what is polarization and when is it bad?

We might say that people are polarized when …

  1. They hold opposing positions on issues that matter to them.
  2. They hold contrasting core values that drive their opinions about issues.
  3. They identify strongly and stably with parties or ideological groups or movements that compete.
  4. As a principle or guideline, they oppose compromise with the other side.
  5. They use partisan labels as heuristics to judge candidates or issues.
  6. They use partisan heuristics to make decisions not directly related to politics, e.g., which community to live in or whom to date.
  7. They don’t actually interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  8. They don’t want to interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  9. They select or filter news and opinion to match their partisan opinions.
  10. They hold different factual beliefs that support their values.

These are separate issues, and we may feel differently about each one. For instance, I think that #1 and #2 (disagreeing about issues and about underlying principles) are completely fine. It’s even possible that we should cultivate a wider range of views and air them more openly and extensively. If that means more “polarization,” so be it. Also, #3 (identifying stably with an ideology) seems fine as long as you are thoughtful about it.

Surveys ask people about #4: Do you want politicians to compromise or to stand on principle? I find this a somewhat frustrating question, because it typically mentions only two options. A person can refuse to budge in a negotiation, give ground in the face of an opposing power, choose to compromise in the interest of moving forward, favor compromise because it is fair for interests to be balanced, or actually learn from an opposing argument and change her mind. I’m for changing one’s mind when (but only when) the opposing arguments are good. I’m not necessarily for compromising or holding firm in a negotiation: that depends on the circumstances. I’m not sure how I would answer the standard survey questions about willingness to compromise.

Partisan heuristics (#5 and #6) are problematic. Indeed, heuristics of any kind are problematic; they are shortcuts that evade harder thinking. On the other hand, heuristics are necessary because our brains are limited and we have other things to think about besides politics. People who have strong partisan identifications are more likely to vote and otherwise participate than people who don’t know how to identify themselves politically. This suggests that partisan heuristics are resources that enable political action. As long as the available party labels stand for reasonably valuable options, and the major options are available, I am not overly worried about partisan heuristics.

Here’s a thought-provoking example: Between 2011 and the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape, White Evangelicals changed their minds about whether political leaders who act immorally in private can nevertheless “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life.” In 2011, White Evangelicals were the group least likely to agree with that; now they are the most likely to agree–a rapid, 42-point change. It would seem that their support for Donald Trump (81% of them voted for him) drove their opinions about a broader and deeper issue. But was this a case of partisan heuristics overwhelming people’s judgments or of people learning from experience? Perhaps their assessment of Trump caused them to revise and complicate a prior assumption about private morality.

It seems worse to choose neighborhoods and friends based on party labels (#6) than to vote on the basis of partisan heuristics (#5). To be sure, it’s good to take politics seriously, and if you do, your political judgments may affect your everyday choices. But using party labels to choose friends and neighbors prevents exposure to a broader range of perspectives (#7 and #8).

Problems #7-9 are all about living in separate bubbles, whether by accident (#7) or by choice (#8); whether in real life (#7 and #8) or in the media environment (#9). The last issue, #10 (holding different factual beliefs) follows from #7-9. I am not certain these problems are worse than they were when the entire South was “solid” for the Democrats and the whole small-town North “waved the bloody flag” for the GOP. However, we have lost large mediating institutions, such as grassroots-based political parties and metropolitan daily newspapers, that once exposed people to alternative views. The trend has been toward massively disaggregated choice. You used to decide whether or not to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Now you decide which paragraph of which article to send to whom. Massively disaggregated choice has promoted balkanization, which manifests in #7-10.

See also: the hollowing out of US democracycivic education in a time of inequality and polarization; and don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • JanetLRD

    Good piece, as always. Do demographics such as age play a part? I am thinking of my 80+ year old mother who does not have any internet exposure, but still reads a newspaper and watches news from one of the more traditional networks (ABS, CBS, NBC). Although I would label her conservative, she seems more willing to consider other viewpoints than some who watch, say, Fox News. I also have a lot of concern regarding heuristics in that people on both sides are reading these memes on-line that turn out to be generated by Russian (or other) bots, and sometimes I am as guilty as anyone else. I just don’t have the time or energy to vet everything I read on-line.