Tag Archives: polarization

America’s Troubling Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” means different things to different people.

Historically, the phrase was embraced by politicians pandering to voters’ belief in America’s superiority. We were the inventors of “freedom,” with a national “can do” spirit. “Exceptionalism” was a nicer word than “best,” a way to proclaim that we were Number One.

The dictionary definition of exceptional is neither positive nor negative: one can be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. It simply denotes something unusual or atypical. One way that America’s political structure is definitely atypical is our two-party system, and as a recent post to FiveThirtyEight makes clear, that bit of exceptionalism is a significant source of the country’s current dysfunction.

The post begins by reiterating what is obvious to anyone who follows American politics:

As the “Big Lie” of a stolen election continues to dominate the Republican Party, GOP-controlled states enact restrictive voting laws and pursue preposterous election audits, aspiring candidates embrace the fiction of a stolen 2020 election, and a majority of GOP voters still believe Trump is the “true president,” the obvious questions follow: Where is this all headed? And is there any way out?

In one telling, the Republican Party will eventually come back to its senses and move past former President Donald Trump and Trumpist grievance politics, especially if Republicans lose a few elections in a row and realize that it’s a losing strategy. But there’s another possible outcome: More contested elections, more violence and, ultimately, a collapse into competitive authoritarianism enabled by electoral advantages that tilt in one party’s favor.

The post, by political scientist Lee Drutman, refers to historical patterns of democratic decline , and attributes the “cracking of the foundation of American democracy” to hyper-polarization. That polarization has given us a political environment within which one party can break democratic norms with impunity– because, as he notes, winning in the short term has become more important than maintaining democracy for the long term.

Drutman says that the hyper-polarization that threatens us is–to a significant extent– a product of the two-party system.

There’s no shortage of plausible explanations for why U.S. politics has become so polarized, but many of these theories describe impossible-to-reverse trends that have played out across developed democracies, like the rise of social media and the increased political salience of globalization, immigration and urban-rural cultural divides. All of these trends are important contributors, for sure. But if they alone are driving illiberalism and hyper-partisanship in the U.S., then the problem should be consistent across all western democracies. But it isn’t.

Drutman points to four ways in which America’s polarization is different from–and arguably more dangerous than–that of other countries (I encourage you to click through and evaluate that analysis for yourselves) and notes that in other countries where two parties dominate its politics, populations also display more unfavorable feelings toward the political opposition than populations in multi-party democracies.

In fact, in a new book, “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” another team of scholars, Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne, shows that citizens in majoritarian democracies with less proportional representation dislike both their own parties and opposing parties more than citizens in multiparty democracies with more proportional representation.

This pattern may have something to do with the shifting politics of coalition formation in proportional democracies, where few political enemies are ever permanent (e.g., the unlikely new governing coalition in Israel). This also echoes something social psychologists have found in running experiments on group behavior: Breaking people into three groups instead of two leads to less animosity. Something, in other words, appears to be unique about the binary condition, or in this case, the two-party system, that triggers the kind of good-vs-evil, dark-vs-light, us-against-them thinking that is particularly pronounced in the U.S.

Even the urban-rural split, which can be seen globally, is substantially less binary in proportional systems, partly because multiple parties can still win seats in geographically unfriendly areas, resulting in coalition governments with both urban and rural representation.

But it’s not just the lack of a stark urban-rural divide. As Drutman points out, there isn’t a strategic benefit to demonizing the opposition in an election that has more than two parties.

In a multiparty election, taking down one party might not necessarily help you. After all, another party might benefit, since negative attacks typically have a backlash. And because parties can take stronger positions and appeal more directly to voters on policy, there’s less need to rally your supporters by talking about how terrible and dangerous the other party is. Moreover, in systems where parties form governing coalitions, demonizing a side you’ve recently been in a coalition with (or hope to be in the future) doesn’t ring quite as true.

Can the U.S. change its political system to be more proportional? Unlikely. After all, today’s Republicans aren’t even willing to support the right of their opponents to vote….



The Crux Of The Problem

I was reading an article about Substack–the digital platform that has increasingly recruited media personnel to write newsletters for which recipients pay. (The only one I receive is the free version of Heather Cox Richardson’s.) The article considered Substack’s claim to be the “future of journalism.”

If that claim intrigues you, you should click through and read the whole article, which was interesting. But it was the very last sentence that grabbed me, because it is, in my opinion, the crux of the problem–“the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.

