Why We're Polarized

Why We’re Polarized

Argues that 2016, was not an ab normal election, and was actually frighteningly normal when compared to ‘12, ‘08, ‘04 across gender, race, born again christians, popular vote, and party affiliation.

“But toxic systems compromise good individuals with ease. They do so not by demanding we betray our values but by enlisting our values such that we betray each other. What is rational and even moral for us to do individually becomes destructive when done collectively.”

“This is a book about systems, not people. It focuses on the larger system, rather than the individuals that get shifted out”. -> Failure analysis drills too much on the one specific cause, rather than focus on the larger system factors that led to the failure “In stories of drift into failure, organizations fail precisely because they are doing well—on a narrow range of performance criteria, that is—the ones that they get rewarded on in their current political or economic or commercial configuration. In the drift into failure, accidents can happen without anything breaking, without anybody erring, without anybody violating the rules they consider relevant. ” – Drift into Failure - Dekker

  • “As such, I have found that American politics is best understood by braiding two forms of knowledge that are often left separate: the direct, on-the-ground insights shared by politicians, activists, government officials, and other subjects of my reporting, and the more systemic analyses conducted by political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others with the time, methods, and expertise to study American politics at scale. On their own, political actors often ignore the incentives shaping their decisions and academic researchers miss the human motivations that drive political decision-making. Together, however, they shine bright light on how and why American politics works the way it does.”

    “In an analysis published on Vox, political scientist and statistician Andrew Gelman and business and strategy professor Pierre-Antoine Kremp find that “per voter, whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the other category.”

  • The Logic of polarization:

“to appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public. This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on.”

  • Identities guide politics, and not just within the narrow interpertation of “identity politics”.

    • our political identities are changing and strengthing and override other aspects of our central identities
    • our racial, religious, geographic, ideological and cultural identities have merged into our political identity
  • Political parties are shortcuts, they provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives of action. They take a broad range of options and narrow it to a binary. This was the logic espoused by the American Political Science ASsociation post-war (1950).

    • Lack of Polarization was seen as a negative between 1950-1980 by APSA. The two parties were “too similar” and deprived voters of a choice.
  • However, some argued (Robert Godwin 1959), that strengthening the divide between the parties would weaken national unity.

  • When a division exists inside a party, it gets supressed or a comprimise is made. When a division arises between parties, conflict arises.

    • Conflict is not necessairly bad, as it may clarify the issue and lead to compromises. The downside is that divisions can become deeper and angrier.
  • All politics is national:

    • “Looking at districts with contested House races, they found that between 1972 and 1980, the correlation between the Democratic share of the House vote and the Democratic share of the presidential vote was .54. Between 1982 and 1990, that rose to .65. By 2018, it had reached .97”
  • “But it wasn’t just partisans. In his important paper “Polarization and the Decline of the American Floating Voter,” Michigan State University political scientist Corwin Smidt found that between 2000 and 2004, self-proclaimed independents were more stable in which party they supported than self-proclaimed strong partisans were from 1972 to 1976.13 I want to say that again: today’s independents vote more predictably for one party over the other than yesteryear’s partisans. ”

  • “Negative Partisan” : a person who votes consistently for a party not because they dientify strongly with the party but because they are so strongly opposed to the other party.

  • As parties become more and more different, partisanship becomes more rationale. “It’s worth being clear about what this means: if you’re a Democrat, the Republican Party of 2017 poses a much sharper threat to your vision of a good society than the Republican Party of 1994 did. It includes fewer people who agree with you, and it has united around an agenda much further away from yours. The same is true, of course, for Republicans peering at the modern Democratic Party.”

  • “To put that more simply, a voter who mostly ignores American politics today is clearer on the differences between the two parties than political junkies and partisan loyalists were in 1980.”

  • Therfore, the question is why the parties have become so different, not why people become more partisan as a result

    • A higher proportion of republicans voted for the civil rights act. However, democrats get credit as they were in power and then Goldwater became the standard bearer of the party and opposed to civil rights.

Issue-based polarization: clustering around poles for policy reasons Identity-based polarization: clustering around poles based on political identities

The two types of polarization reinforce each others. As people feel strongly about an issue, they want their representatives to reflect their policies which will force the parties to polarize. Parties will offer clearer positions on issues, which will drive undecideds to make a choice.

Polarization is not radicalization, when things were the least polarized politically, radical things were happening (civil rights unrest, mcarthy, voting down of anti-lynching laws). Moderates can hold extreme views, but if they hold a mix of them (strict anti immigrant and pro-universal healthcare) they will be coded as moderate.

