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Who’s most intolerant in America?

Credit: Getty Images

March 7, 2019   3 mins

We all know what’s gone wrong with politics, don’t we? It’s those people. The know-nothing, dim-witted provincials.

The problem isn’t that they’ve got the vote – rather it’s that they’ve been manipulated by fake news and social media into voting the wrong way. Whereas once they were guided by the gentle voices of their intellectual betters, the hoi polloi now decide for themselves where they get their information from. As a result they’ve self-segregated into their chosen echo chambers – emerging only to batter each other senseless on Twitter and Facebook.

It’s not really their fault, of course. These poor, weak-willed creatures just can’t help themselves. It’s therefore up to those of us with the privilege of a good education and a sophisticated outlook on life to intervene before our respective nations tear themselves apart.

Well, that’s one narrative – but does it stand up to scrutiny? In an eye-opening piece for The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla and Angela Y He, look at the evidence (from a US perspective).

There’s not much doubt that America is more politically polarised than it used to be:

“We know that Americans have become more biased against one another based on partisan affiliation over the past several decades. Most of us now discriminate against members of the other political side explicitly and implicitly—in hiring, dating, and marriage, as well as judgments of patriotism, compassion, and even physical attractiveness, according to recent research.”

This is sad – but is it equally true of all Americans? The Atlantic commissioned research to find out:

“The survey asked how people would feel if a close family member married a Republican or a Democrat; how well they think the terms selfish, compassionate, or patriotic describe Democrats versus Republicans; and other questions designed to capture sentiments about political differences.”

The results may confound expectations:

“In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves.”

Of course, it’s no surprise that the most politically partisan individuals are the most politically prejudiced. However, the fact that such prejudice is associated with higher levels of education is counter-intuitive. One would expect intolerance and ignorance to go together.

Perhaps we need to distinguish between the ignorance of not knowing certain facts and the ignorance of not knowing people who are different from you and yours:

“…according to decades of research into how prejudice operates, humans are more likely to discriminate against groups of people with whom they do not have regular, positive interactions.”

If this is all about interaction, then why aren’t urban areas havens of tolerance? Isn’t the whole point of a city to bring people together? It should be, but the size and diversity of a city population increases the scope for people to pick and choose who they associate with (the real point of city living, a cynic might say). While this facilitates creative specialisation, it also facilitates social separation. Moreover, it’s reasonable to assume that the highly qualified will be those most likely to work in rarefied professional environments and to live in exclusive neighbourhoods.

Viewed in this light, the findings of the survey aren’t so unexpected. If older, more educated, urban-dwelling, white Americans are the least likely to practice political tolerance, it’s because they don’t have to – they can afford a better class of bubble.

If one assumes a correlation between education and knowledge, one might hope that the alienating effects of exclusivity would be moderated by possession of the facts. Unfortunately, knowing more about an issue doesn’t make people more open-minded to evidence that contradicts their beliefs – quite the opposite in fact. There’s also research that shows that exposure to the arguments of the ‘other side’ leads people to harden their own opinions.

In other words, the ‘bubbles’ that incubate political prejudice are not bubbles of fact and opinion, but of trust.

Clearly, we need to overcome these barriers – and not just to lessen the negative effects of political polarisation. There’s a growing body of evidence that, in the right circumstances, viewpoint diversity can be a positively good thing. When people of widely differing opinions are not only willing to tolerate one another, but to actively cooperate, they can achieve more than teams who share the same middle-of-the-road opinions.

Viewpoint diversity is one of the things we try to achieve at UnHerd. You, of course, may disagree.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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