Tag Archives: identity

What’s Driving America’s Polarization?

I recently “guest lectured” in a colleague’s class; my assignment was to address the issue of America’s extreme polarization. As you might imagine, that’s a topic that could consume several hours, if not days, of discussion.

I had twenty minutes….

I began by sharing my version of  The American Idea—the conviction that allegiance to an overarching governing philosophy–one that that emphasized behavior rather than identity- could create unity from what has always been a diverse citizenry. This nation was not based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but on a theory of social organization, a philosophy of governance that was meant to facilitate e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. The American Idea set up an enduring conversation about the proper balance between “I” and “we”–between individual rights on the one hand and the choices and passions of the majority on the other.

Admittedly, that approach doesn’t seem to be working right now.

As I told the students, I think it’s important to note two things about our current divisions:  our political polarization has been asymmetric—during my lifetime, the GOP has moved far, far to the right, abandoning genuinely conservative positions in favor of authoritarianism and White Supremacy. When that movement first began, public notions of what constituted the “middle” prompted the Democratic party to move to the right also;  what is today being called a move to the left is really a return to its original, center-left orientation.

Today’s GOP is a cohesive, White Supremicist cult. For a number of reasons, the Democratic party is a much bigger tent than the GOP—making the forging of party consensus very difficult. 

So yes, we are polarized. At the same time, however, it’s also important to recognize that many of America’s apparent social divisions are exaggerated by media outlets trying to grab our attention and by people pursuing political agendas. (The current coverage of fights over Roe v. Wade is an example. Polling tells us that three-quarters of Americans support Roe–hardly the even division often suggested by the media.)

 The research is pretty clear about the source of our current divisions: White Christian Americans—predominantly male—are incredibly threatened by the social and demographic changes they see around them. White Evangelicals overwhelmingly tell researchers that only White Christians can be “true Americans.” Their belief that White Christian males are entitled to social dominance—to “ownership” of the country– is being threatened by the increasing improvements in the positions of “uppity” women and people of color.

There are other factors, of course, but the underlying reality is frantic resistance to social change by Americans who harbor racial resentments, misogyny and homophobia.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of our current media environment, which enables confirmation bias and allows us to choose our own realities. The death of local journalism, and the influence of Fox News and its clones, are huge contributors, and recent revelations about the business model of Facebook and other social media demonstrates the impact those platforms have and their role in disseminating misinformation, conspiracy theories and bigotry.

To be fair, media bubbles aren’t the only bubbles Americans occupy. I’ve posted before about “The Big Sort,” the”Density Divide,” and the immense and growing gaps between urban and rural Americans.

I continue to believe that a majority of Americans are sane and reasonable, but several painfully outdated governance systems have enabled a not-nearly-so-sane minority to exercise disproportionate power. Those outdated systems include the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the filibuster–not to mention that each state gets two senators regardless of population (by 2040, about 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states. They will have only 30 senators representing them, while the remaining 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them.)

Our current low-key civil war has illustrated our problems. How we fix them is another matter….

 

The Age Of Misinformation

Political scientists often study the characteristics and influence of those they dub “high information voters.” Although that cohort is relatively small, it accounts for a significant amount–probably a majority–of America’s political discourse.

Research has suggested that these more informed voters, who follow politics closely, are just as likely–perhaps even more likely– to exhibit confirmation bias as are Americans less invested in the daily political news. But their ability to spread both information and misinformation is far greater than it was before the Internet and the ubiquity of social media.

As Max Fisher recently wrote in a column for the New York Times, 

There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

Fisher attributes this phenomenon to a number of factors, but especially to an aspect of identity politics; we live in an age where political identity has become central to the self-image held by many Americans.

