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By Thomas B. Edsall
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.
When so many voters — a majority, in fact — say that they prefer consensus to conflict, why does polarization continue to intensify?
In a paper that came out in June, “Explanations for Inequality and Partisan Polarization in the U.S., 1980 — 2020,” Elizabeth Suhay and Mark Tenenbaum, political scientists at American University, and Austin Bartola, of Quadrant Strategies, provide insight into why so much discord permeates American politics:
Scholars who research polarization have almost exclusively focused on the relationship between Americans’ policy opinions and their partisanship. In this article, we discuss a different type of partisan polarization underappreciated by scholars: “belief polarization,” or disagreements over what people perceive to be true.
The concept of belief polarization has been defined in a number of ways.
In their May 2021 paper, “Belief polarization in a complex world,” Alan Jern, Kai-min Kevin Chang and Charles Kemp — of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Melbourne — write: “Belief polarization occurs when two people with opposing prior beliefs both strengthen their beliefs after observing the same data.”
There is, they continue, “ample evidence that people sustain different beliefs even when faced with the same information, and they interpret that information differently.” They also note that “stark differences in beliefs can arise and endure due to human limitations in interpreting complex information.”
Kristoffer Nimark, an economist at Cornell, and Savitar Sundaresan, of Imperial College London, describe belief polarization this way: “The beliefs of ex ante identical agents over time can cluster in two distinct groups at opposite ends of the belief space.”
Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, professors of philosophy at Vanderbilt, argue in their 2019 paper — “How Does Belief Polarization Work” — that
Part of what makes belief polarization so disconcerting is its ubiquity. It has been extensively studied for more than 50 years and found to be operative within groups of all kinds, formal and informal. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Like-minded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste, or questions about value. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Like-minded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take; and they polarize also when there is no specific decision to be reached. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status, and level of education.
Talisse, writing separately, observes that:
The social environment itself can trigger extremity shifts. These prompts need not be verbal, explicit, or literal; they can be merely implicit signals to group members that some belief is prevalent among them — hats, pins, campaign signs, logos, and gestures are all potential initiators of belief polarization. Further, as corroboration is really a matter of numbers, those with the power to present the appearance of widespread acceptance among a particular social group of some idea thereby have the power to induce extremity shifts among those who identify with that group.
Perhaps the most salient recent illustration of belief polarization is the diametrically opposed view of Trump loyalists and of their Democratic adversaries over the legitimacy of the 2020 election: Trump supporters are convinced it was stolen; Democrats and independents are certain that Joe Biden is the legitimate president.
Similarly, politicians on the right — and Fox News — are treating the F.B.I. raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago on Monday as a corrupt politicization of federal investigative authority while liberals — and CNN — counter that the raid demonstrates that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law.
Suhay and her colleagues expand the scope of belief polarization to look at the differences between Republicans and Democrats over the causes of inequality:
We illustrate large, and increasing, partisan divides in beliefs regarding whether an unequal society, or unequal behavior, is the cause of socioeconomic inequality. Republican politicians and citizens are optimistic about the American dream and pessimistic about poor people’s behavior; Democratic politicians and citizens are pessimistic about the Dream and optimistic about poor people’s ability to succeed if given the chance.
These patterns, Suhay and her collaborators continue,
hold for beliefs about economic inequality along both class and race lines. Variation in societal versus individual blame is consistently associated with views on social welfare, taxation, and affirmative action. We conclude that Americans’ beliefs about the fairness of the economy represent a crucial component of a redistributive versus anti-redistributive ideology that is increasingly associated with the two political parties.
Suhay writes that
The Democratic Party has long justified its left-leaning economic policies with two central claims: significant economic inequality exists between individuals and social groups, and these great inequalities are unfair because society, not individuals, are to blame for them. The latter proposition is especially important. It is difficult to deny that many harsh inequalities exist in the United States. Exorbitant wealth as well as homelessness are plain to see. However, such inequalities might be tolerated if they are viewed as the outcome of a meritocratic system. Democrats argue instead that “the American dream” — success via hard work — is not a reality for many. Thus, low-income people deserve government assistance.
Conversely, Suhay continues, Republicans emphasize
aggregate economic growth and downplay the extent of inequality. Second, Republicans argue that existing inequalities are fair — successful people have achieved success via hard work or ingenuity, and those facing difficult economic circumstances are to blame for them. Third, in response to Democrats’ instinct to use government to combat inequality, Republicans argue government efforts to intervene in business affairs, redistribute wealth, and assist those in need often do more harm than good, depressing the economic output of both firms and individuals. These narratives justify Republicans’ conservative economic agenda by insisting that the status quo is fine: inequality is minimal; inequalities that do exist are “just deserts”; and, even if one wished to help, government intervention in fact undermines individual and aggregate prosperity.
