Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

“You probably have the sense that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s ever been in any or our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition. And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes.”

That is how Robb Willer began his TED Talk, How to have better political conversations. A commenter said, “He never answered why the polarization has gotten so much worse though.” In my opinion, it hasn’t gotten worse.

The US presently isn’t more divided than it was during the 1960s, isn’t more divided than it was during the violent early 1900s, isn’t more divided than it was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and isn’t more divided than among the founding generation of Federalists vs Anti-Federalists. This is another one of those simplistic, superficial, and misleading mainstream narratives. And yet it is an extremely compelling story to tell.

People aren’t disagreeing more than ever. It’s just that they are being heard more and hearing others more, because of the growth of mass media and social media. People are being faced with knowing what others think and believe, not being allowed to remain in blissful ignorance as in the past. People feel polarized because they see it in activist groups, mainstream politics, and corporate media. That experience shouldn’t be dismissed, as it feels all too real and does have real consequences. Still, this sense of conflict is misleading. In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.

If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.

If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.

Consider specific issues.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.

That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion limits, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.

Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?

If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.

Here is the takeaway. The general public is not polarized, as research again and again has proven. It is the mainstream media and political elites, the political parties and think tanks, the lifelong partisans and ideological activists who are polarized. In economic terms, it the middle-to-upper class and not the lower classes that are polarized.

The apparent hyper-partisanship comes from not increasing number of partisans, but from increasing number of moderates identifying as independents and increasing number of non-partisans entirely giving up on the political system. I’d also add that it isn’t that this has happened equally across the board. Studies show Democrats aren’t any more liberal than they were decades ago (more conservative, if anything; or at least more neocon and neoliberal), even as Republicans have moved ever further to the right. This has caused public debate to become disconnected from the public opinion, disconnected from the beliefs, values and concerns of most Americans. On many major issues, the general public has moved to the political left which exacerbates this disconnection, creating a situation where the two choices are a conservative Democratic Party and a right-wing Republican Party.

The problem is that the polarized (or rather polarizing) minority entirely controls public debate and the political system. Watching this meaningless spectacle of polarized conflict and dysfunction, the non-polarized majority is some combination of not registered, not voting, voting third party, voting semi-randomly, identifying as independent, politically apathetic, demoralized, hopeless, resigned, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. Some of the general public can be temporarily manipulated by polarization, such as when given forced choices and when threatened with fear-mongering, but in the end their basic values and concerns don’t support polarization.

Meanwhile the party insiders of both main parties, when the issue is important enough to the interests of themselves, their cronies and the donor class, always seem to find a way to agree and cooperate about passing bills and enacting laws that further push public policy toward neoconservatism and neoliberalism. The culture war framing makes for good stories to tell on the corporate media for mass consumption, but they aren’t what drive actual politics.

At the very highest level of wealth and power, there is very little polarization and a whole lot of collusion and cronyism. Some would argue that even the political elite aren’t actually more polarized. They may be arguing more about more issues, even as the substance of conflict might not indicate any greater disagreement overall than in the past. Others, such as myself, would see most of the partisan bickering as yet more political theater to keep the public distracted.

Certainly, there is no polarization in the deep state, the double government, or whatever you wish to call it. Major public policies aren’t left to chance. Research has shown that the general public has little influence on what politicians do. Some take this argument further, pointing that often even elected officials have little power to change things. That is because elected officials represent a miniscule part of the entrenched bureaucracy. Besides, many political elites don’t necessarily operate within the government itself, such as think tanks shaping policy and lobbyists writing bills. For those who aren’t part of the ruling elite, this discourages them from getting involved in politics or running for office.

How would we know if our society is more polarized, in what ways, what it means, and to whose benefit? Polls don’t just tell us what public opinion is. They shape public opinion and polling during elections can influence voting behavior. And what data the corporate media decides to report and how they frame it shapes the public mind. Some might call it public perception management. Is the public really polarized or made to feel polarized or that everyone around them is polarized? What is the agenda in making the public feel divided and individuals isolated?

One thing is so clear as to be beyond all argument. We don’t have a functioning democracy: gerrymandering, establishment-controlled nomination process, third parties excluded from debates, partisan corporate media, perception management, think tank propaganda, astroturf organizations, paid trolls, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, campaigns and political access determined by big money, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, legalized bribery, pervasive secrecy and unaccountability, etc. So, we don’t have elections that offer real choices and actual influence. And because of this, we don’t have political elites that represent the citizenry.

I’m not sure what polarization means within a political system that is oligarchic, plutocratic, corporatist, and inverted totalitarian. Is it really polarized or is it working according to design? And for the all too real divisions that exist, are they ideological or demographic? Are the majority of poor, white and non-white, politically polarized in any meaningful sense when most of them are so politically apathetic as to not vote? As inequality grows along with poverty and desperation, will our greatest concern be how polarized are the tiny minority of the remaining middle-to-upper class?

