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The forces behind political polarization

Jonathan Haidt explains in a recent essay that we become politically polarized when centripetal or centrifugal forces are imbalanced. These are the forces that draw us together or pull us apart.

“Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks.”

The “good kind of identity politics,” according to Haidt, is exemplified by MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech that ”framed our greatest moral failing as an opportunity for centripetal redemption.” Identity becomes centrifugal “when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions” identifying which groups have power over which others and furthermore when you say that they must “fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male.” When students are told to examine everything “in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people....This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.”

Polarization is a problem insofar as it prevents people from working together to maintain a democracy. “Here," Haidt says, "is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life.” Therefore the Founding Fathers of the United States designed a constitution as if it were “a clock that might run forever if they chose the right springs and gears.” They “built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances. But they also knew that they had to train future generations of clock mechanics. They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.” Today, however, “our government is divided into two all-consuming factions, which cut right down the middle of each of the three branches, uniting the three red half-branches against the three blue half-branches”.

Haidt referred to a previous essay in which he argued that polarization was caused by the following trends. In his words:

  1. The two parties purified themselves ideologically
  2. As politicians polarized, so did many Americans
  3. The urban-rural divide grew into a gulf, reflecting diverging interests and values
  4. Immigration was rising, leading to larger racial and ethnic divisions
  5. The net effect of all these trends is that partisans dislike one another more intensely
  6. Meanwhile, rule changes and culture changes in Congress made it harder to maintain cross-party friendships
  7. The media environment changed, making it easier for partisans to confirm their worst suspicions, and putting greater pressure on politicians to play to the extremes
  8. As the costs of campaigns increased, politicians have become increasingly afraid of offending their party’s donors
  9. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States lost a common enemy that had once unified the country
  10. The end of the Cold War coincided with the baton pass from the Greatest Generation to the baby boomers, who may be more prone to hyper-partisanship

Nina Khrushcheva has a more specific observation about clock mechanics. She applauded moments in U.S. history where politicians defended the procedural checks and balances even against other pressing moral demands, such as when "Secretary of State Daniel Webster supported the Compromise of 1850, despite his hatred of slavery, in order to save the union" and when "Robert Taft denounced the Nuremberg Trials, despite his hatred of the Nazis, to defend the fundamental US legal principle that a person could not be criminally charged on the basis of a retroactive statute." (Both of these examples were featured in President John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.) She notes the current initiative in late 2017 "to pass a tax bill that would benefit America’s wealthiest households at the expense of saddling the country with more than $1 trillion in additional debt" and she implies that the process could have benefited from "thorough public committee hearings" and with less willingness on the part of politicians to "trade their honor for the approval of their tribe."

Adam Garfinkle gives seven reasons for the decline of trust in society. The first three or four overlap with Haidt's reasons for polarization.
  1. heterogeneous demographics driven by immigration
  2. the lack of a "common language to discuss good and evil" and the rise of "Christian neo-fundamentalism"
  3. less face-to-face interaction due to technology and class segregation
  4. institutional and bureaucratic failure
  5. media portrayals of the world as a mean place
  6. breakdown of family leading to emotional insecurity
  7. too much state intrusion

Being open to changing one's beliefs according to evidence

Various recent studies have found that American conservatives are more likely to share fake news, more prone to self-deception, and less likely to change their beliefs in response to evidence. They use simpler language and many of them are falling prone to authoritarianism. This is discussed in a July 2020 New York Times article.

Starting fights

Legal actions for political purposes can worsen polarization. In May 2018, Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe said: "It's important that we not exacerbate the dysfunction and the polarization in the society that helped Donald Trump rise to power in the first place." He explained that impeachment needs to be an action taken to rectify a specific abuse. "If we were to use the impeachment power simply as a substitute for buyer's remorse, saying 'We thought this guy was terrible, but he's even worse,' if we were going to use it against ambient badness, rather than clear abuse of power — we would really use the impeachment power to undermine, rather than save, our democracy."


Anne Applebaum wrote in 2020:

The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts or even deletion campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube, and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favor, whether it is a certain brand of soap or a particular form of politics. The algorithms radicalize those who use them too. If you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites. Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear.

Being guided by polarization

Leaf Van Boven and David Sherman conducted studies in 2014 and 2016 showing that Republicans and Democrats agree that climate change exist but they tend to support whatever policies are backed by their own party.

YouGov opinion polls in August 2018 found dramatic differences between Republicans and Democrats regarding opinions toward the n-word slur against black people. 90% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton, but only 53% of those who voted for Trump, agreed that white people should never use this word. Trump voters were even less likely to use the word "racist" to describe this behavior; while 86% of Clinton voters agreed that "it's racist for whites to use" that word, only 33% of Trump voters thought so. And while 86% of Clinton voters "wouldn't vote for [a] candidate who said it," only 26% of Trump voters held themselves to the same standard. The Washington Post story points out that, only twelve years previously, this gap barely existed; then, "55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans said that the n-word was offensive."

The United States is polarizing faster than other countries

In early 2020, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Jesse Shapiro, Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow, showed research that (according to a news release from Brown University) "present[s] the first ever multi-nation evidence on long-term trends in 'affective polarization' — a phenomenon in which citizens feel more negatively toward other political parties than toward their own. They found that in the U.S., affective polarization has increased more dramatically since the late 1970s than in the eight other countries they examined — the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden." The study shows that "polarization had also risen in Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland in the last 40 years, but to a lesser extent. In the U.K., Australia, Germany, Norway and Sweden, polarization decreased."

Local journalism matters

Marc Ambinder wrote for MSNBC on Nov. 5, 2020:

there is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers. If you live in a town with a thriving local news ecosystem, you are more likely to vote.


“The Age of Outrage: What the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities.” Jonathan Haidt. City Journal (Manhattan Institute). Dec. 17, 2017.

"Profiles in Cowardice." Nina L. Khrushcheva. Project Syndicate. Dec. 18, 2017.

"In Way Too Little We Trust." Adam Garfinkle. The American Interest. December 13, 2017.

Anne Applebaum. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. New York: Doubleday, 2020. Chapter IV: "Cascades of Falsehood.”


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