How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

As regular readers of this blog know, for several years, I taught a university course in Media and Public Affairs, and I was fond of complaining that every time I taught that course, our constantly-morphing media environment required a new preparation.  It isn’t simply “a media landscape comprised of individual writers and their followers”–it is a dramatically fragmented media landscape that includes not just those individuals (with their individual and contending “takes” on the news of the day) but literally hundreds of media news sites focused upon different aspects of human activity, and doing so through a lens of different partisan and ideological commitments.

As I used to tell my students, this is truly uncharted territory. When printed-on-paper newspapers and three television networks served communities, residents of those communities at least occupied the same news environment. Good or bad, right or wrong, the local newspaper provided the only reporting most of us saw. Even if some people picked up the paper only to look for sports scores or wedding announcements or whatever, they had to browse past the same headlines that their friends and neighbors were seeing. 

People in a given city or town thus occupied the same general reality.

The same phenomenon played out on a national scale. Edward R. Murrow and his two counterparts delivered much the same information to a majority of Americans via the evening news on television, and a few “national” magazines and newspapers–notably the New York Times and the Washington Post–homogenized the national news.

Those days are long gone.

One of the books I urged my media and policy students to read was The Filter Bubble.It was an early analysis of the most challenging effect of the online media environment–our new ability to “shop” for news that feeds our preconceptions, and to construct a “bubble” within which we are comfortable. (As I used to tell my students, if you want to believe that the aliens really did land in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites offering pictures of the aliens…)

The angry souls who want to believe that the election was stolen and Donald Trump really won can find sites that reinforce that fantasy. People susceptible to conspiracy theories can  find “evidence” that Hillary Clinton is abusing and eating small children in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, or confirmation that those California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. Whatever the deficits of newspapers “back in the day”–and those deficits were very real–this sort of “reporting” was relegated to widely-scorned rags like the National Enquirer that graced supermarket checkout counters. (My favorite headline: Osama and Saddam’s Gay Wedding.)

When the digital counterparts of those scandal sheets are visually indistinguishable from credible sites, not to mention easily and privately accessed (your neighbor isn’t watching you purchase the Enquirer as you check out), is it any wonder that the very human trait of confirmation bias leads us to occupy different–and incommensurate–realities?

And if that’s where we are– if Americans currently reside in dramatically different realities– how will we ever be able to talk to each other?

Can We Talk?

If there is one thing about which Americans of all political persuasions agree, it is that the electorate is dramatically polarized. Our differences are so profound that a one recent poll found parents more accepting of  a child’s inter-racial or inter-religious marriage than a marriage to a member of the opposing political party.

A commenter recently made me aware of an effort to bridge our political abyss. The organization is called “Braver Angels,” and its website explains its purpose:

The days after the election could begin a dark time of polarization in the land—unless we act together to make it otherwise.  That’s where the With Malice Toward None initiative comes in. The goal is to create a space for people to deal with their emotions (positive and negative), to build our capacities for working together to address our common challenges, and to commit ourselves to a renewed citizenship.  

The organization has mounted what appears to be a sincere and well-meaning effort at understanding and rapprochement. I have not been privy to any of the discussion sessions, and if they have managed to moderate some of the animus that definitely exists between right and left wing voters, more power to them, but I don’t hold out much hope for a kumbaya outcome, for reasons I have previously explained.

The problem is the nature, rather than the extent, of America’s current divisions. 

Discussions of policy differences can be very productive–not only generating increased understanding of where the “other guy” is coming from, but enabling reasonable compromises. I am a big proponent of mass transit, but I have engaged in informative discussions with people who are leery of its appeal to sufficient numbers of riders. I am firmly opposed to gerrymandering, but I understand those who argue that the problem is really the country’s “big sort” into urban Democratic areas and rural Republican precincts. I’m pro-choice, and I’ve had civil conversations with at least some people adamantly opposed to abortion. 

When our political discussions address these and numerous other policy differences, I absolutely agree that they should be encouraged, and that deepened understandings of  others’ positions can result.

The problem today–at least as I see it–is that Americans are not arguing about policy. We aren’t quibbling about what the evidence says about job losses when the minimum wage is raised, or about the specifics of needed immigration reforms. Instead, our truly profound differences are about values.

It is simply not possible–at least for me–to “understand and appreciate” the worldview of someone who is just fine with caging brown children. I cannot overlook the hypocrisy of “family values” voters who are ardent Trump supporters despite his sexual and marital behaviors, or of the “good Christians” who enthusiastically endorse White Nationalism and Trump’s belief that there are “good people” among self-identified Nazis. I cannot imagine  an amicable conversation with QAnon folks who believe that Democrats are sexually abusing and then eating small children. 

