The word on the street is that U.S. politics are more polarized today than they have been since 1879, just after the U.S. Civil War. The good news is that this is half wrong. The data tells us that when it comes to such things as strength of party affiliation and political ideology (Liberal versus Conservative), we have actually been holding steady for several decades.[i] Similarly, on many of our more potentially divisive political issues (immigration, environmental regulations, and so on), opinions are still mostly normally distributed in the U.S., meaning that most of us hold more middle-of-the-road positions.
Nevertheless, by some measures we are clearly more polarized. Congressional voting patterns are more divided than ever, with our political leaders rarely daring to cross the aisle and support bills proposed by the other side.[ii] This is almost a four-decade trend driven by a combination of things like gerrymandering, primarying, and a politicized media.
Similarly, our citizens are showing two concerning patterns. First, their attitudes across distinct political issues are today more aligned within their camps. This means that instead of voters holding independent views on wildly different issues (for instance, on government regulation of businesses versus helping the poor), their views across issues cluster and move in the same direction – in line with how their “team” views them. This is particularly so with our more engaged voters.
Second, our citizens report feeling much more contempt for the other side than in years past. These sentiments have been tracked around presidential elections since 1948, but today we see both Republicans and Democrats reporting that the other side is significantly less intelligent and more selfish than their own, and saying that they would be considerably more displeased if someone from their family married someone from the other camp.
Political scientist Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University sums it up, “Americans may or may not be further apart on the issues than they used to be. But clearly what divides them politically is increasingly personal, and this in many ways may be worse. We don’t just disagree politely about what is the best way to reform the health care system. We believe that those on the other side are trying to destroy America, and that we should spare nothing in trying to stop them.”
If our leaders are squarely divided and politically cornered and our citizens hold half their neighbors in contempt, how can we possibly move forward as a country and address the extraordinary economic, environmental, educational and security challenges we are facing? The answer is we can’t. History has shown that divided we fall. So what can be done to begin to manage or reverse these tense divides?
I recommend bottom-up leadership. If our elected leaders can’t fix this, it is up to the citizens – to each of us to do what we can to change these trends and put our country back on a course of E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. If each of us can take some responsibility for our own part in the divisions and make some small adjustments in our behavior, the effects can trickle up and eventually force our leaders to work together.
Fortunately, psychologists have been studying polarization and conflict for decades, and have identified a few things to keep in mind that can make a difference.[iii] So if you are tired of the hate and contempt and dysfunction shackling our country, if you are interested in promoting more reasonable discussions with your family and neighbors and coworkers from the other side, here are a few pointers to keep in mind.
It’s good to feel anxious. Difficult political conversations are increasingly common experiences in families, at work and in communities across this country (and other parts of the world), which is happening at a time when we feel political polarization much more personally, and when headlines of crises, crime, dysfunction and instability are constantly trumpeted by the media. So know that your anxiety is normal and is most likely shared by those on the other side.
It’s emotional. The contempt you may feel for Sean Hannity and the folks at FOX News is most likely directly proportional to the disdain “they” feel for Rachel Maddow and the MSNBCers (or visa versa). The feelings associated with this type of tribal polarization can be intense and are typically unresponsive to facts and figures (especially when science and the news media are under attack as fake). So logical argumentation is often particularly unhelpful in these conversations. What does help though is establishing a baseline of positivity: having or building relationships with others across the divide that have a sense of friendliness, trust, tolerance, rapport and, ideally, humor. These types of political conversations – if they are to result in any type of mutual dialogue, learning or discovery – must take place in the context of enough good will that they can be tolerated. This is the only way that new information gets in on either side. But establishing these relations takes time.
They’ve probably got a point. Yes, many politicians and members of the advocacy-media oversimplify and overstate their case, omitting some facts and emphasizing others. This is infuriating and confusing. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that their positions are often based on valid points. Big government and wasteful spending can have adverse consequences on the efficient functioning of our society. And we desperately need such safety net programs as Medicaid, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act to function as a nation. Big regulations do have economic consequences, and fewer regulations can have severe negative consequences as well. These are basic dilemmas all societies face. But they must be understood as dilemmas with trade-offs. For it is the oversimplification of such challenges for political or monetary gain that distorts public understanding and impairs our leader’s abilities to find acceptable compromises.
