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How politics got so polarized

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When people feel that their “mega-identity” is being challenged, they are very upset. More and more, the politics of Washington – and also the politics of Albany, Madison and Tallahassee – have been reduced to “us” against “them”, this most basic (and most dangerous) human dynamic. As Mason says, “We have more real estate to protect because our identities are intertwined. “

Mason is inspired by the work of Henri Tajfel, a psychologist of Polish origin who taught at Oxford in the sixties. (Tajfel, a Jew, was attending the Sorbonne when World War II broke out; he fought in the French army, spent five years as a German prisoner of war, and returned home to learn that most of his family had been killed.) In a series of now famous experiments, Tajfel divided the participants into meaningless groups. In one case, participants were told that they had been sorted according to whether they had overestimated or underestimated the number of dots on a screen; in another, they were told their group assignments had been entirely random. They immediately began to favor members of their own group. When Tajfel asked them to allocate money to the other participants, they systematically gave less to those in the other group. This happened even when they were told that if they distributed the money equally, everyone would get more. Given the choice between maximizing the benefits for both groups and depriving both groups, but ‘them’ more, participants chose the latter option. “It is the victory that seems more important,” noted Tajfel.

Trump, it seems safe to say, has never read Tajfel’s work. But he seems to have intuitively grasped it. During the 2016 campaign, Mason notes, he frequently changed his stance on policy issues. The only thing he never hesitated about was the importance of winning. “We’re going to win at all levels,” he told a crowd in Albany. “We’re going to win so much that you might even be sick of winning. “

In January 2018, Facebook announced that it was changing the algorithm it uses to determine which posts users see in their News Feed. On the surface, the change was designed to promote “meaningful interactions between people”. After the 2016 campaign, the company had come under heavy criticism for helping to spread disinformation, largely from fake Russian-backed accounts. The new algorithm was supposed to encourage “exchange of views” by stimulating content that elicited emotional reactions.

The new system, according to most accounts, turned out to be even worse than the old one. As might have been expected, the posts that elicited the most reactions were the most politically provocative. The new algorithm thus produced a sort of vicious, even furious, circle: the more indignation a post inspired, the more it was promoted, etc.

To what extent has the rise of social media contributed to the spread of hyperpartisanship? Not bad, argues Chris Bail, professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University and author of “Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing” (Princeton). The use of social media, writes Bail, “pushes people further away.”

“Frankly, I’m more of an outdoor horse guy.”
Caricature by Lonnie Millsap

The standard explanation for this is the so-called echo chamber effect. On Facebook, people are “friends” of like-minded people, whether their true friends or celebrities and other public figures whom they admire. Trump supporters tend to hear from other Trump supporters and Trump’s enemies from other Trump enemies. A study by Facebook researchers showed that only about a quarter of the news content Democrats post on the platform is viewed by Republicans, and vice versa. A study on the use of Twitter found similar trends. Meanwhile, a myriad of studies, many of which date back to before the internet was ever dreamed of, have shown that when people chat with others who agree with them, their views become more extreme. . Sociologists have dubbed this effect “group polarization,” and many fear the web has turned into a vast palooza of group polarization.

“It seems obvious that the internet serves, for many, a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people connect more easily and frequently with each other, and often without hearing opposing opinions,” Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law School, writes in “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media”.

Bail, who runs Duke’s Polarization Lab, disagrees with the standard narrative, at least in part. Social media, he admits, encourages political extremists to become more extreme; the more outrageous the content they publish, the more likes and new subscribers they attract and the more status they acquire. For this group, writes Bail, “social media allows a kind of micro-celebrity.”

But most Facebook and Twitter users are more centrist. They aren’t particularly interested in the latest partisan feud. For these users, “posting about politics online just carries more risk than it’s worth,” says Bail. By taking time away from online political discussions, moderates allow extremists to dominate, which Bail says fosters a “deep form of distortion.” Extrapolating the arguments they encounter, social media users on both sides conclude that the other’s are more extreme than they actually are. This phenomenon is known as false polarization. “Social media sent a false bias into hyperdrive,” observes Bail.

My grandfather, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was all too aware of the risks of thinking us against them. And yet, upon his arrival in New York, halfway through FDR’s second term, he became a passionate supporter. He often invoked Philipp Scheidemann, who served as Chancellor of Germany at the end of World War I, and then, in 1919, resigned in protest against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The hand that signed the treaty, Scheidemann said, should wither. Around election day my grandfather liked to say that any hand that pulled the lever of a Republican would have to suffer the same fate.

My mother inherited the policy from my grandfather and passed it on to me. For several years under the administration of George W. Bush, I drove with a bumper sticker that said “Republicans for Voldemort”. I found the bumper sticker to be fun. Eventually, however, I had to take it off, as too many people in town took it as a sign of support for the GOP.

Several recent books on polarization argue that if we as a nation are to overcome the problem, we must start with ourselves. “The first step is for citizens to recognize their own disabilities,” writes Taylor Dotson, professor of social science at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, in “The Divide: How Fanatical Certainty Is Destroying Democracy” (MIT). In “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization” (Columbia), Peter T. Coleman, professor of psychology and education at Columbia, advises: “Think and reflect critically on your own thinking. “

“We have to work on ourselves,” insists Robert B. Talisse, professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt, in “Sustaining Democracy: What We Dowe to the Other Side” (Oxford). “We need to find ways to deal with the polarization of beliefs in ourselves and in our covenants. “

The problem with the partisan self-care approach, at least as this partisan sees it, is twofold. First, those who have done the most to polarize America seem the least inclined to recognize their own “deficiencies”. Try imagining Donald Trump sitting in Mar-a-Lago, munching on a Big Mac and critically reflecting on his “own thinking.”

Second, just because each side sees the other as a “serious threat” does not mean that they are equally threatening. The January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, ongoing attempts to discredit the 2020 election, new state laws that will make it harder for millions of people to vote, especially in communities of color, just one party is responsible for it. In November, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a watchdog group, added the United States to its list of “declining democracies.” Although the group’s report does not explicitly accuse Republicans, it does come close: “A historic turning point came in 2020-2021 when former President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States. United States. Unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud and related disinformation undermined fundamental confidence in the electoral process. “

As the Time columnist Ezra Klein points out that the big triage in American politics has led to a great asymmetry. “Our political system is built around geographic units, which favor all sparse rural areas over dense urban areas,” he writes in “Why We Are Polarized” (Avid Reader). This effect is most evident in the United States Senate, where every voter in Wyoming enjoys, for all intents and purposes, seventy times the weight of their California counterpart, and it is also clear in the Electoral College. (It’s more subtle but, according to political scientists, still significant in the House of Representatives.)


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