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How politics became polarised

Credit: Saul Martinez/Getty Images

July 3, 2019   3 mins

A spectre is haunting democracy: the spectre of polarisation. It’s one thing to have our differences and to settle them at the ballot box; but if these differences diverge too much then our capacity to agree to disagree is diminished. Everything that the other side says, does and wins is seen as illegitimate – thus undermining the democratic process.

In America, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are disappearing from national politics; while individual communities are becoming ever redder or bluer in the political affiliations.

But what’s the cause of this polarisation? Are Americans becoming more fanatical in their party loyalties? Not really, says Yascha Mounk in his column for The Atlantic. Quite the opposite, in fact:

“Far from increasing, Americans’ attachment to their political parties has considerably weakened over the past years.”

However, it appears that our decreasing attachment to our own side has been offset by increasing hostility to the other side – what Mounk calls “negative partisanship”.

Last year I looked at the theory that these two trends are related: the more our political heroes let us down, the more we have to see their opponents as villains. Psychologically, it allows us to maintain our loyalties despite the disappointment.

An alternative, or perhaps complementary, idea is that Republicans and Democrats each believe the other to be more extreme than they actually are.

As Mounk explains, a new report (from More in Common) has found that “Americans’ mental image of the ‘other side’ is a caricature:

“Asked to guess what share of Republicans believe that immigration can strengthen America so long as it is ‘properly controlled,’ for example, Democrats estimated about half; actually, nearly nine in ten agreed with this sentiment…

“…Republicans approximated that only about half of Democrats are “proud to be American” despite the country’s problems. Actually, over four in five Democrats said they are.”

And these are just two examples of the Perception Gap, which applies across a wide range of issues – from sexism to gun control.

The twist is that this doesn’t appear to be a function of ignorance. Quite the opposite in fact:

“Americans who rarely or never follow the news are surprisingly good at estimating the views of people with whom they disagree.”

As for formal education, the more highly educated a Democrat the more inaccurate their view of what Republicans believe. In the case of Republicans, education doesn’t appear to make things worse, but it doesn’t make it better either.

Mounk calls these findings “deeply worrying”, but they accord with a growing pile of evidence that knowledge, education and expertise doesn’t necessarily broaden the mind.

So what’s going wrong? Part of the answer lies in a recent essay by Yancey Strickler called ‘The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet’.

The title is inspired by the Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, who compares the universe to an eerily silent forest to explain the apparent lack of evidence for the existence of alien life. The forest is not in fact lifeless at all, but full of animals keeping quiet because “night is when the predators come out.” In other words, there’s plenty of aliens out there, but they’ve got the good sense not to advertise their presence.

Whether or not that’s true of the universe, Strickler argues that the internet is full of things best avoided:

“In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.”

The spaces where political issues are debated have got especially nasty. Therefore people who want to express an opinion without being torn to pieces do so in ‘digital refuges’ – where the internet’s predators can’t pounce. Podcasts are a good example:

“There, meaning isn’t just expressed through language, but also through intonation and interaction. Podcasts are where a bad joke can still be followed by a self-aware and self-deprecating save. It’s a more forgiving space for communication than the internet at large.”

Other examples include “newsletters… Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on.”

The trouble with these niches is that they’re hidden away – not just from the wolves, but just about everyone who doesn’t already belong to them. The internet (and political discourse more generally) is dividing not into echo chambers so much as disconnected hidey-holes. Reasonable people of different persuasions therefore don’t get to hear one another, and thus their perceptions of the other side are formed by their experience of the rampaging predators.

Away from the internet, other news media, campus culture and the most politicised professions, Democrats and Republicans get to interact in the context of everyday life – as opposed to an ideologically-charged slanging match. No wonder then that those most disconnected from these sources of political ‘information’ have a more accurate view of their fellow Americans.

Nevertheless, the fact that expanding one’s knowledge can be be so counter-productive is desperately sad.

What we need are more places and publications that provide viewpoint diversity within a civilised context. And, if nowhere else, that is something you can always find at UnHerd.

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


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