Pacific Standard: America’s Increasingly Tribal Electorate
A political scientist explains the disconnect between our moderate policy views and our intense hatred for the other side.
As another bitterly fought, closely contested presidential campaign comes to an end, the American electorate appears hopelessly conflicted. Even as we plead for compromise and bipartisanship in Washington, we increasingly split into two mutually antagonistic camps.
This apparent contradiction has led puzzled academics to different conclusions: Some insist the public is becoming strongly polarized, while others believe the phenomenon is largely limited to the political and media elite. Political scientist Lilliana Mason’s analysis is more subtle, and more disturbing.
Her research suggests that, in terms of our attitudes towards issues, we are no more polarized than we were decades ago. But our emotions, and the behaviors they drive, have largely uncoupled from our actual analysis of the issues.
Essentially, the Stony Brook University scholar argues, our identities have become increasingly intertwined with our political affiliation. As a result, we feel ever more certain that our party is right and the other is wrong—even in cases where their positions aren’t far apart.
Our attitude towards the opposing party has become, basically, tribal: We detest them simply because they’re the other side.
“The American public can hold remarkably moderate and constant issue positions, while nonetheless becoming progressively more biased, active and angry when it comes to politics,” she argues. “Even as we agree on most issues, we are becoming increasingly uncivil in our approach to politics.” ...
... Mason discovered that what she calls “behavioral polarization”—anger at the other side, activism for one’s own side, and a tendency to look at political arguments through a biased lens—is driven much more strongly by that sense of team spirit, as opposed to one’s views on public policy.
“Ideological identity doesn’t necessarily reflect your position on the issues,” she said. “It means you feel like a liberal or a conservative. ...
... And the notion of defending “your people” is an emotional impulse that can be traced back to our distant evolutionary past. ...
She is not optimistic about the future.
... At least potentially, such people [non-aligned voters] are “more clear-minded in their assessment of what the parties are doing, and less blinded by the bias that partisans have,” she said. But on the other hand, they also tend to be less informed about the issues, and most are disengaged from the political process.
That leaves the rest of us: People who feel kinship with our own side, distrust toward the other side, and wariness regarding compromise. Mason sees no obvious way out of this distressing dynamic.
If her analysis is accurate, the only way to reduce the anger and bias would be “to reduce the strength or alignment of political identities.” In other words, a hugely impactful issue would have to come along—something that forces us to question our emotional connection to our respective parties. ...I found this article both fascinating and depressing. What makes it deeply troubling to me is how different faith communities have aligned themselves according to political affiliation. As a consquence the church in our culture has severly compromised its ability to speak meaningfully to the issues that confront us. Near term, I share the author's lake of optimism.