The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Modern campaigns have rarely focused on the issues, but in the 2012 election the level of moral outrage and anger is unprecedented. Even before the campaign, America was divided, but come next year, if President Obama is re-elected he will likely face a country more polarized than at any time in more than a century.
In a new article at The Breakthrough Journal titled ”The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism,” Dietram Scheufele and I investigate how all of us together – liberals and conservatives, intellectuals and journalists – have managed to so deeply damage our civic culture and to lose sight of a common purpose in American politics.
As we detail, extreme polarization serves well the goals of conservatives, but by adopting similar political strategies, liberals have unwittingly jeopardized their own electoral and policy ambitions.
Over the past decade, the creation of liberal think tanks, media watchdogs, billionaire donor networks, and cable news programs to match the Right has turned political discourse into an outrage industry and governing into a form of trench warfare.
Relentless ideological confrontation has also done deep damage to our civic culture, driving moderate leaders from politics, and promoting feelings of cynicism, inefficacy, and distrust among the public. Those especially affected are young people and minorities, core constituencies that Democrats depend on to play an active role in politics and to vote on Election Day.
Rebuilding Our Civic Culture
In the aftermath of the November election, we write that it is time for liberals to “turn more attention and resources to rebuilding our civic culture….re-forming our civic and political institutions in ways that create some possibility for moderation, deliberation, and crosscutting discourse,” recognizing “that without a functioning civic culture, there can be no progressive governance.”
We argue for reforming the Congressional primary system in a manner that allows a greater number of moderates to run for and win office. We also suggest ways to reduce the demand for money in election campaigns. Yet fixing our electoral system is not enough.
Our most critical need is to rebuild our civic infrastructure, investing in institutional reforms that enable interaction with people who are politically not like ourselves. This includes promoting greater ideological diversity within academia and across intellectual forums; investing in new models for independent journalism especially at the regional level; and expanding civic education and service learning programs.
Most importantly, we encourage liberals to adopt a new mindset and approach to politics, arguing that civility, respect, and compromise are more effective strategies than relentless ideological confrontation. As we write: “For better or worse, as the party of government, liberals have greater incentive than conservatives to reach across the aisle and pursue pragmatic solutions to America’s problems.”
The Public Square: A New Blog
The publication of The Polarization Paradox also marks the launch of The Public Square, my new blog hosted by the Breakthrough Institute. Drawing on research, expert voices, and feedback from readers, my main focus at The Public Square will be on identifying and evaluating investments that enable Americans to once again understand and negotiate our political differences.
Also contributing blogs to the Breakthrough Institute’s redesigned web site are Michael Lind, Policy Director of the Economic Growth program at the New America Foundation, and Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Read the Article:
Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2012). The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism. Breakthrough Journal, 3, 55-69.
About the Journal:
Launched shortly after the death of heterodox sociologist Daniel Bell, the Breakthrough Journal embraces Bell’s view that “A new public philosophy will have to be created in order that something we recognize as a liberal society may survive.” The journal publishes long-form and shorter essays “aimed at challenging conventional progressive and environmental wisdom in service of creating a relevant and powerful new politics.” Previous contributors include Dalton Conley, Vaclav Smil, Bruno Latour, Dan Sarewitz, Peter Kareiva, Mark Sagoff, and Steven Hayward.
The journal is published by the Breakthrough Institute, a West Coast think tank committed to modernizing liberal thought for the 21st century. Founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough’s mission is “to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.”
About the Authors:
Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication and director of the Climate Shift Project at American University. He has published over 50 peer-refereed studies, book chapters, and monographs examining the communication dynamics of policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over science, the environment and public health. This work has been cited more than 800 times in the peer-reviewed literature and in over 300 books. Nisbet is a past Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is an inaugural member of the Google Science Communication Fellows program. He is currently a visiting Shorenstein Fellow in Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Dietram A. Scheufele holds the John E. Ross Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is Co-PI of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. He has published over 130 peer-refereed articles, book chapters and monographs dealing with public opinion and the political effects of mass communication and currently co-chairs the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists, a joint committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Bar Association. Scheufele has been a tenured faculty member at Cornell University and a Shorenstein visiting fellow at Harvard University, and is currently a DAAD Visiting Professor at the Institut for Communication Research, Technical University Dresden, Germany.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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