* * *

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Racial Polarization of Partisans
Most Americans Know What is True
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2
Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

* * *

7 in 10 Americans ‘Not Upset’ with Gay Marriage, New iMediaEthics Poll Finds
by Andy Sternberg and David W. Moore

Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere
by Yeggmen

America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe
by Eric Alterman

America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think
by Lee Drutman

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals
by John Sides

You’re Probably Not as Conservative as You Think
by Tom Jacobs

You May Think You’re Right … Young Adults Are More Liberal Than They Realize
by Ethan Zell and Michael J. Bernstein

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…
by George Hawley

Ideological Labels in America
by Claassen, Tucker, and Smith

Political Ideology
by Jost, Federico, and Napier

Operational and Symbolic Ideology in the American Electorate
by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson

The Ideological Right vs. The Group Benefits Left
by Matt Grossmann

In Search of the Big Sort
by Samuel J Abrams

Who Fits the Left-Right Divide?
by Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner

Despite Headline, Pew Poll Does Not Show a Polarized America
by Todd Eberly

Most experts think America is more polarized than ever. This Stanford professor disagrees. And he thinks the 2016 election has only buttressed his interpretation.
by Jeff Stein

Polarized or Sorted? Just What’s Wrong With Our Politics, Anyway?
by Alan I. Abramowitz and Morris P. Fiorina

Disconnected: The Political Class versus the People
by Morris P. Fiorina

Has the American Public Polarized?
by Morris P. Fiorina

America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight
by Morris P. Fiorina

Moderates: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?
by Molly Ball

Politics aren’t more partisan today–we’re just fighting about more issues
by Heather Hurlburt

Preference Change through Choice
by Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and Nick Chater

(Mis)perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil Malhotra

(Mis)perceiving Political Polarization
by Nathan Collins

Americans overestimate political polarization, according to new CU-Boulder research
by Greg Swenson

The Effect of “False” Polarization
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil A. Malhotra

Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think
by Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski

Constructing Public Opinion
by Justin Lewis

Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?
by Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhorta

Do Partisan Media Add to Political Polarization?
by Anne Kim

The Limits of Partisan Prejudice
by Yphtach Lelkes and Sean J. Westwood

Elite Polarization and Public Opinion
Joshua Robison and Kevin J. Mullinix

How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship
by Harry J Enten

Elite Polarization, Partisan Ambivalence, and a Preference for Divided Government
by Lavine, Johnston, Steenbergen, and Perkins

Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress
by Danielle M. Thomsen

How party activists, not voters in general, drive political polarization
by Gillian Kiley

Polls of Persuasion: Beware of the Horse Race
by Alicia Wanless

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith

35 thoughts on “Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

    • I’d love to see some serious, high quality investigative journalism into how the media has been used to manage perception and manipulate voters. I’m specifically thinking about this recent election, in the relationship between specific journalists and the Democratic establishment.

      • Maybe I’m petty but as a nonwhite woman I STILL resent the clinton and democrats for their actions and substanceless ID politics.

        I don’t think people have forgiven democrats at all. Trumps actions may be galvanizing protests against his administration but they are not simultaneously winning the democrats more support

        “It’s a form of symbolic diversity politics still very much in vogue, as seen in the Hillary Clinton campaign’s behind-the-scenes push to leverage friendly woman and non-white writers to attack Sanders, exposed in John Podesta’s hacked emails. Those emails also showed former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, an Obama ally challenging Berniecrat Rep. Keith Ellison for DNC chairperson, pushing the Clinton campaign to change the “narrative … from Bernie kicks ass among young voters to Bernie does well only among young white liberals”—a narrative that, given Sanders’ strong support from young people of any color, was false but resonant for those primed to believe it.”

        • I don’t consider that pettiness. From my perspective, there would have to be something severely wrong with you if you didn’t resent it. And if more people resented it, it wouldn’t be tolerated and we might have a fighting chance for a functioning democracy.

          Many people haven’t forgiven Democrats. I suspect many will never forgive Democrats. They are damaged goods. The only way they’ll ever be worthy of trust again is if everyone in power right now is eliminated from the party and essentially the party is rebuilt from the ground up through grassroots organizing, which would mean they’d become an entirely new party.

    • Clinton had every non-voter advantage, literally all money and media and elites were pulling strings for her. And she still lost to a manchild.

      There’s rumors that she wants to run again. Good God.

      • I suppose she is banking on the idea that Trump will fail to such an extent that people will want Clinton.

        It’s a dangerous idea to underestimate Trump.

        • It’s more likely the entire system will fail, at least from the perspective of most potential voters.