This divide is bigger than all of us. The current divisions in our society (Red-Blue, Republican-Democrat, Rural-Urban, and so on) have been widening since the early 1980s. 9/11, the war on terrorism and the world financial crisis and economic collapse all turned the heat up on our collective sense of threat and anxiety, which only hardened these divisions. But we are also – all of us – getting played. Our politicians often leverage these divides for their own partisan gain. Big entertainment news media plays them to increase ratings and revenues. The algorithms at work on the Internet that sort our attention toward those who think like us also exacerbate this. And our own more basic tendencies to seek out similar, like-minded people in our communities and workplaces seal the deal. These forces combine to create extremely strong normative tides that are very hard to resist. It seems the Russian government was on to this when they targeted these divisions to play us from abroad during the last election. Yet the shared concern that could and should unite us all at this time is: Are we OK with being pitted against one another? Perhaps enough is enough.
Initial conditions matter. Despite the cultural tidal waves we are currently riding that serve to split us apart, conflictual encounters like these do present us with opportunities to reset. This is what mathematicians call the power of initial conditions. This means that how we choose to begin the next political disagreement – how we initially engage with others and frame the conversation – can go a long way in determining the climate and trajectory of that encounter. If we enter ready for battle with our talking points sharpened and our statistics drawn, then battle we will. So give this some thought. It won’t be easy to change a strong disagreeable pattern in your relationships if one exists, but consider what you might do to set a different course.
It’s complicated. The more serious problems that our country is divided over today regarding immigration, taxes, security, governmental regulation and healthcare are immensely complicated matters. Because this complexity makes us anxious we are often comforted by overly-simplistic solutions offered by members from our side. But solutions to these types of problems will always be mixed - with both good and bad consequences. Recognizing this from the beginning forces us to demand solutions that are more feasible and sustainable and to be less susceptible to simplistic remedies.
You’re complicated, too. We all have our own conflicting impulses and ideas and do things at times that go against our own values and better intentions. Research shows that being mindful of such contradictions within ourselves makes us more tolerant of people who are different from us, and so better able to work with them on common problems.[iv]
You see what you look for. Even when you feel like the “truth” is on your side, remember our human tendency to selectively pay attention to information that supports what we already believe, and to avoid attending to information that challenges our beliefs. This is what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” and we all do it. None of us are neutral in the way we take in information, and that’s ok, as long as we know it and can account for it in ourselves with humility, honesty, and a little disciplined openness.
Pay attention. Research also tells us that over 90% of our daily behaviors are automatic - things we do every day without thinking (like driving a car or reacting to our kids, neighbors, coworkers and family). Many of our automatic behaviors contribute to widening our divisions. So pay attention and try something new. When was the last time you really listened to the POV of a member of the other party just to learn what they might have to offer? Not to sell or persuade or criticize or demean, but just to try to understand or discover something new?
Believe in change. Knowing that people and situations and yes, even we, can and do change is a core implicit belief that is at the root of getting out of these polarization traps. Research has shown that when people believe that others can change, they tend to approach them more cooperatively, see more value in engaging with them and voicing their concerns, and have lower levels of intergroup hatred and anxiety and more willingness to interact or compromise with members of outgroups.
What I am proposing in this post is not revolutionary. In fact, it is basic, 101, human curiosity and decency. Yes, it may feel impossible under the current climate of hostility and suspicion. But as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Peter T. Coleman, PhD is a social psychologist on faculty at Columbia University, and author of the books: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011) and Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement (2014). He is currently working on a book entitled, UnHero: How to Get it Done when your Leaders Can’t.
[i] Gentzkow, M., 2016. Polarization in 2016. Toulouse Network of Information Technology white paper. Retreived from https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/PolarizationIn2016.pdf.
[ii] Princeton Professor Nolan McCarty (2014). What we know and don’t know about our polarized politics. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/01/08/what-we-know-and-dont-know-about-our-polarized-politics/?utm_term=.4bff154ce9af
[iii] The findings from some of our research on this are described in my book The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to (Seemingly) Impossible Conflicts. (May 3, 2011) Public Affairs, Perseus Books. There are also some ideas offered in a TEDx Miami talk I gave on Why We Are Stuck: The Attraction of a Polarized America (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdrdhU8WrfA ).
[iv] Roccas, S., and Brewer, M. B. (2002). Social Identity Complexity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6(2), 88-106.