The Polarization Dynamic

Belief polarization drives people to greater extremes, making it harder to sustain a functioning democracy

The Tompkins Square Riot of 1874. Image Credit: Matt Morgan/Wikimedia Commons

Our democracy is more polarized than ever. Indeed, the danger of polarization is apparently the one thing upon which all parties agree. This consensus may well be driven by legitimate practical concerns: After all, in a democracy, things still need to get done. But when polarization is rampant, common ground recedes and political opponents can find no basis for compromise and cooperation, leading to frustration, animosity and deadlock.

Yet there is something suspicious lurking within this consensus. Recent data find that although we all want a more civil and conciliatory politics, we tend to blame only our political opponents for deadlock and animosity. In calling for cooperation and civility, we seek capitulation from the other side. In other words, the popular consensus about polarization is itself a manifestation of our partisan divisions.

Two Types of Polarization

It’s easy to build a consensus around vague labels. So, if we want to understand our polarization and see clearly the dangers it poses for our democracy, we need to look more closely at what’s going on. To be more specific, we need to distinguish between two different phenomena: political polarization and belief polarization.

Political polarization is the familiar condition just described: The major political parties in the U.S. have each shifted toward their ideologically extreme poles, vacating the common ground between them and leaving little basis for cooperation. While this makes for unpleasant, frustrating politics, it is not clear that the resulting deadlocks and frustrations are politically dysfunctional as such. Some degree of political polarization is politically beneficial, as it enables citizens to discern more easily the differences between the major parties. As I argue in my book Overdoing Democracy, political polarization becomes toxic when it is the product of the second phenomenon I mentioned: belief polarization.

Belief polarization is the cognitive phenomenon by which interactions with like-minded people transform us into more extreme versions of ourselves. To put it another way, when we talk only to others who share our views, we each come to hold more extreme versions of those views. Yes-men, groupthink and echo chambers can radicalize us.

Belief polarization is an uncommonly robust phenomenon that has been studied around the world for more than 60 years. One of the earliest experiments involved a group of Michigan teenagers. After being sorted according to their existing attitudes about racial prejudice, like-minded groups then were tasked with discussing several issues concerning race in the United States, including the question about whether racism is the cause of the socio-economic disadvantages faced by African Americans.

Following the conversations with their respective like-minded groups, those who had already shown a high level of racial prejudice came to embrace even more ardently the view that racism is not responsible for the disadvantages faced by African Americans, while those who had already displayed low levels of racial prejudice grew more accepting of the view that racism is the cause of such disadvantages. Like-minded interaction amplified individuals’ existing tendencies.

In a similar experiment, conducted in 2005, people were sorted according to an initial screening test into “liberal” and “conservative” groups. Each group was then asked to discuss the following three policy issues that had an obvious liberal-conservative divide: civil unions for same-sex couples, affirmative action and international treaties to combat global warming. The pattern of belief polarization was observed.

After discussion within like-minded groups, liberal participants, who were already disposed to favor a global warming treaty, came to endorse more enthusiastically the proposition that the U.S. should enter into such a treaty. Conservatives who were initially neutral on the idea of such a treaty came to ardently oppose it after discussion with fellow conservatives. Similarly, attitudes toward same-sex civil unions and affirmative action hardened following group discussion: liberal support intensified, while opposition among conservatives grew more resolute.

Belief polarization renders us more extreme in two different ways. First, we become inordinately confident in our views and therefore less able to concede that they could be mistaken. Second, we come to adopt more extreme versions of our beliefs. For example, in experiments with juries, when jurors all agree that a punitive award is in order, each member comes to favor a more severe punishment over the course of the discussion. In short, when people get together with like-minded others, they each intensify their level of confidence in a belief that is more extreme than the belief with which they started.

Belief polarization has been found to be operative within groups of all kinds. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Like-minded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste or questions about values. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Like-minded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take; they also polarize when there is no specific decision to be made. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status or level of education.