          “Elite media tend to dismiss these invisible citizens’ anger and fear as crude racism. But citizens tell Gallup that their top concern is the economy, followed by dissatisfaction with government and unemployment/jobs,” Clifton noted. “All three concerns rank higher than immigration and race relations. I wonder if American elites in both parties and the media know that a staggering 75% of Americans believe corruption is ‘widespread’ in the U.S. government.”


    • I don’t care about either the Democratic Party or identity politics. I’m tired of the games, the political bullshit and manipulative rhetoric. It really doesn’t matter what games are best for winning. This is about human lives. Only the powerful win when these games are played.

      It would be refreshing to hear some plain moral honesty. Where is someone to speak straightforward truth in the way MLK spoke. MLK wasn’t trying to win an election or promote a political party. He simply spoke truth to power because it was the right thing to do, no matter the consequences.

      That is the only way positive change will ever happen.

    • Of course, it depends on how much wealth.

      If anyone of any race has enough wealth, they can live anywhere they want and no one could stop them. The question is how much wealth does it take. Being average middle class won’t buy you that kind of freedom and power. But being a black politician, media celebrity, sports star, etc would.

      It’s not that class always trumps race. But even a middle class black who experiences segregation wouldn’t exchange their class position to be in an integrated community of severely, desperately poor whites and blacks.

    • I don’t doubt there are some people like that. But from what I can tell, such people are only a minority of Trump voters. There doesn’t seem to be any single reason for why most people voted for him. It was many small reasons.

      Not all Trump voters even hated Obama. Going by the data, many of the areas that went for Trump previously went to Obama and so a large number of them probably voted for Obama. It’s easy to forget how much support Obama gained in his first campaign and he did so by using progressive rhetoric just as Trump used.

  1. The rule of law has lost its perceived legitimacy

    Sanctuary cities, peoples’ unwillingness to have law enforcement enforce immigration laws, the drug war has totally shattered the positive perception of law enforcement, lots of SJWs believe all 3 branches of government are de facto or de jure racist institutions, the US has destroyed its reputation by invading Vietnam and what seems like every Middle Eastern country, etc etc etc etc.

    Bank bailouts – the common man sees the government as an armed gang protecting the interests of the 1% of the 1%.
    Sanctuary cities – people are unwilling to have law enforcement do its job because it will hurt the self-interest of certain groups. This also applies to private citizens who do not support the enforcement of this law.
    SJWs (who are a major cultural force) believe all 3 branches of government are de facto or de jure racist institutions. How can you have a country when significant numbers of people believe the system is inherently evil? How can you get them to set aside their disagreements with the law in favor of political stability?
    The US has destroyed its reputation through the invasions of Vietnam and what seems like every Middle Eastern country. The US foreign policies under Bush and Obama were HUGE factors in the current migrant crisis which is destabilizing Europe financially and politically.
    The Drug War has shattered the reputation of law enforcement in particular, because people understand drug use is a victimless crime, and young peoples’ (and thus pop culture’s) encounters with police are mostly characterized by shaking someone down for owning a plant, pill, or powder. There is no greater way to destroy public perception of the rule of law.
    The apathy we see towards politics in the US is a result of the massively weakened rule of law. How does one strengthen the rule of law after it has been weakened so continually for so many decades? There are no answers which are comfortable or easy.

    • Such resistance as this was seen during the Populist-Progressive era.

      During Prohibition, many who broke the law escaped without punishment because the jury of peers at the county courts refused to give guilty charges to their neighbors. And of course citizens joined organized gangs that sometimes fought mini-wars with the government. During the Great Depression when people came to foreclose on a farm, the neighbors would greet them with guns.

      In early 20th century, black communities weren’t afraid to take care of their own problems, knowing the government would never intervene on their behalf. Black WWI vets had guns and weren’t afraid to use them, even against mobs of white people. They also fought mini-wars, to defend themselves, their families and communities.

      The WASP KKK, the Italian Black Hand, and the German Bund also often took the law into their own hands. Labor organizers were also not afraid to fight corporate goons and Pinkertons, even using deadly violence when it came to that. Few people, beyond the wealthy and powerful, seemed to have much trust in government back then. And there was good reason, as government was blatantly corrupt to a degree it is hard for us to imagine, such as politicians regularly being bribed and not in any kind of sneaky, secretive way.

      It doesn’t seem worse now than it was back then. The late 1800s to the early 1900s was a time of lawlessness and one of the most violent periods of US history, about as violent as the wave of homicides in the 1970s and 1980s. That is what is different. Most of us are now safer than we have ever been in all of history (violence, as a per capita rate, has been dropping like a rock in countries all over the world and it apparently was caused by improved lead regulation).

      Americans are beginning to fear their government more than even other Americans. We are returning more to the public attitude during the Gilded Age, when the main divide wasn’t between races and ethnicities but between the rich and the poor.

