Anyone who pays attention to the news in the United States will at least be vaguely aware of the sociopolitical rift that has opened recently (1) (2) (3) (4). Whether this rift had been hidden for some time and has only just recently been brought to the surface, or if this is a new phenomenon in American culture, no one can say for sure.
When it comes to these issues, subjective truth is often more salient than objective truth. It doesn’t matter whether immigration – both legal or illegal – is up or down, whether this has consequences for job markets, crime rates, and terrorism, or whether there is a concerted, racially motivated effort to crack down on immigration. It doesn’t matter if high profile police shootings of black people is part of an epidemic indicative of long-standing institutional racism in America or just a false narrative perpetuated by those who hate police and law-and-order or simply want special privileges for particular groups of people. It doesn’t matter if all transgender people are beautiful and inspiring heroes who are deserving of our utmost admiration, a mixed bag of people just trying to live their lives in a way that best suits them, mentally ill victims in need of psychiatric attention to alleviate their suffering without mutilating their bodies, or menacing perverts who will sink to any level depravity to pursue their fetishistic desires. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the right is a money-grubbing, capitalistic, environment hating white supremacist or not, or if everyone on the left is a cis-hetero-white-male hating neo-Marxist identitarian slouching toward Sharia Law or not.
What matters, as far as social interactions, voting trends, and policy decisions are concerned, is that people believe these things are true, one way or the other.
But why do people believe the things they do? And why is there a divide? And what was it that brings people together in the first place? Lets go through these questions one at a time.
- Why Do People Believe the Things They Do?
It turns out that there is a large biological component to why people have the sociopolitical views that they do. For example, a twin study, conducted in five democracies (Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and the US) using a sample size of 12,000 people over the years 1980-2011, found that genetics played a significant role in peoples political self-identification. These results have been confirmed in other studies (1) (2) (3).
This can be troubling, since people use what is called motivated reasoning when it comes to accepting different conclusions. This means that we start from preferred conclusions and then look for evidence to support those conclusions, as opposed to formulating conclusions based on the known evidence. In other words, humans are lawyers, not scientists. And once we reach a conclusion, our confirmation bias allows us to continuously find evidence to support those conclusions we’ve already accepted. The backfire effect makes it difficult for anyone to convince us otherwise, regardless of the facts. And our bias blind spot leads us to believe that we alone are immune to all of this.
Thus, having a genetic predisposition for certain sociopolitical beliefs, a propensity for motivated reasoning clad in the armor of confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and bias blind spot, can make it difficult to achieve reconciliation when divisive issues are given primacy in the national conversation.
- Why Has the Sociopolitical Division Become so Large?
Studies show mixed results about how much the media effects political polarization (1) (2) (3), where there is a positive correlation for people who have a high interest in politics and in consuming traditional media, but it doesn’t fully explain the recent extreme polarization, especially since news media has been around for a very long time. One hypothesis is that social media, which is a new phenomenon compared to traditional media, is the driving force – whether through the creation of ideological echo chambers or the spread of fake news. However, the evidence doesn’t bare this out. The most extreme polarization comes from people who use social media the least (1).
So, what are some other possible explanations for the recent sociopolitical division?
In addition to more access to our own preferred narratives, the rhetoric has become more polarizing and divisive. When people who are political/ideological opponents are not just viewed as those who have the welfare of their fellow countrymen in mind, using a different approach of achieving that end, but instead are characterized as people acting in bad faith, or with malicious, self-serving, or spiteful intentions, it creates a whole new dynamic. In the former case, political and ideological opponents are people who can be engaged in dialogue, where ideas can be discussed and with whom compromises can be arrived. In the latter, political and ideological opponents are beyond the pale. They are not worth engaging in dialogue, since they will only do so in bad faith, and all that will result is giving legitimacy to ideas not worth considering, and in fact may be reprehensible. Thus, it is not necessarily that our information is being catered to our preconceived notions, but the atmosphere in which the information is being discussed. Instead of constructing a reasoned argument why a political or ideological opponent is incorrect or misinformed, all one needs to do is denounce them categorically. Virtue signaling trumps reasoned argument.
