Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on Bridge Alliance.
The polar vortex may have retreated for the winter months ago, but the political polarization within the United States certainly has not. Just as meteorologists provide scientific explanations for our frozen toes, social scientists may have some explanations for our frozen political discourse.
America’s political polarization has already been discussed at length. Some blame idiosyncrasies of our system, included closed primaries, money in politics, and the loss of political party ‘middlemen’ for helping elect the most polarized Congress “since the end of the Reconstruction.” While these explanations are not wholly inaccurate, the Law of Parsimony states that simpler explanations are more likely to be correct than complicated ones.
Recognizing that, perhaps the strongest explanation for why we are sending more polarized representatives to Washington is because we have become more polarized ourselves. The Pew Research Center surveys reveal that the average partisan gap grew from 15 to 36 points between 1994 and 2017. Our opinion gaps are now gulfs across key issues: military, environment, immigration, welfare, and so on.
Besides our opinions on political issues, extreme partisanship is changing how we behave. We are more likely to date someone who shares our political ideologies, less likely to hire someone whose resume indicates partisan activity for an opposing party, and more willing to make purchases from a fellow partisan. A 2018 study shows we are even willing to take a smaller monetary payout following an experiment to ensure a donation is not made to the opposing political party.
Political party affiliation is increasingly held as a group identity, an “us versus them” mentality.
In fact, new research indicates that Americans hold prejudices against different political identities just as strongly as they do against different racial identities. Psychologists Shanto Iyenar of Stanford University and Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University conducted a series of implicit association tests, which measure hidden biases in individuals (you can take example tests here!). In Iyenar and Westwood’s tests, participants were randomly assigned to sort either “Republican” or “Democrat” with negative or positive terms. More specifically, participants were asked to categorize “conservative” or “Republican” with a set of standard positive stimuli (“Wonderful”, “best”, “superb”, “excellent”) and “liberal” or “Democrat” with standard negative stimuli (“terrible”, “awful”, “worst”, “horrible”), or vice versa. The words are shown quickly on screen and participants are encouraged to group categories as quickly and accurately as possible. The time it takes a participant to categorize these groups can reveal hidden biases for or against a particular political group. Participants were also given African American/European American BIATs to determine the difference between partisan and racial biases. The magnitude of implicit partisan preferences based on ideology or political party was actually greater than that based on race, leading the researchers to conclude that “[p]arty polarization exceeds polarization based on race.”
In sum, political beliefs are now social identities, allowing us to believe that our political opinions are good and moral -- meaning that anyone who does not share them is bad and immoral. As a result, these social identities hold even more potential for discord than other group identities because we do not have social or legal norms discouraging discrimination and prejudices based on political affiliations. In fact, we tend to celebrate it, relishing in our political heroes viciously attacking their opponents.
Of course, group identities and prejudices are not new. Social psychologists have studied the topic for years and we are continually learning more about their causes and consequences. In 1986, social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon developed the Terror Management Theory (TMT), inspired by Ernest Becker’s 1973 work, The Denial of Death. Terror Management Theory poses that mortality awareness increases worldview defense and self-esteem protection. In plainer terms, fear and anxiety of the future cause us to cling tightly to what we know and believe; to communities and cultures from which we gain self-esteem.
I don’t know about you, but I find there is plenty to worry about in the future: climate change, a nuclear North Korea, the AI revolution, etc. We are living in a moment of transition and it can be terrifying. Psychologically (and evolutionarily), it makes sense to invest in our belief systems and communities because, at times, it may seem like we have nothing else to fall back on. Over two decades of research and hundreds of experiments support the hypothesis that mortality salience instigates increased self-esteem and worldview defense.
In a 2004 article on the politics of fear, Pyszczynski wrote, “cultural worldviews manage existential terror by providing a meaningingful, orderly, and comforting conception of the world…a set of standards for what is valuable behavior, good and evil.” Morality and political ideologies are tightly wound together; it becomes easy to perceive someone on the other side of the political spectrum as morally wrong. That is when our group identities begin to shape prejudices.
These group prejudices, however, are not insurmountable. Research consistently shows that intergroup contact reduces prejudice. Intergroup contact has been tested with a diverse array of groups: different races and ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities, finding reduced prejudice between groups. Contact with those different than us reduces anxiety and increases empathy; we begin seeing them as people rather than some unknown “other.” Recognizing the growing animosity between political groups, it is high time for us to apply these concepts to political identities and encourage inter-ideological relationships.
That’s exactly what a number of civic groups are already doing -- bringing people together to bridge ideological divides. Better Angels, for instance, has Red/Blue workshops around the country that gather 5-7 conversative-leaning and 5-7 liberal-leaning people to discuss their views and meaningfully learn about others’. American Public Square hosts expert panels to civilly debate controversial issues.
If you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment and can’t bear to sit down and have a chat with your ultra-progressive neighbor or fanatically right-wing cousin, you’re still in luck; indirect contact, such as watching a television show, has been shown to have similar effects as direct contact. This is because we build one-sided relationships with mass media characters through parasocial interaction. Engaging with them as regularly as, if not more than, friends and family, we develop connections to fictional characters not unlike our real-life relationships.
Parasocial Contact theory captures this idea, stating that indirect contact with minority groups through media interactions can reduce prejudices, much like direct contact through friendships. One famous study by communication scholars Edward Schiappa, Peter B. Gregg, and Dean E. Hewes shows that increased exposure to television shows featuring gay men, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, led to decreased prejudice towards the gay community. Perhaps the solution to rising political polarization is for NBC to air a sitcom about the Conservative Caldwells or Fox to follow the lives of the Progressive Pattersons.
In the meantime, there are a number of civic groups that are facilitating indirect contact. For instance, Bring It to The Table has a documentary and webisode series featuring Americans explaining why they believe in certain issues, allowing viewers to engage with the ‘other’ through the comfort of a screen.
Healthy governance requires the ability to discuss policies in a civilized manner, which means our hostile polarization must decrease. And we may be able to reduce polarization and close the ideological divide by increasing empathy and reducing prejudice. This does not mean convincing each other of anything; we only have to listen and learn to see each other as people and understand how our beliefs are formed. Only when we have accomplished this can we find our common ground and tackle the serious problems facing our country, together.
Kelly is Alumni Relations and Annual Giving Manager at her alma mater, New York University Abu Dhabi. Kelly previously worked for the Bridge Alliance as its Democracy Revitalization Intern. Kelly is passionate about conflict resolution and justice. She has a Lean Left bias.