[This post was crossposted from RighteousMind.com]
Here is my most complete talk on the causes of America’s rising political polarization and dysfunction. It’s more pessimistic than my prior talks. I was invited to speak in November at the NYU Law School, at a session hosted by professor Rick Pildes. Pildes wrote a superb law review article in 2011 on the causes of our dysfunction, from an “institutionalist” perspective, looking at Congress and electoral processes: Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America
When I first read it, I thought Pildes’s account of the history was enlightening, but I thought he was too negative about the chances for real reform. But I re-read his paper while preparing for this talk, and realized he was right — and prophetic. He predicted that Obama would soon start bypassing congress and implementing policy by regulatory fiat; he predicted that one or both parties would soon start cutting back on the filibuster, unilaterally.
In this talk I integrate moral psychology with recent American history to explain the TEN reasons why America has been getting more polarized — at the elite level AND at the mass (public) level. My talk runs from minute 2 to minute 46, and then there’s commentary from Pildes, then open discussion.
Here is the list of 10 causes that I showed in the video:
1) Party realignment and purification, 1964-1992
2) Mass sorting of lib vs. con voters into the purified parties, by 1990s
3) Generational changing of the guard, from Greatest Gen to Baby Boomers, 1990s
4) Changes in Congress, 1995—death of friendships
5) Media fractionation and polarization, since 1980s
6) Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural, 1990s
7) Increasing role of money, negative advertising, 2000s
8) End of the cold war, loss of a common enemy, 1989
9) Increasing immigration and racial diversity, 1990s
10) Increasing education, since 1970s (more educated citizens are more partisan and opinionated about politics)
I show how these 10 trends interact with the moral psychology I presented in The Righteous Mind to produce the strong and steady rise in polarization that we’ve seen since the 1990s. Note that most of these trends cannot be reversed. Morality binds and blinds, and for these 10 reasons, morality been binding us ever more tightly in the last 10-20 years. “Affective partisan polarization” — the degree to which we hold negative views of the other team — has been rising steadily, and there is no end in sight.
As traditional newspapers decline in popularity, more and more people are turning to the internet to stay informed. Internet users can seek out web versions of established news publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or they can take their pick among thousands of political blogs covering all sides of the political spectrum. Political blogs, in particular, encourage reader interaction and debate, and reflect the democratization of the internet in that anyone who wishes to can create one and garner thousands, if not millions, of followers. A major concern with this transition to internet news sources is that people will tend to seek out those publications that reinforce their own views to the exclusion of all others, thereby creating online echo chambers of political thought, and leading to increased polarization and incivility.
1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:
The researchers had several hypotheses about political polarization among political blogs:
First, they predicted that political bloggers would tend to express opinions that align with the particular ideology of the blog they write for, leading to polarized opinions between conservative and liberal blogs. They predicted the same would be true of the blogs’ comment sections.
Next, they predicted that incivility would become more frequent as political extremity increased in either the post or comment sections, and that most of this incivility would be directed towards off-site political opponents.
Researchers were also interested in comparing political blogs with those blogs published by established newspapers. They predicted that the latter, which tend to encourage a higher level of objectivity, would display less political bias both in the posts and comment sections, as well as less incivility than the political blogs.
To test these hypotheses, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement of 2011 was used as a case study. Five popular blogs spanning the political spectrum were chosen for comparison, as well as two newspaper blogs, from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Blog posts about OWS and their comments were coded for the author or commenter’s stance toward the OWS protests, specific groups or persons (including the blog author or another commenter) praised or criticized, and whether any criticism was uncivil.
2. What They Found – Results:
As expected, political bloggers expressed opinions that were in line with the particular political bent of the given blog—authors on the conservative blogs opposed OWS and those on the liberal blogs supported it. Blog comments showed a similar trend, though they were somewhat less polarized. Also as predicted, incivility increased as blog content and comments grew more extreme, and was most frequently directed at off-site opponents.
Newspaper blogs were found to be significantly less biased than political blogs, as were the commenters on these blogs. Newspaper blog authors and commenters also displayed less incivility.
3. Who Was Studied – Sample:
Authors and commenters on 2 liberal blogs—Daily Kos and firedoglake; 2 conservative blogs—Townhall and MichelleMalkin; and one moderate blog, TheModerateVoice. Authors and commenters on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal blogs.
4. Study Name:
Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street
Suhay, E., Blackwell A., Roche, C. & L. Bruggeman. “Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Political Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street.” (2014) Unpublished manuscript, American University, Washington, D.C.
7. Intervention Categories:
8. Sample Size:
2,392 blog posts and comments across 7 sources
9. Central Reported Statistic:
Incivility greater on political blog posts than newspaper blog posts (χ2 = 16.76, df = 3, p ≤.001) and on political blog comments (χ2 = 14.18, df = 1, p ≤.001)
A recent research study by Pew highlights societal trends that have a lot of people worried about the future of our country. While many people have highlighted the political polarization that exists and others have pointed to the social and psychological trends underlying that polarization, Pew’s research report is unique for the scope of findings across political, social, and moral attitudes. Some of the highlights of the report include:
The study is an important snapshot of current society and clearly illustrates that polarization is getting worse, with the social and moral consequences that moral psychology research would predict when attitudes become moralized. That being said, I think it is important not to lose sight of the below graph from their study.
Specifically, while there certainly is a trend toward moralization and partisanship, the majority of people are in the middle of the above distributions of political attitudes and hold mixed opinions about political attitudes. It is important that those of us who study polarization don’t exacerbate perceived differences, as research has shown that perceptions of differences can become reality. Most Americans (79%!) still fall somewhere between having consistently liberal and consistently conservative attitudes on political issues, according to Pew’s research. And even amongst those on the ends of this spectrum, 37% of conservatives and 51% of liberals have close friends who disagree with them. Compromise between parties is still the preference of most of the electorate. If those of us who hold a mixed set of attitudes can indeed make our views more prominent, thereby reducing the salience of group boundaries, research would suggest that this would indeed mitigate this alarming trend toward social, moral, and political polarization.
- Ravi Iyer