Interestingly, in 2012, The Atlantic reported on a team of academic researchers who have collaborated at a website — “www.YourMorals.org” — designed to ferret out value differences, rather than focusing on policy disputes.

Their findings show how profound the chasm is on values questions between liberals and conservatives. Generally speaking, not only do liberals place high importance on peace, mutual understanding, and empathy for those who have difficulty prevailing in competition, they demonstrate concern for equality of outcome, while conservatives place pointedly low or negative importance on such values.  On the other side, conservatives believe that the use of force is a legitimate method of conflict resolution across a range of domains, from war to law enforcement to the discipline of children. Conservatives are more likely to believe in an “eye for an eye,” are more likely to respect received tradition, and are overwhelmingly committed to the proposition that individuals are responsible for their own economic condition — all views rejected by liberals. 

The article was titled “Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus.”

Liberals who want to reach out and pursue understanding with today’s Republicans undoubtedly believe that not everyone in the GOP endorses the Trump administration’s racism, lack of integrity and contempt for the common good. What they fail to recognize is the significant exodus of reasonable, genuinely conservative voters from the GOP over the past four years. It isn’t simply the “Never Trumpers”–although they symbolize that exodus.

As my youngest son says, the people who are left in today’s Republican Party either share Trump’s racism, or don’t consider it disqualifying. I think the likelihood of finding common ground with such people–the likelihood of singing kumbaya with them–is vanishingly small.


About “Those People” (Political Version)

Long one today…sorry. I’m nervous.

Time Magazine recently published an article exploring recent research on political polarization. It will surprise practically no one to find that the gulf between Republican and Democratic Americans is wide and our mutual animosities bitter, or that we harbor feelings of “distrust, dislike and disdain” for people who belong to the opposing political party.

Researchers point out that at least some of the animosity is based on factual errors: Democrats believe that Republicans are much richer than they really are; Republicans in one study thought that a full third of Democrats were LGBTQ.

The article ended with the usual concerns about the need to dispel the hostility, which the study attributed primarily to three things:  the rise of partisan and social media allowing people to live in information and opinion bubbles (making those with opposing views seem more abnormal); the tendency of political operatives and elites to emphasize “cudgel” social issues, such as abortion or LGBTQ rights, to make members of the other party seem inhumane; and the rise of the political “mega-identity,” where–rather than “big tents”– the parties have become philosophically distinct and internally aligned.

I get all this. We all do. We’ve all seen similar studies, opinion pieces and polls. They all engage in textual hand-wringing: this is an untenable situation, we need to listen to people outside our bubbles, and we need to be less judgmental of those with whom we disagree.

Well and good. But what if there’s another aspect of those current “mega-identities”? One that defies–or at least complicates– those pat admonitions?

Frank Bruni recently wrote a column that summed up my feelings perfectly. It was titled, “After Trump, How Will I Ever Look at America the Same Way?” You really need to read it in its entirety. Here’s his lede:

It’s always assumed that those of us who felt certain of Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016 were putting too much trust in polls.

I was putting too much trust in Americans.

I’d seen us err. I’d watched us stray. Still I didn’t think that enough of us would indulge a would-be leader as proudly hateful, patently fraudulent and flamboyantly dishonest as Donald Trump.

We had episodes of ugliness, but this? No way. We were better than Trump.

Except, it turned out, we weren’t.

Bruni is struggling with the question that has animated far too many of my posts and your comments over these last four years: how could large numbers of Americans, people I’d always considered open-hearted and possessed of decency and common sense, support this ignorant, hateful, utterly pathetic excuse for a man? Bruni says it was a populace he didn’t recognize, or at least didn’t want to recognize, and I had the same reaction.

In a sane and civil country, of the kind I long thought I lived in, his favorability ratings would have fallen to negative integers, a mathematical impossibility but a moral imperative. In this one, they never changed all that much.

Bruni reminds us that Trump didn’t create the people who support him–instead, he tapped into more pre-existing cynicism and nihilism and conspiratorialism “than this land of boundless tomorrows was supposed to contain.” It was already there, burbling beneath the surface.

He didn’t sire white supremacists. He didn’t script the dark fantasies of QAnon. He didn’t create all the Americans who rebelled against protective masks and mocked those who wore them, a selfish mind-set that helps explain our tragic lot. It just flourished under him.

A number of pundits have attributed continued support of Trump to a burning desire by a segment of the country to “own the libs” no matter how damaging to the country. According to National Review’s Rich Lowry, for many on the Right, Trump is “the only middle finger available.”

