A short, insightful, and easy to read explanation for the increasingly polarised politics of the USA, grounded in high quality data.
24 August 2020
One reads all the time how polarised American politics has become. Why is this?
I bought this book which was published in 2018 after seeing a review. It contains the most insightful explanation I have seen.
The blurb on the back cover summarises it very well:
“Political polarisation in America is at an all-time high, and the conflict has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy.
Research has shown that, for the first time in more than 20 years, majorities of both parties hold strongly unfavourable views of their opponents. This is polarisation rooted in social identity, and it is growing.
The campaign and election of Donald Trump laid bare this fact of the American electorate, its successful rhetoric of “us versus them” tapping into a powerful current of anger and resentment.
Lilliana Mason looks at the growing social gulf between the two major political parties along racial, religious, and cultural lines. She argues that group identifications have changed the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents.
Even when Democrats and Republicans can agree on policy outcomes, they tend to view one another with distrust and to work for party victory over all else. Although the polarising effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, they have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy.”
Dr Lilliana Mason is at the time of writing associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
As with the book "Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America" I believe that being an academic who focuses on data makes her much more insightful than a journalist would be.
The book is very short. 141 pages plus a detailed appendix, notes, references and index. I found it very easy to read.
Below I have listed not just the headings of the eight chapters but also the first level subheadings, as these provide an excellent overview of the book.
I have also included some extracts from the book which set out the style of the presentation and some of the key concepts. I have not attempted to reproduce the data which is presented in excellent detail. As mentioned above, the author takes great pains to base her analysis upon good quality data.
The book begins by giving as an example of how easily human beings can degenerate into warring tribes.
“In the summer of 1954, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues recruited 22 fifth-grade boys from Oklahoma City and sent them to two adjacent campsites in Robbers Cave State Park. The boys were carefully selected to be nearly identical to each other in social, educational, physical, and emotional fitness. They were all white, Protestant, and middle class. None had ever met the others before.
They were carefully divided into two equal-sized teams, designed it to be similar to each other in every possible way. The two teams came to call themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers, and without knowing it they participated in a three-week-long psychological experiment.
During the first week, the teams were kept separate. The boys on each team grew to know each other and to form, from scratch, a sense of being a group.
In the second week, each team learned of the other’s existence. Having never laid eyes on the other team, the boys on each side immediately began referring to the others as “outsiders,” “intruders,” and “those boys at the other end of the camp.” They grew impatient for a challenge.
The experimenters arranged a tournament between the Eagles and the Rattlers. When they came into contact for the very first time – to play baseball – a member of the Eagles immediately called one of the Rattlers “dirty shirt.” By the second day of the tournament, both teams were regularly name-calling and using derogatory terms such as pigs, bums, and cheaters, and they began to show reluctance to spend time with members of the other team. Even boys who were compelled to sit out the competitions hurled insults from the sidelines.
In the next few days, the relations between the teams quickly degraded. The Eagles burned the Rattlers’ flag. The Rattlers raided the Eagles’ cabin in the middle of the night. The Eagles raided the Rattlers’ cabin in the middle of the day. Boys from both sides began to collect rocks to use in combat, fistfights broke out, and the staff decided to “stop the interaction altogether to avoid possible injury” (Sherif et. al. 1988, 115).
They were sent back to the separate camps. By the end of the second week, 22 highly similar boys who had met only two weeks before had formed two nearly warring tribes, with only the gentle nudge of isolation and competition to encourage them.
By the start of the third week, the conflict had affected the boys’ abilities to judge objective reality.
They were given a task to collect as many beans off the ground as possible. Each boy’s collection was viewed by both groups on an overhead projector for five seconds. The campers were asked to quickly estimate the number of beans collected by each child. Every boy estimated more beans for their own teammates than for the children on the opposing team. The experimenters had shown them the same number of beans every time.
The Robbers Cave experiment was one of the first to look at the determinants and effects of group membership and intergroup conflict. It inspired years of increasingly precise and wide-ranging research, looking into exactly how our group memberships shape us, affect our relationships with outsiders, and distort our perceptions of objective reality.