Suhay, Tenenbaum and Bartola cite data from American National Election Studies and the Pew Research Center to track the increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats on various questions, which require respondents to agree or disagree with statements like these: “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance”; “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard”; and “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
In 1997, 68 percent of Republican and 43 percent of Democratic survey respondents chose “have it easy,” a 25-point difference. By 2017, 73 percent of Republicans said the poor “have it easy,” while 19 percent of Democrats shared that view, 54-points.
In an email, Suhay noted that
many social scientists today are focused on misinformed and extreme beliefs in the Republican Party, including Republicans’ greater likelihood of rejecting climate science and COVID-19 vaccination and their embrace of Trump’s ‘big lie’ about the 2020 election.
But, Suhay wrote by email, many of those same scholars “are missing growing extremity on the political left. It may be more benign or even beneficial in some cases, but it is still a phenomenon worth study.” In addition to “a surge of claims on the left that the economy is extremely unequal and that this is because our country does not provide equal opportunity to all of its inhabitants,” there has been a parallel surge among liberals on the issue of “racial justice — in both the economic and criminal justice arena.”
A third development on the left, Suhay added, and one
where we have seen the most rapid change, is around gender identity. Democrats increasingly say society ought to protect the rights of transgender people and the expression of transgender identity because gender fluidity is a natural part of the human condition and trying to curb its expression causes people harm. The popularity of each of these views has surged on the left recently.
There is further evidence that even people who are knowledgeable about complex issues are sharply polarized along partisan lines.
Nathan Lee at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth, Jason Reifler at the University of Exeter and D.J. Flynn at IE University in Madrid, argue in their paper “More Accurate, but No Less Polarized: Comparing the Factual Beliefs of Government Officials and the Public” that while “political elites are consistently more accurately informed than the public,” the “increase in accuracy does not translate into reduced factual belief polarization. These findings demonstrate that a more informed political elite does not necessarily mitigate partisan factual disagreement in policymaking.”
Lee, Nyhan, Reifler and Flynn assessed the views of elites through a survey in 2017 of 743 “elected policymakers, legislative staffers, and top administrative positions in local and state government in the United States.” Three quarters of the sample held elective office. The survey tested belief accuracy by partisanship and elite status on eight issues including health care, the share of taxes paid by the top 1 percent, climate change and voter fraud.
Their conclusions run counter to assumptions that elites are less polarized than the general public because “they tend to be more knowledgeable, which is associated with greater belief accuracy” and because they “possess domain expertise in politics and public policy that could reduce the influence of cognitive biases.”
In fact, Lee and colleagues counter, “belief polarization can be unchanged or widen when belief accuracy increases.”
I asked Nyhan about the consequences of the findings and he wrote back by email:
The most important contribution of our study is to challenge the assumption that we will disagree less about the facts if we know more. Elites are better informed than the public on average but Democrats and Republicans still are still deeply divided in their beliefs about those facts. In some ways, the conclusion of our study is optimistic — government officials are better informed than the public. That’s what most of us would hope to be true. But the findings do suggest we should avoid thinking that people becoming more informed will make the factual divides in our society go away. Belief polarization is a reality that is not easily overcome.
One theme that emerges repeatedly in looking at belief polarization is the role race plays as a central factor:
Peter K. Enns and Ashley Jardina, political scientists at Cornell and Duke, make the case in their October 2021 paper, “Complicating the role of White racial attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiment in the 2016 U.S. presidential election” that
Most of the research on the relationship between white racial attitudes and Trump support is part of a tradition that assumes that racial attitudes are fairly stable predispositions that form early in life and then later become important for political reasoning. Implied in this line of research is that politicians or political campaigns do not change levels of prejudice, but they can prime these attitudes, or make them more or less salient and therefore more or less politically relevant.
Enns and Jardina write that, in contrast to this view, over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign “many whites shifted their survey responses on questions related to race and immigration to align with their support for Trump or Clinton.”
To test their argument, the authors used “a unique panel data set from surveys conducted by YouGov of more than 5,000 respondents interviewed at multiple points during the 2016 presidential election campaign.” From that study, they found that
The strong link between white attitudes toward Black Americans and Trump support observed in prior studies is likely due as much to white Trump supporters updating their survey responses to report opinions more consistent with Trump’s, as it is to Trump drawing support from more racially antagonistic white voters. Similar results emerge with respect to whites’ immigration opinions.
They found, for example, that from January 2016 to August 2016, the percentage of Trump supporters voicing strong opposition to Black Lives Matter grew by roughly 15 percentage points.
In an email, Enns contended that
regardless of the precise underlying mechanisms (and multiple mechanisms could be at work), the evidence suggests that Trump’s rhetoric had a meaningful effect on the views his supporters expressed about these issues. We are definitely arguing that the attitudes individuals express can be changed by what candidates they support say and do. Although we cannot observe actual beliefs, to the extent that expressing previously unexpressed beliefs has a reinforcing effect, that would also provide evidence of a deepening or potential changing of racial attitudes.
