Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

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Pew Finds that Americans are getting more polarized, especially about the social safety net

Anyone who visits this site ought to read Pew's recent study of political polarization.


As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.

Overall, there has been much more stability than change across the 48 political values measures that the Pew Research Center has tracked since 1987. But the average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25-year period – from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 percentage points in the new study.


Political polarization is relatively evident to most who follow politics, but perhaps most interesting to me was the empirical evidence that fiscal issues are the most divisive.  Increasingly, Americans are tending to agree about issues like gay marriage, but, as evidenced by some jarring moments from the recent Republican primary debates, juxtaposed against the Occupy Wall Street movement, the issue of whether America should continue to provide a social safety net is the topic most likely to cause strife at the dinner table.

– Ravi Iyer


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WNPR Connecticut Hosts a Discussion of Civil Politics

As further proof that more and more Americans are beginning to see the lack of cooperation amongst politicians as a problem, the Colin McEnroe show of WNPR in Connecticut hosted a show entitled "What Drives Political Polarization" and invited me to be a guest, along with Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska, and science journalist Chris Mooney.

All in all, I thought the show was thoughtful and interesting.  Kevin Smith, who preceeded me, talked some about the differences psychologists have found between liberals and conservatives, a topic which many of us at civilpolitics study as well.  However, in my brief segment (the last 10 minutes of the show), I tried to emphasize how our shared biology actually drives partisanship, and specifically the way that humans easily form groups that villainize and compete with other groups.  How can we combat this?  I proposed 2 ideas: positive contact with people of the opposite persuasion and an increased focus on shared goals, both of which are old ideas in social psychology that you can read about here.

The show is available via podcast and you can listen online if you're interested.  Thanks to all who produced the show for drawing attention to the topic!

– Ravi Iyer

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Center Aisle Caucus brings bipartisan civility to congress

You likely have heard a lot about the Tea Party Caucus, the progressive caucus and the Republican study committee, all of which are groups in congress which promote certain ideological viewpoints. One of our readers recently pointed out that there is now a "Center Aisle Caucus", started by Steve Israel, a Democrat from Long Island, and Tim Johnson, a Republican from Illinois. From this Washington Post article:

Johnson, who for years has made dozens of random phone calls every day to his Illinois constituents, said that "the message I hear over and over from the folks back home is, 'You are the 435 most powerful people in Washington. Why do you act like third-graders? Why don't you ever find out what you agree on?' " Their conversation became the spur for the formation earlier this year of what they call the Center Aisle Caucus, a forum for communication across party lines. In a few months the invited membership has grown to 47, roughly balanced between the parties. The founders say they have turned down some applicants, because — as Israel put it — "we don't want people who will put it on their rsum and then go out and act like flame-throwers on the floor." "We know that most Republicans and most Democrats will take different positions maybe 70 percent of the time," Johnson said. "But if we could find ways of at least talking about the other 30 percent, the country would be 100 percent better off than it is now."

The group has even held a joint townhall meeting. Conflict sells newspapers and we're likely to continually hear about conflict between partisans. Unfortunately, social psychology research tells us that the enemy of our friend is likely to be thought of as an enemy as well, and so if all we hear is about division and partisanship in congress, it will likely exacerbate incivility amongst us all. Perhaps by consciously focusing on groups like the Center Aisle Caucus, rather than letting the extremes of both parties have all the attention, we can reduce some of the needless partisanship that prevents people from moving toward common ground and actually trying to solve some of our nation's issues. – Ravi Iyer

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6 Structural Ideas to turn Partisans into Americans from The Atlantic

On the heels of a rather ugly partisan debate that almost sank our economy comes this timely article in The Atlantic containing 6 structural reforms that would encourage more civil politics.  As social psychologists, we would argue that situational fixes are often more effective than hoping that individuals will change through force of argument.  

The six ideas to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans first are as follows:

  • Create an open primary system, so that the parties are less important in the electoral process
  • Reform redistricting, so politicians have to worry about the general election rather than trying to out-extreme each other in primaries
  • Allow more amendments to bills, so that party bosses have less power to shape final legislation
  • Change congressional committees so they are less partisan
  • Do not allow congressional leaders to pick congressional committees, further weakening party loyalties
  • Have committee staff hired based on qualifications, not ideology

It is definitely worth reading the whole article.  People who complain about incivility in politics often complain about structural causes of partisanship like the 24 hour news cycle and the need to raise money from your base.  Perhaps we can create some structural barriers to incivility as well.

– Ravi Iyer

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