“There are few rural areas that vote Democratic. Marc Muro, the policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, calculates that the dividing line is at about nine hundred people per square mile: above that, areas trend Democratic; below it, they turn Republican”

  • The sorting of people tracks along economic lines and is due to larger preferences and psychology:

  • “Of the many factors that make up your worldview, one is more fundamental than any other in determining which side of the divide you gravitate toward: your perception of how dangerous the world is. Fear is perhaps our most primal instinct, after all, so it’s only logical that people’s level of fearfulness informs their outlook on life”

  • This translates into who you select to be around, and clusters viewpoints.

  • People form groups (us and them), on the thinnest of criteria, and treating the others as hostile likely has evolutionary roots.

    • People are increasing willing to put their material interests second to disadvantaging the out group. This can explain groups who “vote against their interests”

      In some scenarios, the boys would have to choose between maximizing the amount of money everyone received and maximizing how much more their group got, even if it meant their group got less in total. The latter proved the more popular option. Reflect on that for a second: they preferred to give their group less so long as it meant the gap between what they got and what the out-group got was bigger

      “Discriminatory intergroup behaviour cannot be fully understood if it is considered solely in terms of ‘objective’ conflict of interests,” they concluded. The boys in his studies often had nothing to gain—and sometimes even had something to lose—by punishing those they believed, based on flimsy and false categorizations, to be different from them. Far from their behavior showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the out-group. Far from the money being the prime motivator, “it is the winning that seems more important to them,” wrote Tajfel.

      What Johnston, Lavine, and Federico find is that as people become more involved and invested in politics, the “self-interest” they’re looking to satisfy changes. It’s a mistake to imagine our bank accounts are the only reasonable drivers of political action. As we become more political, we become more interested in politics as a means of self-expression and group identity. “It is not that citizens are unable to recognize their interests,” they write, “rather, it is that material concerns are often irrelevant to the individual’s goals when forming a policy opinion.”15

Our identities increasingly stack, and partisanship has become the mega-identity. A single vote, speaks volumes about the many identities it may represent.

  • the more your identities converge on a single point, the more your identities can be threatened simultaneously, and that makes conflict much more threatening

“Iyengar’s hypothesis is that partisan animosity is one of the few forms of discrimination that contemporary American society not only permits but actively encourages. “Political identity is fair game for hatred,” he says. “Racial identity is not. Gender identity is not. You cannot express negative sentiments about social groups in this day and age. But political identities are not protected by these constraints. A Republican is someone who chooses to be Republican, so I can say whatever I want about them.”

  • Conservative roots of the individual mandate
  • Group Reasoning
  • People can fool themselves with rationalization as long as it aligns with their identities: “our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our group—or at least our social standing in our group. And in those cases, Kahan says, we’re being perfectly rational when we fool ourselves.”
  • Changing your identity is a psychologically and socially brutal process.
    • Therefore, people participate in identity-protective cognition
  • This type of rationalization is most powerful when an individual feels threats to their group

An identity is questioned only when it is menaced,” wrote James Baldwin, “as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.”11

  • In a study, having spanish speakers sent to train stations, made the responses of train riders more conservative.
  • The experience of losing status—and being told your loss of status is part of society’s march to justice—is itself radicalizing
  • Economic security does not calm demographic anxieties, as witnessed by the early Trump economy and the rise of right-wing sentiments in countries with generous social safety nets.

Why demographic change can be anxiety provoking

“Jardina finds that about 30 to 40 percent of the white population feels a strong (and growing) sense of racial solidarity, but most of them feel it without an accompanying sense of racial hostility. That helps explain a strength and a weakness in Trump’s political approach: his cocktail of white identity politics and outright bigotry mixes popular components, like a focus on protecting native-born whites from both immigrant competition and foreign competition, with unpopular displays of racism and bigotry. A savvier politician than Trump could focus on defending white privileges without constantly crossing into outright racism, and prove far more politically formidable. There are lessons here for Trump’s opponents, too—you can craft a message and policies to calm the fears powering white identity politics, or you can mobilize your base in ways that aggravate white voters. ”

“This is a dynamic Tesler describes well. “In the post–civil rights era, Democrats needed to maintain their nonwhite base without alienating white voters,” he told me. “So their incentive was silence. And Republicans needed to win over white voters without appearing racist. So their incentive was to speak about race in code. The shifts now have made it so Democrats’ incentive is to make explicitly pro–racial equality appeals and Republicans now have an incentive to make more explicit anti-minority appeals.”

Being a national Democrat in 2020 means holding positions on race and immigration that would’ve been considered lethal as recently as 2008.

“There’s an interesting debate about whether Trump became a culture warrior out of calculation or authentic fury. After Romney lost in 2012, Trump criticized him for telling undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” and argued for a gentler GOP. “The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it,” he told Newsmax. “They didn’t know what the policy was, but what they were is they were kind.”

  • Base Appeal vs. Moderate Persuasion
  • Strong Partisanship, weak parties
  • Large Donors = Corrupting, Small donors are polarizing

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