Building the great divide

Having talked about the division in politics today it seemed like a good time to look at where the divide game from. Luckily, the Pew Center has a new study out (“Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years“) on the growing partisanship of the public.

Let me start by emphasizing that this is about public opinion. This is us. Bush and Obama could have done much more to change the tone in politics, but this data makes it clear that many of us are readily buying anything and everything the fringes of the parties are feeding us. In fact, 71% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats say their parties have not done a good job standing up for their party’s traditional positions. That’s right. We’re asking for our parties to be more divisive.

Growing divide between parties on environmental lawsEnvironmental policy an excellent example of the growing divide. In 1992, Republicans, Democrats and independent voters differed little on support for environmental laws. Since then the gap has grown dramatically.

As the Pew study documents, something like this has happened on many issues.

One of the first things scholars learned when they started doing research into voting behavior is that party identification plays a complicated role in the voting decision. People’s party identification aren’t simply the result of what we see in politics. Partisanship shapes their perception of the political world. Simply put, many of us see the world as Democrats or Republicans. We filter or shade information based on our previously held political views and this confirms our party identification.

Partisan gap vs other gaps

The Pew results show that the partisan divide has been growing rapidly while divisions based on race, education, wealth, etc have changed little.

Today, it looks like voters are increasingly picking their issues based on their partisanship. While we can blame partisan media and party leaders for fooling us, we don’t need to make it this easy.

We can find evidence in Texas public opinion. A recent Texas Tribune poll found that opinions on Planned Parenthood were strongly correlated with party identification and political philosophy.

Attitudes on Planned Parenthood by party

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discussed on a recent episode of Bill Moyer & company, Americans have become increasingly interested in dividing up into good vs evil. Haidt argues that once we crossed over from normal political disagreement into Manichaean (good versus evil) politics we made compromise impossible because you don’t compromise with evil.

Haidt talks about the need to get beyond “confirmation bias” and only getting information that supports our existing views. The virtue of higher education is that it brings together people with different views and from different areas. This disrupts the self-segregation that has created the “lifestyle enclave” where little that we believe is challenged.

If people are concentrating just with people who are like them, then they’re not exposed to the ideas from the other side, from people that they can actually like and respect. If you get all your ideas about the other side from the internet, where there’s no human connection, it’s just so easy, and automatic to reject it, and demonize it. So once we’ve sorted ourselves into homogeneous moral communities, it becomes a lot harder to work together.

The mythology of the Alamo is another example of how we cling to certain beliefs. Authors who have questioned the claim that Davy Crockett fought to the death in the Alamo have reported receiving many angry letters. Apparently, many people feel absolutely certain about how Crockett died. However, everything I have learned about the battle of the Alamo over the last few years indicates that no one knows with any certainty what happened to Crockett. Why then do people feel such absolute certainty about  Crockett’s demise and react with such hostility to anyone who disagrees?

What kind of dialog can we have in a setting like this? How do we teach history and politics to partisans who are resistant to new information and perspectives? And, how to political leaders move the public ahead when the audience has become so proficient at not listening?


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