In a recent column, David Brooks considered the consequences of Trump’s norm-shattering indecencies:

Today, many Trump opponents look at the moral degradation Trump supporters tolerate, the bigotry they endorse or tolerate, and they conclude that such people are beyond the pale. Simultaneously, many Trump supporters conclude that Trump opponents have such viciously anti-American ideas, that they too lack legitimacy. We’ve long had polarization, but we now have in America a crisis of legitimacy, which is a different creature.

The political chasm, the mutual antagonism, and the threat this situation poses to a democratic system are all too real. But “healing” and mutual respect are hard to come by when the gulf really is moral as well as political.

Americans aren’t arguing about differing tax or trade policies. We are arguing about truly fundamental moral and ethical questions: should skin color or religion or gender privilege one’s civic status? Are poor people entitled to medical care? Is America part of a global community, and if so, what does that membership require? Do we have an obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a livable planet? 

As one Republican defector put it, just after voting for Biden,

 I did not vote in this election based on policy. Neither should you. The election of 2020 is about the moral future of the American nation, and so I voted for a good man with whom I have some political disagreements over an evil man with whom I share not a single value as a human being. Trump is the most morally defective human being ever to hold the office of the presidency, worse by every measure than any of the rascals, satyrs or racists who have sat in the Oval Office. This is vastly more important than marginal tax rates or federal judges.

Yes. So–I’m torn.

I do want a country where people respect each other, are kind to each other, give opponents the benefit of the doubt. But I also want a country where most people deserve that respect. Try as I might, I am unable to summon respect for Americans who have lived through the last four years–who have read the tweets, heard the lies, seen the racism, the bizarre behavior, the corruption and ugliness– and still fervently support Donald Trump.

I’ll be worried about how many of those people there are while the votes are being counted.



Increasing Intensity–For Profit

Remember when Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known unknowns”? It was a clunky phrase, but in a weird way, it describes much of today’s world.

Take social media, for example. What we know is that pretty much everyone is on one or another (or many) social media platforms. What we don’t know is how the various algorithms those sites employ are affecting our opinions, our relationships and our politics. (Just one of the many reasons to be nervous about the reach of wacko conspiracies like QAnon, not to mention the upcoming election…)

A recent essay in the “subscriber only” section of Talking Points Memo focused on those algorithms, and especially on the effect of those used by Facebook. The analysis suggested that the algorithms were designed to increase users’ intensities and Facebook’s profits, designs that have contributed mightily to the current polarization of American voters.

The essay referenced recent peer-reviewed research confirming something we probably all could have guessed: the more time people spend on Facebook the more polarized their beliefs become. What most of us wouldn’t have guessed is the finding that the effect is  five times greater for conservatives than for liberals–an effect that was not found for other social media sites.

The study looked at the effect on conservatives of Facebook usage and Reddit usage. The gist is that when conservatives binge on Facebook the concentration of opinion-affirming content goes up (more consistently conservative content) but on Reddit it goes down significantly. This is basically a measure of an echo chamber. And remember too that these are both algorithmic, automated sites. Reddit isn’t curated by editors. It’s another social network in which user actions, both collectively and individually, determine what you see. If you’ve never visited Reddit let’s also just say it’s not all for the faint of heart. There’s stuff there every bit as crazy and offensive as anything you’ll find on Facebook.

The difference is in the algorithms and what the two sites privilege in content. Read the article for the details but the gist is that Reddit focuses more on interest areas and viewers’ subjective evaluations of quality and interesting-ness whereas Facebook focuses on intensity of response.

Why the difference? Reddit is primarily a “social” site; Facebook is an advertising site. Its interest in stoking intensity is in service of that advertising–the longer you are engaged with the platform, the more time you spend on it, and especially how intensely you are engaged, all translate into increased profit.

Facebook argues that the platform is akin to the telephone; no one blames telephone when people use them to spread extremist views. It argues that the site is simply facilitating communication. But–as the essay points out– that’s clearly not true. Facebook’s search engine is designed to encourage and amplify some emotions and responses–something your telephone doesn’t do.  It’s a “polarization/extremism generating machine.”

The essay ends with an intriguing–and apt–analogy to the economic description of externalities:

Producing nuclear energy is insanely profitable if you sell the energy, take no safety precautions and dump the radioactive waste into the local river. In other words, if the profits remain private and the costs are socialized. What makes nuclear energy an iffy financial proposition is the massive financial costs associated with doing otherwise. Facebook is like a scofflaw nuclear power company that makes insane profits because it runs its reactor in the open and dumps the waste in the bog behind the local high school.

Facebook’s externality is political polarization.

The question–as always–is “what should we do about it?”