…[P]olarization has become a subjective emotional phenomenon. But it is also an objective reality based on natural differences occurring within a community of diverse peoples.
The political movement known as Better Angels has advanced its mission of depolarizing politics by focusing largely on psychological techniques encouraging cooperation, empathy, mutual respect, and productive communication. We can justify this approach because politics, like religion, is an emotional issue. Our political positions are largely founded on belief systems that rely on a fundamental faith in those beliefs. When our beliefs conflict with others, our emotions are triggered first, which can hinder rational objective discourse that might lead to convergence. One can imagine the character Howard Beals in Network expressing his outrage today: “I’m mad as Hell!…and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
However, raw emotions in politics pose a two-edged sword. Recent articles published on Better Angel's ezine, The Conversation, have addressed this conundrum. Last month, James Coan argued that political polarization is predominately an emotional problem because emotions often dominate our reasoning faculties. This presents a psychological challenge that invites some form of therapeutic mediation, hence the “marriage counseling” model of Better Angels.
On the other hand, Michael D. Purzycki presents the view that an overemphasis on empathy and emotion can run counterproductive to depolarization, by accentuating our tribal affiliations in contrast to the “other.” He offers a caveat to emphasizing feelings over an objective reconciliation of political differences.
I can agree that polarization has become a subjective emotional phenomenon. But it is also an objective reality based on natural differences occurring within a community of diverse peoples. Thus, it is both emotional and rational, and I would argue that we cannot resolve either of these manifestations of it without resolving them both in tandem. Problem-solvers will naturally gravitate toward the explanation that appeals to their knowledge base; so psychologists focus on subjective psychology and social scientists focus on objective fact-based hypothesis testing. I am a social scientist, so I focus on evidence-based hypothesis testing. Since I am studying human behavior, I also need to account for the psychology of that behavior. We cannot merely use objective reality to dismiss subjective phenomena. This presents a logistical challenge of how best to prioritize and implement solutions.
Our strategies for depolarization are informed by what we think are the primary factors that explain our political degeneration. Better Angels founder, David Blankenhorn, laid out fourteen in his essay on the subject. In scientific terms, we might say that, as a practical matter, this presents too many explanatory variables, with the inconvenience that many of them are not independent. We need to employ methods that help us differentiate first causes from secondary causes, and causes from symptoms, of the problem. Unfortunately, this is not an emotional process, but a scientifically reasoned one that needs to incorporate psychological factors. My approach would be to distinguish which of the primary causes are emotional triggers and which are objective differences of political preferences.
After studying our polarizing politics over the past 20 years and placing it in historical context, I would conclude that among the causes David identifies, the rise of identity group politics and its multicultural support has proven the most significant factor driving polarization. Many of the other factors are intermediary variables, or otherwise have developed as a consequence of the focus on political identity: geographic sorting, racial and ethnic sorting, the emphasis on diversity as an end rather than a means, partisan sorting and resultant electoral strategies, and last but certainly not least, identity-based media.
Why do I single out identity-based politics above all else? Because identity is both an instinctual need and a strong emotional trigger. The survival instinct has hard-wired us to be loss-averse. A rational strategy for managing the uncertainty of change and the risk of loss is social solidarity — hence our tribal tendencies. Tribalism is rational because it helps people survive by managing risks while also providing a sense of belonging through a shared identity, so we cannot paint it exclusively in a negative light. Tribalism solidifies emotional attachments across minor conflicts, creating a unified identity despite real differences. In other words, our tribal tendencies rely on emotional attachments and triggers. This is what a national identity can do. Today the natural survival instinct to identify with a national community is either praised as patriotism or condemned as nationalism. In a free democratic society, however, these terms should be synonymous, not antithetical, and accepted as a natural extension of social solidarity.
The problem with identity “politics” is that tribal group identities based in biology are being mapped across the democratic political space, rendering democracy ineffectual for reconciling objective differences. We’ve seen these types of conflicts reduced to existential battles down through history where one tribe obliterates another. Solutions to this death spiral often turn to inter-marriage between and among tribes, which is how the royal houses of Europe conducted their negotiated alliances.
What this suggests is that the best cure for tribal conflict is assimilation and integration. Integration happens, but on its own timetable, while cultural assimilation can be a goal of active public policy. We’ve somehow lost or forgotten the value of assimilating as part of the human race, or even as part of a national community, which is often cast as a threat to one’s individual cultural identity. I believe this has become a tragedy for what should be a shared American identity that transcends other identity markers.
So, a primary solution must be to eschew identity politics. Not tribal or group identities, not beliefs or values, but tribal identity politics that prevent democratic compromise. As tribalism is a natural survival mechanism, it cannot be obliterated, but it can be reined in politically by the rational.
Identity politics leads to what I would term two accelerants as secondary causes of polarization: 1) emotional attachments to identity manifested in political “faith” or belief systems (i.e., minorities and women must be Democrats, or white males must be Republican) and 2) media political bias.
When our identity politics places us in one camp or another, emotions help to solidify that attachment, amplifying it and driving out contradictory evidence. We become Democrats or Republicans, Reds or Blues, instead of thinking independently and curating ideas coming from all directions. We should consider that ideological purity according to the rules set today is a rather unnatural phenomenon for a diverse population.
Our polarized media targets its preferred audience in order to stay in business and has found that pushing the hot-buttons of emotion is what keeps its audience engaged. This sensationalism is imperative under the digital disruption of traditional media business models, and one is hard-pressed to suggest an easy fix. But media bias, especially social media, is like pouring gasoline on the fire of polarizing identity politics. Raging Twitter wars are the result.
An additional danger to democracy threatens if our media bias becomes systemic. If a majority of the population falls under the spell of one biased presentation of information, that majority can be easily manipulated to violate the principles of a free society. This poses a significant threat if media polarization aligns with geographic polarization, as it has with urban vs. non-urban politics.
I would suggest that we Americans have real political differences rooted in different social and political cultures that vary across the national landscape. These include different lifestyle choices and family configurations, regional subcultures, economic sectoral interests, class interests, differences over environmental, transportation, and energy policies, among others. Such differences will not go away and need to be legitimized before they can be reconciled, but only if we don’t descend into emotional tribal politics. This is really the challenge we face if we are to survive as a unified free society.