Fisher cites research attributing the prevalence of misinformation to three main elements of our time. Perhaps the most important of the three is a social environment in which individuals feel the need for what he terms “in-grouping,” and I would call tribalism — identification with like-minded others  as a source of strength and (especially) superiority. As he says,

In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

 American political polarization promotes the sharing of disinformation. The hostility between Red and Blue America feeds a pervasive distrust, and when people are distrustful, they become much more prone to engage in and accept rumor and falsehood. Distrust also encourages people to see the world as “us versus them”– and that’s a world in which we are much more apt to believe information that bolsters “us” and denigrates “them.” We know that  individuals with more polarized views are more likely to believe falsehoods.

And of course, the emergence of high-profile political figures who prey on these tribal instincts exacerbates the situation.

Then there is the third factor — a shift to social media, which is a powerful outlet for composers of disinformation, a pervasive vector for misinformation itself and a multiplier of the other risk factors.

“Media has changed, the environment has changed, and that has a potentially big impact on our natural behavior,” said William J. Brady, a Yale University social psychologist.

“When you post things, you’re highly aware of the feedback that you get, the social feedback in terms of likes and shares,” Dr. Brady said. So when misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it.

It isn’t surprising that people who get positive feedback when they post inflammatory or false statements are more likely to do so again–and again. In one particularly troubling analysis, researchers found that when a fact-check revealed that information in a post was wrong, the response of partisans wasn’t to revise their thinking or get upset with the purveyor of the lie.

Instead, it was to attack the fact checkers.

“The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article. “It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”

In an ecosystem where that sense of identity conflict is all-consuming, she wrote, “belonging is stronger than facts.”

We’re in a world of hurt…..

 

What’s Different?

As the Supreme Court prepares to take up one of the persistent “I won’t bake a cake for ‘those people'” cases, a friend asked me to explain the difference between a merchant who refused to do business with a Neo-Nazi group and one who refused to serve gays or Jews.

It’s an important distinction, but not an immediately intuitive one.

Civil rights laws were initially a response to businesses that refused to serve African-Americans–many of the proprietors claimed that their religious beliefs prohibited “mixing” the races (much as those refusing service to LGBTQ folks today base that refusal on religious teachings). Those civil rights measures–later expanded to protect other groups– were based upon an important principle that undergirds our legal system.

Our system is based upon the premise that your right to be treated like everyone else depends upon your behavior, not your identity.

As a result of that important distinction, I can post a sign saying “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” I cannot post a sign saying “No blacks, no Jews.” I can “discriminate” between customers behaving properly, and those who are disruptive, are unwilling to pay, or are otherwise exhibiting behaviors that I believe are harmful to my ability to ply my trade.

I cannot discriminate based upon my customers’ race, religion, or–in states that have inclusive civil rights law–sexual orientation or gender identity.

The confusion between a merchant’s unwillingness to have her business associated with the KKK, for example, and unwillingness to serve LGBTQ customers is reminiscent of arguments raised when Indiana was (unsuccessfully) trying to add “four words and a comma”(sexual orientation, gender identity) to Indiana’s civil rights law, which still does not include protections for gays or transgender individuals.

During those arguments, opponents of the added protections asserted that “forcing” a business to serve gay customers would be indistinguishable from forcing a baker to make a cake with a swastika or forcing Muslim or Kosher butchers to sell pork.

That comparison, however, is fatally flawed.

If I go into a menswear shop and ask for a dress, am I being discriminated against when I’m informed the store doesn’t sell women’s clothes? Of course not.

Civil rights protections don’t require the baker who doesn’t bake swastika cakes, or the butcher who never sells pork to add those items to their inventory. Civil rights laws do keep the baker from refusing to sell the cakes he does make to “certain people.”

The kosher butcher doesn’t have to carry pork, but he can’t refuse to sell his kosher chickens and beef to Muslim or Christian customers, again, so long as those customers can pay and are abiding by the generally applicable rules of the shop.

The distinction may not be immediately obvious, but it’s important. The essence of civil rights is the principle that you can be denied service for your chosen behaviors, not for your identity.

I hope that helps…

About that Identity Crisis

I blogged yesterday about our unfortunate experiences entering Stratford Upon Avon. (My unstated conclusion was that the town is confident that William (Shakespeare) will continue to pull in the tourists, and additional efforts are unnecessary.)