The following chapters will discuss many of these results.
But the simplicity of the Robbers Cave experiment is itself telling. The boys at Robbers Cave needed nothing but isolation and competition to almost instantaneously consider the other team to be “dirty bums,” to hold negative stereotypes about them, to avoid social contact with them, and to overestimate their own group’s abilities.
In very basic ways, group identification and conflict change the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents.
We, as modern Americans, probably like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and tolerant than a group of fifth-grade boys from 1954. In many ways, of course, we are.
But the Rattlers and the Eagles have a lot more in common with today’s Democrats and Republicans than we would like to believe. Recently, the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump laid bare some of the basest motivations in the American electorate, and they provide a compelling demonstration of the theory underlying this book.”
The author begins by explaining the importance of precision with the words that we use, something which is also a recurrent theme of mine.
“The goal of this book is to examine the effect of social sorting on social polarisation. In the social-scientific study of politics, the term polarisation traditionally describes an expansion of the distance between the issue positions of Democrats and Republicans. The process of polarisation is defined by Democrats acquiring more extremely liberal issue positions and Republicans acquiring more extremely conservative issue positions.
In the same vein, sorting is usually defined as an increasing alignment between party and ideology, where ideology indicates a set of issue positions or values. The process of sorting is traditionally understood as Democrats holding more consistently liberal issue positions and Republicans holding more consistently conservative issue positions.
In this book, one major goal is to make the point that each of these terms – polarisation, sorting, and ideology – include within them both a social meaning and an issue-based meaning.
The social definition focuses on people’s feelings of social attachment to a group of others, not their policy attitudes. The issue-based definition is limited to individual policy attitudes, excluding group attachments.
The fact that these two elements can be separated from each other at all is the basis on which this entire argument rests.
In the following pages, I examine literature that supports this division, but for now it is simply important to understand that social attachments and policy preferences, while related, are not the same concept, and can have different downstream effects on political behaviour.”
The author introduces us to the social sorting that is explored in more detail later on.
“The American electorate has sorted itself into two increasingly homogeneous parties, with a variety of social, economic, geographic, and ideological cleavages falling in line with the partisan divide.
This creates two megaparties, with each party representing not only policy positions but also an increasing list of other social cleavages. Parties, then, draw convenient battle lines between an array of social groups.
Isolation and competition, the two sources of intergroup conflict in the Robbers Cave experiment, increase between the two parties. Policy preferences, over time, take a back seat to the team loyalty that is bound to grow out of these increasingly homogeneous and isolated partisan collections. Remember that the Rattlers and the Eagles were competing only for a trophy. Neither pursued any agenda but victory.”
The author reminds us how social differences between the political parties were much smaller in the past.
“Decades ago, social divisions between Americans over party, ideology, religion, class, race, and geography did not align neatly, so that particular social groups were friends in some circumstances and opponents in others.
In the South, strong geographical attachments to the Democratic Party were underlined with ideological differences, so that southern, Democratic, and conservative identities were tied together for many Americans. These alignments pitted the generally more liberal Democratic identity against a strong conservative identity, allowing southern Democrats to feel some compassion and understanding for both Republicans and liberals.
Similarly, those holding liberal, northern, and Republican identities were motivated to cooperate occasionally with Democrats and conservatives. After all, they often needed to work together with them, sometimes within their own parties, in order to accomplish their goals.”
The author goes on to explain how different the social identities are today.
“Today, Democrats and Republicans have a lot more information about who their social and partisan enemies are, and have little reason to find common ground.
They have become increasingly homogeneous parties, with Democrats now firmly aligned with identities such as liberal, secular, urban, low-income, Hispanic, and black.
Republicans are now solidly conservative, middle class or wealthy, rural, churchgoing, and white.
These identities are increasingly aligned so that fewer identities affiliated with either party are also associated with the other side. White, religious, and conservative people have little incentive to reach across to the nonwhite, secular, and liberal people in the other party.