What we can say about the recent sociopolitical polarization, which may be a result of the divisive rhetoric, is that it seems not to come from increased extremism in one’s own belief in their own ideology, but an increased mistrust of those considered to be part of the opposition. Interestingly, mistrust of ones perceived ideological opponents is also correlated with a recent decline in trust for the government. What is also interesting is that distrust in the government leads to more calls for increased government regulation. It’s possible that the recent sociopolitical polarization could have something to do with each side perceiving the other as attempting to use the government as a weapon to impose their own ideology on others. As each side becomes more distrustful of the other, they more fervently attempt to stymie each others legislation, vote for people who will more vehemently oppose the other side, and enthusiastically support politicians who will use stronger verbiage to attack opponents. This leads to more distrust in the government, which results in calls for increased regulation as an attempt to reign in the other side.
But a primary driver of sociopolitical division is identity politics along with relative deprivation. The first aspect, identity politics, has been widely discussed lately. This is the phenomenon of viewing social and political interactions, decisions, and conceptual frameworks through the lens of one’s self identity. This alone isn’t enough to cause sociopolitical rifts. But along with relative deprivation – the fact or perception that one’s particular identity group(s) are being treated unfairly or having access to resources or political influence restricted by those outside the identity group – identity politics can result in division and conflict. This phenomenon has occurred on both the left and the right – the left focusing on the present and historical relative deprivation of minorities, the right focusing on the resulting relative deprivation of cisgendered, heterosexual, white males from this recent shift in ideological emphasis on the left. Where this initial ideological reorganization on the left originates is up for debate, but many issues may be contributing factors – changes in parental styles as a result of current scholarship, the relative lack of external threats to personal safety and well-being that results from living in a civilized soiety, the inevitable decline of national identity and subsequent replacement by moral decadence that befalls every hegemonic power, an extreme over-correction of past wrongs on account of guilt brought on by increased awareness, paternalistic government expansion that results in infantalizing the populace, etc.
- What Brings a Population Together?
The identification of a population as a cohesive group is based on shared qualities of race, ideology, and culture. Race is an easy one to understand – people inherently identify with those who share common physical features (1) (2) (3). Ideology refers to a shared set of specific beliefs. For instance, in the United States, the belief that all people are morally and legally equal (ie despite obvious differences in intelligence or physical strength between individuals, it is just as wrong to deprive one of life as another, and each should be treated equally by the law), that we have the right to free speech, etc. Culture refers to a shared set of traditions, social mores/taboos, values, and language. For instance, in the United States, Christmas is widely celebrated, even by people who don’t believe in Christianity; money and material possessions are valued as a measure of social status and success; and most people expect those around them (at least while within U.S. borders) to speak English.
The U.S. was unique in that it did not have origins in racial similarity. Yes, the founders were white men, but the U.S. was and is a country of immigrants (both voluntary and involuntary). Even if the credo that “all [people] are created equal” wasn’t realized from the start, it was an eventual, and inevitable, destination. The U.S. instead originated from a shared ideology – namely, the ideology that all people are morally and legally equal – that resulted in a shared culture. A culture that valued chasing the vaunted American Dream – that one’s children will live a better life than they had.
What seems to have changed recently, on both the left and the right, is that this has been turned on its head. American, and more generally, Western culture has been demonized as inherently oppressive, through the denigration or appropriation of certain heritages. The ideology is held accused of being hollow and unequally distributed. Instead, we are told, race is what matters. Your rights are determined by your race (or, often times, sex) – whether you are white or non-white – and all conflict is based on the relative deprivation of certain races (or sexes). This will not result in national unification, but only further division. There are those who may see this as a desirable result, and in fact may be actively working towards these ends, but I don’t foresee this as resulting in anything good.
I don’t have any particular prescriptions for how to fix any of this. I can say, broadly speaking, that if the U.S., and the West in general, doesn’t find a common ideology and culture once again, that we will only further divide.