The Political Divide
Are our emotions preventing us from discussing the issues that impact us most?
By Maureen Harmon
It’s not you, it’s me.
It’s not just the politicians who are poor examples of political conversationalists. Cable television isn’t helping. Neither is your brain. “The news isn’t really ‘the news’ anymore,” says Paul Harris, professor of psychology. “Our news sources, given economics, are pandering to the audience that is watching them.” Gournelos takes it a step further: The people we’re calling “journalists”—Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher—are actually employed as actors. “They’re spouting sound bites. They’re not spouting facts.”
And in most cases, they’re preaching to the choir. Due to a psychological theory called “confirmation bias,” we selectively seek commentary that supports our political beliefs, says Harris, and in doing so, our views become more extreme. Instead of getting our information from a variety of news sources, a liberal might opt to get it from a source that leans left in its commentary, while a conservative seeks out one that leans right. When voters limit their exposure to other viewpoints, Harris says, they become more and more assured that their position is right, which in turn makes them more and more upset when they hear a challenging opinion. “My beliefs get more reinforced,” he says, “and I’m rarely exposed to beliefs contradictory to my own.” (Not only does the “birds-of-a-feather” mentality reinforce opinions, it can strengthen them through a psychological theory called group polarization. For example, take 10 people who rate their support of Romney as a 7 on a scale of 1–10. Get that group together, get them talking, and the group as a whole will support Romney at a level of 8 or higher, says Harris, even though their individual ratings were lower.)
“Confirmation bias” also affects the way we process information coming from candidates. The boisterous and giggling Joe Biden, for example, can be perceived as rude by one person and scrupulous by another. In other words, the person who believes Biden to be a left-leaning bumbler will perceive him as such. Another who thinks he tells it like it is will have her perceptions confirmed as well—conveniently, all in the same televised debate.
Not only do we seek commentary that supports our views, we seek friends who do the same. Here Harris points to research on “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Your “in-group” might include fellow scrapbookers, fellow working moms, fellow liberals or conservatives. Those in the out-group aren’t into the same hobbies as you; or they don’t hold the same religious beliefs; or they vote for the other side. We also perceive our in-groups and out-groups through different lenses—it’s called the “out-grouping homogeneity effect,” which is psych-talk for perceiving your own group as being particularly diverse, while lumping individuals in the other group under one label. A middle-of-the road Democrat, for example, might think that members of her party are spread evenly across the liberal-conservative spectrum, but when she thinks of Republicans, she labels them all as wildly conservative. “Once you say they’re all the same, it’s easier to pigeonhole that group,” says Harris, “and it becomes an ‘us and them’ mentality.”
The media tends to reinforce that mentality, often opting to cover the battles instead of the issues. “What the media covers is the combat between the debaters. Who’s aggressive? Who’s calm? Did someone have a ‘zinger’? Who’s backed up against the wall?” says Don Davison. “There’s an emphasis in that sort of drama.”
In turn, and in real time, voters take to social media sites to weigh in and encourage the battle as if this were a football game and not a political debate on the national stage. When the first presidential debate in Denver seemed civil, Twitter filled with messages about how boring it was. The following day, CNN reported the “25 funniest tweets” about the event, which included messages like, “So far, this is as exciting as Lunesta. Which I love. #mockthevote;” “This is like watching a tax law professor debate an investment advice infomercial host;” and “Hey Obama — TRAIN WITH HILLARY. This is ROCKY III and she’s your Apollo Creed. #eyeofthetiger.”
According to Gournelos, there’s another factor at play in the degeneration of political discourse: fear. “We’re afraid on both sides,” he says. “It’s a manifestation of a real fear about our future, our children’s future, our neighbors’ futures, our own future.” Just think about the biggest issues for the candidates: the middle class, the economy, employment, health care, even China. “America’s talking deferentially about China,” Gournelos says. “People are beginning to see that there are other superpowers. It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around it.”
We’re also pretty tired. We don’t have enough hours in the week to read the paper, says Gournelos, because we’re working all the time to achieve the American dream, which these days, is out of reach for the majority of the population. “The American dream is there. We just can’t have it. … How do you respond?” he asks. “In many cases, you respond violently.”
Don Davison agrees. “Economic inequality is a major driving force for this,” he says, and suggests that the last time we saw this much political polarization was about 100 years ago when an emerging middle class fought for progressive policies to combat the economic inequality in the United States. When Woodrow Wilson enacted some of those progressive policies, the gap between the rich and the poor narrowed, says Davison, and with the heat off, members of Congress started cooperating with each other again. “As inequality expands, you see paralleled development in Congress, where party polarization intensifies. It’s at the highest historical levels possible that we can mathematically measure,” he says, citing a 2005 study, “Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches” by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal published through the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. “The good news is it can’t get any worse. Mathematically, at least.”