What superordinate goals do they have? In which places do they mix with opposing partisans? Few of today’s salient social groups help either party to reach across the aisle.”
At its simplest, groups of people who regularly met each other, for example at weekly church services, would have been included both Republicans and Democrats. Now they don't.
The author looks at data regarding a number of different characteristics between Democrats and Republicans in 1952, 1972, 1992, and 2012.
“In 1952, the two parties were each affiliated with different social groups.
Republicans were significantly more Protestant than Democrats, and Democrats were more southern, Catholic and union affiliated. To a small degree, Republicans were more white and Democrats were more black.
The difference between then and now is that although the parties did attract separate social groups, the extent of the partisan division between these groups was relatively small in 1952. With the exception of the partisan affiliations of southerners and Protestants, no group saw more than a 10 percentage point difference in the percentage of its members represented within each party.”
Skipping over the intervening years, below is the author’s summary of the position by 2012.
“By 2012, the old Protestant/Catholic, southern/non-southern, and union/non-union divisions between the parties had largely disappeared. The differences between the parties in southern residency and Catholic religion had faded entirely. The previous 10 percentage point difference between the parties in union membership declined to barely 4 percentage points.
But these old divisions had been firmly replaced by much larger ideological, religious, income, and racial differences.
This was not simply a matter of swapping one set of partisan alignments with another. The new partisan alignments divided the parties far more powerfully than the divides of the 1950s had.
The partisan difference in the percentage of liberals had again doubled, from 18 percentage points in 1992 [this was 10 percentage points in 1972] to a 37-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in 2012. The difference between the parties in the number of constituents self-identifying as conservative rose from 34 percentage points in 1992 [this was 20 percentage points in 1972] to nearly 50 points in 2012.
The parties differed by 14 percentage points in how many attend religious services each week. Levels of income continue to divide the parties, with the influence of wealth slightly increasing in its power to divide the wealthy Republicans from the less-wealthy Democrats.
But by far the most powerful social divide between the parties, rivalling the difference in ideology, was race. By 2012, Republicans were, on average, 30 percentage points more white than Democrats. Democrats were, on average, 21 points more black than Republicans. Racial, religious, and ideological divisions separated the parties, and these divisions ran far deeper than in the previous 60 years.”
The parties also have major cultural differences.
“Democrats and Republicans come from and create different kinds of families.
The national decline in fertility an increase in the age of marriage that has occurred since the 1950s has been limited mostly to the “Blue” states. The “Red” states have comparatively higher levels of fertility and are married at younger ages (Cahn and Carbone 2010).
Research has found a strong relationship between fertility rates among white voters and Republican voting that stands even when controlling for urbanisation, wealth, female education, Evangelism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and geography (Lesthaeghe and Neidert 2006).
The parties are divided in what they watch on television. In 2012, TiVo Research and Analytics matched television viewing data with voter registration information from 186,000 American households (Carter 2012). They sorted television programmes by how popular they were with members of each party, listing the top 20 shows for Democratic and Republican viewers. Not a single network show appeared on both lists.”
In this concluding chapter, the author asks: “How does American politics get back to the work of governing instead of focusing so much of our energy on partisan victory, conflict, and pride?”
This is a sombre subsection. It reminds us that in some societies unchecked sorting has led to civil war.
In this subsection the author reminds us that social norms can make a big difference.
“In 1994, Newt Gingrich sent members of the Republican Party a memo titled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.’ This memo came to be known as the GOPAC memo, and was meant to instruct Republicans on what types of word to use when describing their political opposition.
As he wrote in the memo, ‘This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful’ (Gingrich 1994). Gingrich’s list of recommended words to describe Democrats included betray, bizarre, decay, destroy, devour, greed, lie, pathetic, radical, selfish, shame, sick, steal, and traitors, among many others. To this day, this is the type of language used by party leaders to demonise opponents.
In 2015, Republican senator John McCain accused Democratic secretary of state John Kerry of being less trustworthy than the leaders of Iran, a known adversary of the United States. McCain and Kerry had once been friendly Senate colleagues.
