Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Understanding how polarization works can help us have difficult discussions.
Posted February 18, 2020 | Reviewed by Daniel Lyons M.A.
In my last post, we looked at scientific research showing that in terms of political attitudes, Americans actually aren’t very divided—but we think that we’re very divided. This misunderstanding is what some researchers call a perception gap. The truth is that for most issues (e.g., immigration, gun control), there is a surprising amount of consensus between liberals and conservatives. This is great news, because it means we’re not so polarized after all!
But if that’s true, then why does it feel like we’re so divided? Why does it seem like conservatives are from Mars and liberals are from Venus? This vague feeling that we’re hyper-polarized illustrates the important difference between cognitive polarization and emotional polarization. Cognitive polarization is the amount we disagree with each other about political issues (in other words, holding different beliefs or ideas). Emotional polarization is the extent to which we dislike each other.
There’s a lot of data showing that (unfortunately) American liberals and conservatives have intense negative feelings toward each other, and that this emotional polarization has been rising in recent years. Majorities of Democratic and Republican voters both view the other side as “immoral” and “closed-minded,” with large proportions also describing their political opponents as “unintelligent,” “lazy,” and “unpatriotic.” But that's not all. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 70% of Republican and 56% of Democratic voters agreed with the statement that the other party is "a serious threat to the United States & its people," and large proportions (though not majorities) also agreed with statements describing the other party as “subhuman animals.” Ouch.
This data could explain why the perception gap exists. Democratic and Republican voters underestimate how much they agree because they’re too busy despising each other to actually talk openly and honestly about the issues. This is something that many scholars have been working to understand for a long time. Research by political scientist Lilliana Mason explains that Americans can become more emotionally polarized even if we don’t hold different political views. This can happen because we form social groups based on other types of identities that are important to us (e.g., religious, ethnic, generational, geographic), and then these other social identities get tangled up with our political identities. This makes political conversations much more difficult because you’re not just discussing healthcare policy—you’re discussing healthcare policy plus being a morally good person. (Not to mention the fact that this also makes it more challenging to achieve diversity within political groups, which end up becoming more homogenous.)
But another group of researchers has recently issued a challenge to this idea. Scientists including Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan don’t believe that emotional polarization is really happening that much. According to their analyses, only about 15% of Americans are truly polarized. While it’s true that liberals and conservatives may not love each other, it’s mainly the people at the extremes (far-right and far-left people) who are the most polarized. The majority of “moderate” Americans don’t feel that much negativity toward people in other political groups.
In addition, even if many Americans somewhat dislike the other political party, many of them also don’t really like their own political party either. And most Americans don’t mind spending lots of time with others that they disagree with, just as long as they don’t have to talk about political issues. So according to these scholars, the problem is not that we’re polarized, it’s that we just don’t like political conflicts. The majority of Americans (> 75%) wouldn’t object if their child married someone from another political party – just so long as their child-in-law doesn’t bring up the news at family dinners.
But is that really a comforting conclusion to draw? That we can escape emotional polarization by putting our heads into the sand and avoiding political disagreements at all costs? Don’t we need to speak with each other about difficult topics in order to have a functioning democratic society?
We have to consider what led us to this point where we’re so terrified of political conflicts that we avoid any type of disagreement, even if it’s mild. And when we avoid political discussions, then we allow the wildest extremists to dominate our society.
Although I wasn’t there, I think this was the logic behind the Rally to Restore Sanity led by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, held in D.C. about 10 years ago. These satirical comedians realized that most of us are perfectly capable of civil disagreements about politics. Indeed, we recognize the benefits (!) of dissent and disagreement. That’s why schools have debate clubs. That’s why people voluntarily argue with their friends or family about other topics, like which was the “best” album or basketball player of the year. It’s truly rare that individuals feel so strongly about who should win the Academy Award for Best Picture that they also think their friends are “subhuman” if they disagree. If we can respectfully argue with each other about these topics all the time in our daily lives and manage not to hate each other, why can’t we do that with politics, too?
This is very important for us to understand if we’re going to effect change and create a more positive society. We are facing some of the most challenging problems the world has ever faced. So we can’t ignore them, and we can’t afford to avoid difficult conversations. We should embrace them.
Elizabeth Emery, an English instructor at Cooper Hills High School in Utah, has written about an excellent idea for an assignment she gives her students—to interview someone that they strongly disagree with about an important issue. I suggest reading her essay in full and then trying it yourself. That’s right, I’m giving you homework! Go out and find someone whose views are the “polar opposite” of your own, and speak with them about it. Follow Emery’s guidelines for an authentic, curious conversation. Genuinely try to understand that person’s perspective. You may be surprised at what you learn.
If you’d like to do this activity and share some of your experiences, post a comment below, or send a tweet to @seltermosby and I’ll highlight some of your perspectives in a future post. Good luck!
Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay
Klar, S., Krupnikov, Y., & Ryan, J. B. (2018). Affective polarization or partisan disdain? Untangling a dislike for the opposing party from a dislike of partisanship. Public Opinion Quarterly, 82(2), 379-390.
Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.