That said, we did encounter a couple of wonderful, helpful people. When we got off the train in Stratford, we were on the opposite side of the tracks from the station, requiring us to negotiate one of those bridges that spans the tracks. Up a flight of stairs, across, and then down to the platform. I had the big suitcase, and a young man insisted on carrying it for me up, across and then down the steps, despite my protests that I could handle it. Bob’s experience was similar–a man traveling with his toddler daughter took both cases across the bridge for him.

In my case, the helpful young man was an Arab. Bob’s helper was black.

I don’t want to use this happenstance to draw any large social conclusions; I simply note it. But we have both remarked upon the changing composition of the English crowds we’ve encountered on this trip. Americans like to think our country is more diverse than other western industrialized nations, but if our observations are representative, multiculturalism is hardly confined to the U.S. As we looked out the windows at each of the 15 stops between London and Stratford, we were struck by the number of women wearing hijabs (even a few burkas), and others who clearly were not from stereotypical English backgrounds.

Those observations made me think about our dinner companions on the just-ended cruise. We ate with a couple from Switzerland whose son lives in Florida and whose daughter lives in Germany. The wife’s sister lives in Paris. The couple themselves have a flat in Nice, an apartment in Florida and their “ancestral” home in Switzerland. They are multi-lingual (I always feel like an ugly American around people who are fluent in three or four languages…). During our trip, we met a number of people with such multiple “homes” and what one might call “shared identities.”

Is there a point to these random observations? Probably not–unless we chalk up all these experiences to “the world is changing” and “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” Stereotypes–racial, national, religious, what-have-you–have never been particularly reliable, but in the world we inhabit, they have gone from being marginally useful to downright misleading.

Sometimes, travel outside one’s safe, familiar world is a forcible reminder that identity is a social construct.

I Think We Need Truth in Labeling

My best friend called me yesterday, fuming about a solicitation call she’d just received.

The woman caller identified herself as a volunteer for the Republican Party. She began by thanking my friend for her past, generous support of the GOP–and indeed, my friend was an active Republican voter and donor for many years. Her husband served two terms in the General Assembly as a Republican State Senator. However, like so many of my friends and family, she no longer supports the party, and when the woman at the other end of the phone asked whether she would consider a contribution, she said so.

“I’m a Democrat now,” she informed the volunteer. The volunteer (predictably) asked if she would share why she had left the GOP; my friend responded that she strongly disagreed with the party’s positions on social issues, especially abortion and homosexuality. It is not government’s job to decide whether you procreate, or who you love; the party used to understand that “limited” government meant limited to matters that are properly the province of the state.

There was a pause. The woman on the phone then asked “Don’t you think we should consider the will of god?  Shouldn’t the government have a role in ensuring that we live by what’s written in the bible?” to which my friend responded “Whose bible? Whose god?” Another pause, then the question: “are you a Christian?”  When my friend said she was not, the woman evidently had an “ah ha” moment, because she ended the conversation by saying “Oh, that explains it.” According to my friend, she might just as well have said, “Now I understand–you are not one of us.”

The conversation made it quite clear that, to this volunteer (and presumably others like her), the Republican party is no longer a political enterprise. It’s a religious movement, a party by and for Christians. Not just any Christian, either–it’s the party for what they call “bible-believing” Christians, the party of Rick Santorum and Mike Pence. If there are still those in the party who take a more traditional approach, who understand the purpose of politics to be participation in secular governance and political outreach to be the building of a bigger, more inclusive tent, they presumably hadn’t communicated that to this particular foot soldier.

The conversation simply confirmed the reality of today’s Republican party–a party consisting of what has been described as “a shrinking base of aging, ethnically monolithic, and geographically isolated voters.” Christian voters. Perhaps we could achieve more clarity in our political discourse if the GOP stopped trying to be coy, and just renamed itself the Christian Party. In its current iteration, it certainly isn’t the Republican Party that my friend and I used to support. That party disappeared a long time ago.

The volunteer on the other end of line simply confirmed its transformation.