How Belief Polarization Works

Our widespread susceptibility to belief polarization raises the question of how it works. Theorists diverge on this matter. However, the account I defend holds that the phenomenon has mainly to do with group identity and the need we feel to signal loyalty to our allies. We transform into more extreme versions of ourselves mainly because we wish to affirm our membership in a social group. To this end, we express our commitment to the group’s defining ideas in ways that we expect will catch the attention of our allies and assure them of our fidelity.

One upshot of this account of the phenomenon is that it can explain the fact that although belief polarization is reliably initiated in the course of like-minded discussion, direct interaction with one’s peers is not necessary to produce the effect. That is, belief polarization can occur simply when an individual is caused to feel that a group with which he or she identifies widely shares a view that the individual espouses as well. The idea is that we shift toward extremes when we are made to feel affirmed in our social identity by those whom we regard as our peers.

This means that belief polarization also can be initiated by way of highly indirect channels. For example, presenting a subject who identifies as liberal with a chart showing that liberals widely oppose genetically modified food can prompt belief polarization.

An intriguing implication follows: The environment itself can trigger shifts to greater extremes. These prompts need not be verbal, explicit or literal. They can be merely implicit signals to group members that some belief is prevalent among them. Indeed, hats, pins, campaign signs, logos, slogans and gestures are all potential initiators of belief polarization.

A Growing Self-Segregation

During the past 20 years, this dynamic has only accelerated as our physical and social surroundings have become increasingly saturated with appeals to and expressions of our political allegiances. It is no exaggeration to say that in the United States today, liberals and conservatives live different kinds of lives: They systematically differ in their occupations, consumer habits, lifestyle choices, parenting styles and aesthetic sensibilities. As our day-to-day lives are now highly segregated by our political affiliations, the world around us can function as an engine of polarization, transforming us into more extreme partisans.

In one way, this may not seem to pose a problem for democracy. After all, political progress needs unified and mobilized coalitions. The trouble is that as we shift into our more extreme selves, we also come to adopt more intensely negative attitudes toward our opponents. That is, belief polarization leads us to see those with whom we are not like-minded as alien, incapable, incompetent, craven and inscrutable. We become less disposed to listen to outsiders and more inclined to regard their views as unnuanced, irrational and baseless. We grow increasingly prone to ascribe to anyone who isn’t a member of our group a range of vices and flaws, from dishonesty and immorality to laziness, stupidity and even lack of patriotism.

This dimension of belief polarization shows how our two kinds of polarization are related. As belief polarization leads us to regard our political rivals as increasingly benighted, irrational and unreasonable, we become more and more inclined to distrust, dislike and resent them. We thus isolate ourselves increasingly among our political allies, and this in turn contributes further to belief polarization.

As a result, our political alliances become more tightly knit and exclusionary. This, in turn, spurs political parties and their leaders to punctuate, amplify and even exaggerate their policy differences. All of this occurs within a self-perpetuating polarization dynamic that intensifies civic divisions, inflames interpartisan animosity and incentivizes political intransigence.

It is this dynamic between belief polarization and political polarization that poses the clearest problem for democracy. Here’s why. Democracy is many things: a system of government, a process for collective decision-making, a set of institutions, and so on. But it is difficult to make sense of these distinctive features of democracy unless we recognize that democracy is more fundamentally a moral ideal of self-government among equal citizens. In a democracy, we are political equals, and thus we owe to one another a certain kind of regard.

More specifically, we owe to one another the acknowledgement that, despite our disagreements about important political matters, none of us is simply an object to be overcome, outvoted, neutralized and shut down. In a democracy, even when we lose at the polls, we retain our standing to object, criticize, challenge and question. To put it slightly differently, democratic citizens must recognize that even their political opponents remain their political equals who are thus entitled to an equal political say.

The polarization dynamic erodes our ability to show our political opponents this kind of respect. Instead, it promotes attitudes and dispositions according to which those outside of our political group are incapable and thus undeserving of democratic citizenship. In the end, the polarization dynamic leads to a condition where we come to regard political disagreement itself as a sign of democratic dysfunction. It leads us to embrace a conception of democracy in which a person must agree with our views in order to be our political equal and capable of citizenship.

Democracy without disagreement! That’s no democracy at all.

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