Jessica Carpenter is the Chief Marketing Officer at BridgeUSA (Mixed). She has a Center bias.
86% of Americans say they feel exhausted by division and are looking for something better. 85% of Republicans and Democrats view cross-party relations, such as having members of the other party as friends, building consensus, and supporting bipartisan cooperation, as valuable.
These are stats that you probably don’t hear that often. That’s because they’re competing with information that is far more emotionally evoking than the idea that most Americans want constructive politics. In the midst of political division in the country, stats like this are useful to paint a hopeful picture of our political future and plant seeds of curiosity within the American people.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the way we are being communicated the nature of our politics today. More often than not, we are subject to polarizing tactics that help to further divide us. Polarizing tactics are methods that different entities use to sow distrust between groups and influence public perception of people, ideas or policies.
What’s more is, it pays to divide! Whether it be from politicians looking to appease their base and get donations, the media seeking to increase revenue and engagement, or political commentators and influencers looking to get more air time, the market for division is booming. We’re going to talk about some of their tactics today!
Here are six polarizing tactics to be on the lookout for.
First up, we have generalization. Generalizations are statements used to paint entire groups of people under one broad umbrella. Generalizations can be intentional and unintentional. By generalizationing an entire group, we remove room for nuance and diversity among people, opinions and concepts.
For example, much of the dialogue around Republicans and abortion revolve around the idea that "Republicans want to ban all abortions" which was further ratified with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' recent six week abortion ban.
While the Republican party strongly favors pro-life initiatives, the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES) and SurveyMonkey released a survey last year showing more Republicans in favor of exceptions for abortion, such as in cases of rape or incest (76%) and when the mother’s life is in danger (86%). Only 16% of Republicans say abortion generally should be “illegal in all cases".
In 2019, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel said, “Democrats have chosen to go down the road to socialism.” Broad-stroking Democratic plans as “socialist” discounts ideas that could be used as foundations for finding common ground and removes the opportunity for discussion across the aisle.
Political groups are not ideological monoliths. Individuals within different political, racial, cultural and religious groups don’t always share the same view on topics. This is why it’s important to talk to each other!
This polarizing tactic is one of the most common in politics.
The us-vs-them approach is the tendency to view the world in terms of an ingroup (“us”) and an outgroup (“them”). By creating this idea of separation and suggesting that other groups are different from us or against us, it causes us to have a stronger sense of identification with our own group and a stronger dislike for the “other” group. We can feel the need to build ourselves up by identifying ways we're better than the other group(s). In politics, think of this tactic as another way of saying “it’s their fault.”
This PragerU video perfectly demonstrates the us-vs-them approach while discussing the topic of teaching sexual identity in schools. The speaker paints “them” referring to progressive Democrats as crazy while also saying she is “one of you”, the viewers. This generalizes progressive Democrats as all wanting to teach second graders about sexual identity, but it goes further than assuming that all progressive Democrats believe a certain idea. The video villainizes those who believe children should be taught about sexual identity as wanting to confuse and corrupt children, and instills fear that they’re coming for you.
President Biden also has his fair share of us-vs-them messaging. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration released statements pitting unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals against each other.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he said. “And it’s caused by the fact that…we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot…That 25 percent can cause a lot of damage — and they are.” By referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as the “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, he sews disapproval and disdain for individuals who didn’t get vaccinated (“them”) and creates a stark sense of division between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
The us-vs-them tactic distracts us from the issue or topic at hand, which in turn prevents us from being able to constructively discuss with each other and build solutions.
Imagine bringing your hottest political argument up to debate with a scarecrow. That’s where this next polarizing tactic gets its name. Strawmanning is the logical fallacy of distorting an opposing position into an extreme version of itself to make it easier to argue against.
How a scarecrow (or straw man) is a fake representation of a person, so is a straw man argument.
Here are some examples:
“I am pro-choice.” “So, you condone murder.”
“I am pro-life.” “So, you want to control womens’ bodies.”
These are examples of strawmanning because almost no one would say they agree with murder or say that the goal of restricting abortion is to control women. These are reductions of the pro-life and pro-choice arguments that make it easy to reaffirm the beliefs we already have, because the other side seems absurd.
The all-or-nothing approach is what it sounds like. It’s the assumption that you’re either with me or you’re against me. There is no middle ground between two polarities.
From my experience, this tactic is often a response to anger, frustration and/or feelings of injustice. It’s easy to feel the world pitted against you when you feel your voice is not being heard.
Following the Uvalde school shooting on May 24 that left 21 dead, including 19 children, MSNBC contributor Jason Johnson went on air to say that “Republicans don’t care if your children die” and “any Democrat who doesn’t take that stance isn’t concerned about our kids either.” This example used both generalizations and all-or-nothing thinking.
This segment is [rightfully] fueled by anger that innocent children were killed while at school. Whether Johnson meant to divide or not, suggesting that Democrats who don’t agree with the statement “Republicans don’t care about children” also don’t care about children is an all-or-nothing approach to the discussion on gun violence.
5. Cherry Picking
Cherry picking is the action or practice of taking only the beneficial or more emotionally enticing parts of what is available and responding to that. Many times this happens in online interactions or when discussing active legislation.
A new study by KFF took a look at Americans’ experience with gun violence, and found that about half (54%) of all U.S. adults say they or a family member have experienced either gun-related violence, injury or death. Moreso, the study showed that one in five Americans say they had a family member killed by a gun, including suicide.
By choosing only parts of this study to highlight, these stats can be used to tell multiple different stories, including why the U.S. needs stricter gun regulations or why the U.S. needs to prioritize mental health. That’s why it’s important to check sources and, when possible, cross-check the information you read. Without the full picture, we aren’t able to address issues constructively and come up with long-term solutions.
Last but not least, we have whataboutism.This tactic is used to respond to a claim or question with a counterclaim or question on an unrelated issue. It turns a discussion about a specific topic into one about teams by assuming the person on the other side agrees with all of the stances of the party they identify with.
This latest interview clip of Jon Stewart turning a discussion about drag queens into one on gun legislation is a good example. Many times instances like this are seen as “wins” or “owns” against a political opponent because it shows their supposed hypocrisy (which may not be hypocrisy to them, if you let them explain their reasoning), but it ultimately shuts down conversations because individuals are talking past each other.
Now that you have an idea of what tactics are being used to divide us, be on the lookout for different areas where they arise. It’s important to note that many of the examples I’ve used come from actual differences in opinion. I’m not saying these differences don’t exist, especially on topics like gun violence, sexual identity and abortion. But if we want to make progress on these topics and come to legislative solutions, we must make sure we are actually understanding the stances of both sides rather than making fallacious arguments that make us feel like we are winning.
It's easier and more profitable to divide than it is to build bridges among the American people. In the end, it’s us who lose when we aren’t solution-oriented. Until the incentives switch from profiting off our division to bringing people together, it’s important to learn how to detect different ways we are being divided.
BridgeUSA is the largest and fastest multi-partisan student movement fighting polarization in colleges and high schools across the nation. Through their college and high school chapters, BridgeUSA students are standing up for a politics that rewards empathy and dialogue over division and anger. Learn more about BridgeUSA.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Assistant at AllSides (Center bias).