    • That contributes to my feeling that Trump doesn’t actually represent even many Trump voters. There were so many people who were desperate for change or simply feeling frustration and outrage. Many thought Obama might be that change, but he failed.

      I watched the movie based on Edward Snowden. Obviously, he didn’t vote for Trump, but it sounds like he may have voted for Obama. That is interesting because years before that he apparently was a right-winger who liked Ayn Rand.

      Oddly, it was working for the government and seeing what it was doing wrong that led him to become more liberal. When Obama made the situation worse by going after whistleblowers, Snowden decided he had to release what he knew, even though it had been an unthinkable act when he began his career.

      Sure, Trump is bad. Even so, no one can honestly claim that Clinton was going to be a good choice that wouldn’t have been worse than Obama. She would have been more oppressive and war-mongering than Obama, maybe even more of a corporatist neocon than Bush.

      Voting for Trump was an act of desperation. It wasn’t part of a rational decision-making process. There is no way to be rational with choices this horrific. People were simply gambling on Trump, gambling in a literal sense. Most of them probably knew it was a long shot because they knew he was full of shit, but they were hoping beyond all hope that somehow he might shake things up and force change.

      It’s unsurprising that so many of Trump voters now feel regret. All Americans should feel regret for the last half century of near continuous political failure, of worse leading to ever worse with no happy end in sight. For those who do feel regret, they are at least being honest with themselves. Most partisan and establishment Democrats, however, don’t seem capable of either regret or honesty.

  2. “The modern day Republicans have been taken over by centrists such as Rubio and big government civic nationalists such as Trump. The modern day Republican party hasn’t been a purely meritocratic, small government system in decades. Andrew Jackson would be ashamed. Trump is more of a George Wallace style populist who uses the right language to get enough support from mainstream Americans looking for the lesser evil and his true followers(white nationalists/supremacists who are fearful of a growing nonwhite America).
    Trump himself is just a puppet of Netanyahu like most politicians and I never feared him for his tough talk. However, his election has emboldened the alt-right movement which used to be underground but is currently making a lot of moves in the West, politically and socially.
    It’s all fun and games now that they still don’t have much power and influence and are still associated with basement dwellers but that mass shooting in Quebec proves that they’re increasingly leaving their basements and slowly gaining influence and that should alarm any minority or immigrant(legal or not.)”

    • To be fair, Andrew Jackson was a Democrat. As for Republicans, I don’t know that they have ever been for small government. Point to one Republican in the entire history of the party that ever shrunk the government or even seriously attempted to do so. The early Republicans like Lincoln were never anti-government. In the early 20th century, from T. Roosevelt and Eisenhower, Republicans weren’t anti-government. Nixon wasn’t anti-government either.

      The anti-government rhetoric began with Goldwater, but he was never elected and represented a denial of what the Republican Party stood for. Goldwater introduced Reagan into politics. I’d argue, though, that Reagan won more on war hawk neoconservatism, sunny pseudo-progressive corporatism, Cold War culture war, white supremacist law and order, etc—none of which indicated any real intention of shrinking government. Reagan grew the government with increased government employees, raised taxes several times, funded the military beyond the Pentagon’s recommendations, and created the permanent debt that grows exponentially.

      The next two GOP presidents of the Bush dynasty have never been anti-government. And Trump, well, he has no clear political ideology, but he sure does like stirring up the shit. I have my doubts that such shit-stirring is going to do the GOP much good in the long term. Still, it no doubt will cause immense problems for everyone in the short term. The positive in this is that I think Americans might still have enough fight in them at the moment to be able to keep the worst forms of authoritarianism from becoming fully manifest. I’ve always worried more about creeping authoritarianism because that is what will catch us unprepared. Trump’s blustery authoritarianism is too obvious to be ignored. Clinton’s authoritarianism, like Obama’s authoritarianism, would slowly worsen while maintaining a superficial appearance of respectability.

      Having just watched the movie about Edward Snowden, I was reminded of what was wrong with Obama. Some scary developments has been going on in our government for many years. It’s the stuff of the worst nightmares of the most paranoid conspiracy theorists, minus the alien abductions and reptilian overlords.

  3. “I have visited balkans and Greece . They almost always have black/brown hair, brown eyes and they can get a light tan. I spent almost a week near the Black Sea area and didn’t see a single blonde.

    People don’t realize that the majority of Europeans have dark hair and eyes. And they can tan.”

    • As one looks further from Northwestern Europe, on average the darker the hair and eyes and sometimes skin color as well. Even some Southern Germans closer to France were known for their dark hair, swarthy skin. It really is only a minority of the European population in a fairly small area that fits the Aryan fantasy of whiteness.

  4. I put one up few months ago at entersmcd to my neighborhood but it got stolen. Do you think it would still work now? They’re cheaper now so I could buy a few to put up.

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