In response to McCain’s comments President Barack Obama announced, ‘That’s an indication of the degree to which partisanship has crossed all boundaries. It needs to stop’ (Coll 2015). Unfortunately, Obama was not the best person to make this argument. In fact, a prominent Republican would have presented the best chance for this message to have an effect, as the action that needed to be addressed came from within the Republican team.”
The author points out that it could be done differently.
“What if the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties decided to take on a tolerant rhetoric toward the opposing team? What if party prototypes started discussing real differences rather than demonising their opponents? What if party opinion leaders (of both parties) started talking about politics by commending compromise and acknowledging the humanity and validity of the opposing team? What if there were a new, opposite version of the GOPAC memo, in which the demonising words were discouraged rather than encouraged?
There is no reason to believe that this will occur in the near term, particularly in the Republican Party.
Trump supporters at the 2016 Republican National Convention repeatedly called for the imprisonment of Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Trump himself repeatedly encouraged bias and intolerance.
Furthermore, party leaders are incentivised to maintain conflict and incivility. It draws attention and votes. But if for some reason both parties were to stand up for norms of civil partisan interaction, it could reduce partisan conflict and prejudice in American politics in general. This, however, is highly unlikely without some secondary intervention.”
I have hopes that if Joe Biden is elected president in November 2020, his attitudes might help to bring Democrats and Republicans closer together.
The author then points out how superordinate goals can bring divided tribes back together by going back to the 1954 research project.
“Back in 1954, once the Rattlers and Eagles had reached a point of such violent conflict that they had to be separated, the experimenters decided to try to bring them back into friendly relations.
They knew that superordinate goals, or goals that go beyond group boundaries and include both groups, had been theorised to help groups mend rifts between them.
The experimenters presented the Rattlers and the Eagles with a number of challenges that could only be solved if the teams work together. In one case, the experimenters cut off the water supply to the camp, and as the boys grew more and more thirsty, they were compelled to cooperate to find and solve the problem with the water supply.
In a second case, the teams were asked to contribute money to fund a movie night at the camp. They were forced to decide together how much money each team would contribute to obtain this precious treat.
Finally, a precariously angled tree that threatened the camp was chopped down and pulled away by both teams of boys working together.
These superordinate goals allowed the boys a chance to see each other as human beings, and though they still identified as Rattlers and Eagles, the animosity between them began to subside.
After these exercises, the boys remained partial to their own teams, but they did agree to ride home in the same bus at the end of camp. Prior to the exercises, both teams had refused to share a bus with the others.
A modern political example of this can be seen in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. For a short time afterward, Democrats and Republicans came together, at least in their approval of the president, George W. Bush.
However, the activation of a superordinate American identity did not heal the rift between the parties. In fact, the attacks spurred increasing disputes between the parties over how best to respond, and a drawn-out war further divided the parties.”
Again, I believe that a different president to Donald Trump could bring Americans closer together in the struggle against the coronavirus SARS-Cov-2.
The author points out that demographic trends in the USA are reducing the electoral significance of white voters. With the present sorting, where racial minorities tend to identify as Democrat while whites identify as Republicans, this could mean that Republicans begin to consistently lose elections.
“When a group’s status is low, as would be the case if Republicans began to lose elections in a consistent manner, a group member has three choices.
A group member can:
- exit the group,
- grow increasingly creative about how to describe group status, or
- fight to change the group’s status in society.
Currently, strongly identified Republicans have been fighting, via activism, to maintain their group’s status, just as Democrats have.
If, however, the status or coherence of the Republican Party declines in the next few years or decades, it may be the case that increasing numbers of Republicans will choose to exit the group (likely becoming independents). If that occurs, it is possible that American partisans will experience a new realignment, which would reduce party homogeneity and therefore reduce social polarisation.”
I found this book illuminating. I was already well aware of the growth in US polarisation over recent decades, but this book provides the clearest explanation I have read, with excellent supporting data, of why that polarisation has come about.
It is very easy to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in politics. Not just American politics but also British politics, because we can see many of these trends in the UK, particularly with the polarisation over the UK’s departure from the European Union.