The strong association between Trump support and whites’ views on racial issues, Enns and Jardina argue in their paper,
was not merely a result of Trump attracting racist whites by way of his own racist rhetoric or a reflection of partisan racial sorting that had already occurred; it was also a result of white Trump supporters changing their views to be more in line with Trump’s over the course of his presidential campaign. In other words, Trump not only attracted whites with more conservative views on race; he also made his white supporters more likely to espouse increasingly extreme views on issues related to immigration and on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings of African Americans.
Andrew M. Engelhardt, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina—Greensboro, developed a similar line of analysis in his January 2020 paper, “Racial Attitudes Through a Partisan Lens.”
In an email, Engelhardt wrote:
Part of the reason White Democrats and White Republicans hold increasingly different views about Black Americans is due to their partisanship. It’s not just that Democrats with negative views became Republicans, or Republicans with more positive views became Democrats. Rather, people are changing their attitudes, and part of this, I argue, is due to how politicians talk about Black Americans. Republicans, for instance, could have internalized Trump’s negative rhetoric, and increasingly held more negative views. Democrats, similarly, hear Trump say these negative things and they move opposite, holding more positive views.
In his paper, Engelhardt wrote that undergirding past studies of the role of race in politics and policymaking
is an assumption that racial animus feeds political conflict. I turn this conventional wisdom on its head by arguing that political conflict can shape racial attitudes — people’s views and beliefs about groups understood to be racial. Political scientists have failed to examine this possibility, perhaps because racial attitudes are seen as persistent and influential predispositions that form during childhood, long before most Americans become political animals. According to this line of reasoning, individuals use these early formed attitudes to make sense of politics; racial attitudes lead to partisanship.
The ever-growing divide between left and right extends well beyond racial issues and attitudes. In his email, Engelhardt wrote that his results are “suggestive of partisanship motivating changes in other orientations which we might presumably see as more stable and core to individuals.” He cited research showing that “partisanship influences religiosity and religious affiliation” and other studies linking “political concerns to changes in racial self-identification.” Engelhardt added that he has “some unpublished results where I find partisanship leads Democrats to hold more positive views of gay men and lesbians, transgender individuals, and feminists, over time, with Republicans holding more negative views of these groups in the same period (data range 2016-2020).”
In their January 2022 paper, “The Origins and Consequences of Racialized Schemas about U.S. Parties,” Kirill Zhirkov and Nicholas Valentino, political scientists at the Universities of Virginia and Michigan, make an interesting argument, that, in effect, “Two parallel processes structure American politics in the current moment: partisan polarization and the increasing linkage between racial attitudes and issue preferences of all sorts.”
Zhirkov and Valentino continue:
Beginning in the 1970s, Democratic candidates in presidential elections started to attract large/ shares of nonwhite voters whereas Republicans increasingly relied on votes of racially conservative whites. Over the same period, voters’ positions on seemingly nonracial political issues have gradually become more intertwined with racial resentment.
Overall, the two scholars write,
the growing racial gap between the Democratic and Republican support bases leads to formation of racialized stereotypes about the two parties. Specifically, a non-trivial share of American electorate currently views the Democratic Party as nonwhite and the Republican Party as white, though in reality whites continue to be a majority of both parties.
This “imagined racial coalition of each party,” in the view of Zhirkov and Valentino,
carries profound implications for the ongoing discussion in the discipline about affective polarization in American politics: whites feel colder toward the Democratic Party when they imagine its coalition to be more heavily made up on nonwhites and feel warmer toward the Republican Party when they perceive it to be dominated by their racial group. As a consequence, rather than a cause, they may then come to accept a more conservative issue package advocated by the modern Republican Party.
Racial attitudes, the authors argue persuasively, “are now important predictors of opinions about electoral fairness, gun control, policing, international trade and health care.”
There are, Zhirkov and Valentino note, long-range implications for the future of democracy here:
As soon as ethnic parties start to compete for political power, winning — rather than implementing a certain policy — becomes the goal in and of itself due to associated boost in group status and self-esteem of its members. Moreover, comparative evidence suggests that U.S. plurality-based electoral system contributes to politicization of ethnic cleavages rather than mitigates them. Therefore, the racialization of American parties is likely to continue, and the intensity of political conflict in the United States is likely to grow.
I asked the authors how they would characterize the importance of race in contemporary American politics. In a jointly written email, they replied that in research to be published in the future, “we show that race is at least as strong, and often stronger, than cleavages such as religion, ideology, and class.”
The pessimistic outlook for the prospect of a return to less divisive politics revealed in many of the papers cited here, and the key role of racial conflict in driving polarization, suggest that the ability of the United States to come to terms with its increasingly multiracial, multiethnic population remains in question. This country has been a full-fledged democracy for less than 60 years — since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the changes wrought by three additional revolutions: in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. These developments — or upheavals — and especially the reaction to them have tested the viability of our democracy and suggest, at the very least, an uphill climb ahead.
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