreme than the overall population. Michael Medved suggests that in order to get this audience’s loyalty, “you have something of a push to be outrageous, to be on the fringe.” The media used to primarily use the “split-scream” approach where a wingnut from each side of the political spectrum would scream their talking points at one another. Today, however, media is increasingly partisan with its primetime programming being more akin to an “echo-chamber,” where angry people from one party incite each other to extremes while they demonize the opposition without letting anyone defend the oppositions’ view. This echo chamber media model may intensify groupthink and polarization, making it ever more difficult to understand people who disagree with your politics.

Chapter 6: Sarah Palin and the Limbaugh Brigades

Wingnuts on the left and right tend to assume the worst about the opposition and often wish for the other side’s failure. This is exemplified in Sarah Palin’s repeated statements that President Obama “is someone who sees America as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who target their own country.” Similarly, in the lead up to President Obama’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh was asked to write 400 words for a magazine regarding his hopes for the Obama administration. Limbaugh responded, "I don't need 400 words; I need four: I hope he fails." This type of demonization is not limited to wingnuts on the right. Consider statements by the now-former Representative Alan Grayson who called the Republicans "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who think they can dictate policy to America by being stubborn," and later called them "the enemy of America" and "certainly the enemy of peace." Avlon notes that both parties hope to unite Americans, but implores the wingnuts who are trying to do so by first dividing Americans.

Chapter 7: Hunting for Heretics
Political extremists desire ideological purity for the members of their political parties. Following the 2008 elections where many Congressional Republicans lost their seats, Republican wingnuts argued that the losses were “a cleansing for the party. We got rid of some dead weight; we got rid of some RINOs–Republicans in Name Only. There are Republicans today, like myself that are rooting against Norm Coleman, hoping Al Franken wins, just so we can at least have a real Republican next time around. I mean, for me I'm like 'Let's kick 'em all out,' you know. The ones that act like they're real conservatives that weren't, hey, go on home." Democratic wingnuts, such as those at Revolution Books, challenge Democrats in Name Only (DINOs). For example, after the election of President Barack Obama, they described him as “the same Bush program rebranded.” This bookstore also marketed bottles of “Obamalade.”

Image of Obamalade

A list of ingredients was inscribed on each of their labels and contained such items as “massacres in Gaza, Rick Warren, escalation of the Afghanistan war, Hillary Clinton, bailout of big business, Rahm Emanuel, blaming black people for problems the system inflicts on them, the ‘coming together’ with those who hate gay people, Robert Gates, whitewashing torture by the Bush regime, and the Patriot Act.” Further, a surgeon general’s warning was printed on each label: “Obamalade causes massive loss of life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan and many other countries; continued attacks on Black people, women, immigrants, gays & lesbians; political cowardice that is dangerous to the health of humanity. If, after drinking Obamalade, you find yourself accepting the crimes of this system–you should immediately take 2 doses of reality and report to the nearest movement of resistance against these crimes." These labels contained the basic description of the liberal wingnut worldview—America is the world’s prime oppressor.

Chapter 8: The Big Lie: Birthers and Truthers

Wingnuts tend to devise many theories that they can use to feed their fears and justify their hatred for the opposition. Two of the most discussed conspiracy theories of the decade are those proposing that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were an inside job and those proposing that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Originally, those promoting the 9/11 conspiracy (the “Truthers”) were wingnut liberals wanting to attack President Bush. Oddly, though, most Truthers today are wingnut anti-government conservatives. We see a similar reversal among those promoting the Barack Obama birth certificate conspiracy (the “Birthers”). Originally, Birthers were mostly wingnut liberals during the Democratic primary campaign who did not think that Obama was liberal enough. However, today, most Birthers tend to be wingnut conservatives. Both of these conspiracy theories have gotten a great deal of media coverage and have disseminated to much of the American public. In 2006, 38% of Americans believed that the United States federal government either played an active role in the 9/11 attacks or the government took no action to stop the attacks so that the attacks could be used as a justification for going to war. More recently and in regards to the Birther conspiracy, a poll showed that 58% of Republicans did not believe that President Obama was born in the United States.

Chapter 9: The Hatriots: Armed and Dangerous

In this time of political division and increasingly hostile debate, there is a sense that the country is on the verge of crisis and can only be saved by drastic action. Clark McCauley describes this as a “psychology of crisis” that motivates people to engage in violent, and even murderous political action including terrorism. Wingnut conservative and Arizona sheriff Richard Mack said, "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government." One man at a Tea Party rally in Washington, D. C. was found carrying automatic guns with the phrases “NoBama” and “Christian Warrior” inscribed on them. In this environment, all that may be needed to provoke action may be the slightest spark.

Chapter 10: Conclusion: How Take America Back from the Lunatic Fringe

Wingnuts may get the most attention in the media, but they are not representative of America. Rather, the non-shouting people who care more about solving problems than screaming at political opponents are the vast majority of Americans. These ordinary Americans need to declare their disapproval for these tactics and make their views heard. The growing number of political independents (that is, those changing their voter registration from Republican or Democrat to unaffiliated or independent) may be seen as evidence for this hypothesis. Avlon reminds us that George Washington was the original independent who rejected the politics of demonization endorsed by wingnuts. In Washington's farewell address, he insisted that there was no greater threat to democracy than the partisan demagogue who "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another." Avlon implores Americans to remember Washington’s warnings and to heed his suggestions of rejecting partisan demagogues.
Matt Motyl

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.