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What We Thought Polarization Was And What We Think It Is Now – BCB #68
Also: America’s sick of politics, and it’s not Red vs. Blue but Indigo Blob vs. MAGA
Over time, our conception of polarization has shifted. Rachel Kleinfeld has written a broad overview of how we’ve thought about polarization across three generations of U.S. politics, and how the corresponding solutions have evolved.
First Generation: Elite Polarization (1980s - Early 2000s)
Initially, polarization was seen as differences within the corridors of Congress. By the 1980s, political candidates had become more ideologically extreme, and by the 1990s barely any bills in Congress received substantial votes from both sides. The suggested remedies included stronger socialization within Congress, bipartisan activities, and improvements to voting systems.
Second Generation: Mass Affective Polarization (Mid-2000s - 2010s)
In this era polarization became personal. The public developed a deep-seated distrust and aversion for those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. This wasn't merely about policy disagreements; it evolved into an identity, entangling political affiliations with personal beliefs. Proposed solutions aimed to rectify misconceptions about opposing parties, emphasize a shared national identity, and promote intergroup social relationships.
Third Generation: Cracks in the Foundations (2020s - present)
The 2020s are bringing the hard realization that curbing emotional polarization doesn't necessarily lead to a decrease in antidemocratic attitudes or political violence. Polarization is also beginning to be understood both as a societal phenomenon and a calculated tactic used by politicians. Addressing this generation’s polarization requires acknowledging its complex nature. Polarization is not simply an emotional divide, but is interwoven with broader political strategy and societal dynamics between individuals and groups.
This comprehensive Pew Research study asked people for their views of politics, government, and politicians, and found that people are very unhappy with the political climate in a variety of ways, including:
A growing share of the public dislikes both parties (28%).
Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the two leading candidates for the upcoming elections, are considered underwhelming by the majority of Americans (63%).
An 86% majority agree that “Republicans and Democrats are more focused on fighting each other than on solving problems.”
Only 6% trust the federal government.
Trust in the Supreme Court is also at a historic low with a majority holding an unfavorable opinion of it, the first time this has happened since polling began in the late 1980s.
Americans frequently feel exhausted by politics (65%), while 55% feel angered.
When asked to describe politics in one word, the most common answer was “divisive.” Most Americans think partisan conflict receives undue attention and often sidelines critical national issues. The next most common word was “corrupt” —the public’s perception of special interest groups and major donors influencing politics. For example, a striking 85% think campaign costs deter qualified candidates from running. While both parties face criticism, 37% of Americans wish for more party options. However, many also doubt that additional parties would aid in solving these problems.
As for systemic changes, proposals like ending the Electoral College and establishing age and term limits find substantial support, but ideas like expanding the Supreme Court are divisive.
But there may be a silver lining. Something’s got to give, and this widespread negative sentiment may also be an opportunity — historically, polarization usually only decreases in response to a crisis.
We’ve traditionally framed U.S. political discourse around the Red vs. Blue paradigm. However, Nate Silver offers a fresh perspective, suggesting the divide is between the “Indigo Blob” and MAGA supporters.
The Indigo Blob consists of left-progressives, liberals, centrists, and even some conservatives, excluding the MAGA/right-wing group; these MAGA Republicans are roughly 30% of the U.S. population (if we count based on who thinks the 2020 election was stolen; another estimate puts this at 10-15%). This split is visible in many ways, such as in the breakdown of political bias by media source.
While right-wing media is openly biased, the mainstream media leans only slightly left despite having far more outlets. Yet Red media is narrower in its reach, targeting a more specific audience, which allows them to fine-tune their messaging.
Silver sees the Indigo Blob’s influence extending well beyond the media.
The Indigo Blob also encompasses many ostensibly nonpartisan institutions such as the media, science, government, academia and even many types of businesses. It can be hard to distinguish partisan people and institutions from those that seek to maintain pluralism or nonpartisanship.
We think there’s some truth to this breakdown. The Blue sphere is definitely more mainstream or “establishment” in many different ways. Major sectors including technology, media, and academia are staunchly Blue, while urban professionals dominate politics, which tends to make Redder rural folks feel excluded.
Quote of the Week
Affective polarization is likely driven more by feelings of threat than simply feelings of dislike. … Politicians and political incentives are probably playing a larger role in driving affective polarization than structural issues such as inequality or geographic sorting.