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The Paradox of the American Voter

How cultural psychology explains the political climate

The American political scene is a strange place these days. In a new study, my colleagues and I find some evidence for this strangeness: Americans are both more likely to be political Independents and more likely to hold extreme political views. Nearly half of American adults, and a whopping 59% of Millennials, say they are Independents. Yet the number who identify as “extremely” liberal or conservative has doubled.

How could people be more independent – usually perceived as not choosing sides – and have stronger views than ever? Cultural psychology has the answer: Individualism, a cultural system that focuses more on the self and less on large groups. In a series of studies, my co-authors and I have found that American culture is more individualistic now than in previous decades. Babies get more unique names, books use more individualistic words (including pronouns), and both high school and college students are more likely to see themselves as above average. (That’s why my book about the Millennials is titled Generation Me). When it’s all about you, and you are fantastic, there’s no reason not to hold extreme views. After all, you are right, and everyone else is wrong.

At the same time, Americans (especially Millennials) are distrustful of large institutions. Fewer affiliate with a religious group than previous generations did when they were young, and fewer believe in God. Fewer trust the government and fewer are interested in politics (contrary to the idea that Millennials are more interested in civic affairs – instead, the best evidence available from large surveys suggests that they are less interested than previous generations). But it’s not just government and religion: trust in large institutions is at all-time-lows across the board, even for groups such as medicine, schools, and universities. Apparently, Americans only trust themselves, a possible outcome of individualism reaching unprecedented levels. This distrust may be the root cause of much of the anger expressed during this election season. It also explains why so many people, especially Millennials, are political Independents: They dislike groups so much they don’t even want to check a box on their voter registration associated with a political party. Political parties are just about the least cohesive groups imaginable – they are too large for all members to ever meet – yet they are still too much groupiness in today’s highly individualistic climate.

Individualism has a lot of upsides, especially its embrace of equality. When group identities are set aside, the result is more equality based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other individual differences. And political independents and extreme views are not problems by themselves. Yet if individualism is the cause of the incivility, dysfunction, and gridlock of today’s political landscape, we as a society need to carefully consider how we can change things. Maybe joining a group is not such a bad thing if it helps us get things done.

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