Discover more from Better Conflict Bulletin
What is Polarization? - BCB #5
"Looking for a third way"
In this issue: what “polarization” is, why we should care, and what might reverse it. Also: America is Red, Blue, and tired of politics; the new New York Times editor thinks his newsroom should pay less attention to Twitter; sharing what’s working when we try to talk to each other.
Probably all of our readers have an intuitive sense of what “polarization” means, but researchers have sharpened the concept over the past decade. Red and Blue Americans are growing apart in their political beliefs, which is called issue polarization. Perhaps more significantly, the two groups also feel increasingly negative about one another, which is called affective polarization. This antipathy undermines social relationships in every aspect of civic life: government, hiring, salary negotiation, higher education, even dating. By most measures, the gap between the American left and right has been increasing since the 1970s.
Differences between citizens are in many ways the natural state of a democratic republic – this is how all social change is realized, so some polarization is desirable. In particular, fights for justice often increase polarization. Appealing to divisions is an effective political mobilization strategy regardless of motive, which is why politicians, activists, journalists, and other “political entrepreneurs” do it. But this is a Devil’s bargain: even if the cause is just, appealing to divisions intensifies and hardens those divisions.
We should care about polarization because it is not just a symptom of unhealthy conflict, but a cause. Aside from the destruction of our social fabric – how many friends have you lost? – an increasing body of work suggests that extreme polarization can lead to the destruction of open political systems. Polarization destabilizes the distribution of power as elite members consolidate social and legal control, then cast out the members of “the other.” This leads to a loss of trust in institutions, political violence, and ultimately the gradual collapse of democracy.
This July 4th piece sees three Americas: left, right, and exhausted. “Who are these tired Americans? The polling answer from the survey is the two-thirds of our neighbors and citizens (from across the political spectrum) who are fed up with polarization, forgotten in public discourse, flexible in their views, and still believe we can find common ground.”
Bridge-building organization Braver Angels isn’t just encouraging people to reduce polarization, but wants to share how it can be done. The campaign asks those who have socialized with those of other political beliefs to circulate their stories in order to mine actionable advice and encouraging anecdotes. Its webform asks for details on strategies for connection, staying motivated while reaching out to others, and considerations of the impact of such connections.
Joe Kahn, the new editor of the New York Times, thinks his newsroom should avoid inflammatory labels, provide more complex coverage to major issues, and pay less attention to reactions on Twitter. He told CJR: “If we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.”
This piece points out that the Red and Blue aren’t stable and coherent political positions, but “packages” of views: “Those who currently support abortion rights, for instance, are also more likely to support vaccinations, income-tax increases, free trade and military intervention in Ukraine. But the question is why?” Politics is now defined by tribalism, not policy, which means that those who have held relatively stable policy positions over time may now find themselves de facto outcasts.
In Depth: Polarization
Jennifer McCoy, Benjamin Press, Murat Somer, and Ozlem Tuncel
This study of 178 countries from 1900-2020 shows that depolarization does happen, but usually comes in the wake of some sort of crisis including an independence struggle, a violent conflict, foreign intervention, or a regime change. However, in only half of these cases did countries manage to sustain low polarization for a decade or more. Depolarization is possible but tends to be cyclic, so we should also study strategies for managing periods of high polarization to prevent it from causing democratic decay.
Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor
This piece argues that discussions of American polarization fundamentally miss the point, and that we should instead understand the current domestic conflict as the collapse of support for “multiracial democracy.” We think that the American conflict is about much more than race, but there’s still a crucial point here: respect and understanding cannot eliminate the need for accountability and justice. A Most Conflicted Selection.
James N. Druckman, Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, Matthew Levendusky, and John Barry Ryan
This experiment shows that we consistently overestimate the political extremity of people on the other side. When asked to describe “Democrats” or “Republicans” people mostly responded with extreme stereotypes, which describe very few real people. This misperception may be a large factor in affective polarization, suggesting that “good citizenship” may require that we work to correct our political stereotypes.
After World War II, Germany was without a media structure, and thus had the opportunity to rebuild its system from the ground up. This decentralized setup focused on a “federal structure” of regional news bureaus, and emphasized freedom of broadcasting, media independence from the state, and the fair allocation of resources without consideration of editorial views. It’s difficult to see how the U.S. could replicate these conditions, but there may be a lot to learn from studying cases of sustained low polarization.
Quote of the Week
“Why is there a strong correlation between these seemingly unrelated issues, and why do we find them clustering in patterns that are predictable and binary instead of completely random and pluralistic? The answer is socialization.” - Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis
Thanks for reading the Better Conflict Bulletin! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.
Thanks for reading!
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor