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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems Take Note: ‘Affective Polarization’ More Destabilizing Than Policy Polarization

As America begins sorting out accountability for the January 6th violence, some nuggets from “Polarization, Democracy, and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says” by Rachel Kleinfeld at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace should be of interest. As Kleinfeld writes:

American voters are less ideologically polarized than they think they are, and that misperception is greatest for the most politically engaged people. Americans across parties share many policy preferences. There is some overlap even on hot-button issues, such as abortion and guns, and more overlap on how to teach American history.1 It is important not to make too much of this overlap, however. For instance, a majority of Democrats as well as four in ten Republicans support banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and creating a federal database to track gun sales; nearly as many Republicans support banning assault-style weapons. But only 18 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners feel gun violence is a major problem (versus 73 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners). So despite the significant policy overlap, only one side is motivated to put the issue on the agenda.2 Democrats have moved to the left on racial issues and some social issues over the last decade, and Republicans have moved to the right on immigration under Joe Biden’s administration, though there remains overlap on these issues as well.3 In some cases, Republicans appear to be slowly adopting more progressive views on some social issues, resulting in what looks like polarization but is perhaps better characterized as faster moves by the left.4

However, most partisans hold major misbeliefs about the other party’s preferences that lead them to think there is far less shared policy belief. This perception gap is highest among progressive activists, followed closely by extreme conservatives: in other words, the people who are most involved in civic and political life hold the least accurate views of the other side’s beliefs…..

American politicians are highly ideologically polarized. In other words, they believe in and vote for different sets of policies, with little overlap. This trend has grown in a steady, unpunctuated manner for decades.5 One reason that the most highly politically engaged Americans may misunderstand the other side is that they correctly estimate the extreme ideological polarization among politicians.

It is easy to assume that polarized voters are selecting more polarized leaders—and that theory may hold true for recent primary elections. However, that is not the main story. The process begins long before voters get a choice: more ideologically extreme politicians have been running for office since the 1980s.6 Among the pool of people wishing to run, party chairs more often select and support extreme candidates, especially on the right. (In 2013, Republican party chairs at the county level selected ten extreme candidates for every one moderate; the ratio was two to one for Democrats.) The increase in “safe” seats, in which one party is overwhelmingly likely to win, explains candidate and party preferences for more polarizing platforms, but it does not explain the depth of the Republican preference.7

Parties and candidates clearly believe that more polarizing candidates are more likely to win elections. This may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: voters exposed to more polarizing rhetoric from leaders who share their partisan identity are likely to alter their preferences based on their understanding of what their group believes and has normalized—particularly among primary voters whose identity is more tied to their party. 8 However, only about 20 percent of each party votes in primaries, and 41 percent of Americans are independents who may not have strong party identity and are barred from voting in some states’ primaries.9 That leaves the majority of voters with a relatively low ability to pick a less polarizing candidate of their party. Philanthropists and prodemocracy organizations attempting to reduce polarization often assume that the problem they must grapple with is polarized voters, but their interventions should also take into account the fact that that some of the ideological extremism and polarization since the 1980s is candidate- and party-driven. While at this point, candidates and parties may be responding to polarized primary voters, candidates and parties have been driving the polarization, and not all voters are ideologically polarized.

The disparity between where leaders are ideologically and where their voters are precludes legislative policy agreement on many issues. Average voters are not able to assert their (often weak) policy preferences because they do not have an effective way to vote out representatives who do not accurately represent their constituents’ views, particularly on the right where party chairs are likely to substitute one extreme candidate for another.

Even though Americans are not as ideologically polarized as they believe themselves to be, they are emotionally polarized (known as “affective polarization”). In other words, they do not like members of the other party. Americans harbor strong dislike for members of the other party (though they also dislike their own parties, as well).10While social media is often blamed for this phenomenon, affective polarization started growing before the internet: its onset more closely correlates with the rise of cable news and radio talk shows.11 It is also growing most swiftly among Americans over sixty-five years old, a demographic that uses the internet less, but watches television and listens to talk radio far more, than younger age groups who are less polarized.12 These findings and other studies about the effects of social media suggest that all media, not just social media, may be playing a role.

….Studies have found that telling people in a believable way that they share policy beliefs and similar demographics and creating a sense that there is a shared identity (though the latter is complicated for minorities who prefer dual identities) are interventions that can reduce affective polarization.14 Often, bringing people together across difference is used to accomplish these ends, and this contact between groups may reduce affective polarization.

Kleinfeld notes further, “What is unique about political violence is that it does not arise from interpersonal friction. Instead, for people with low self-control (a large pool that includes, for instance, teenage boys and anyone who has drunk in excess) and aggressive personalities (which limits that pool somewhat) to turn to violence, they need to be enraged and have that anger directed at a group of people they don’t know. They also need to believe that they will not face severe consequences or not care about consequences (because they are too impulsive to care or because they think the consequences are worth it)…..the normalization of violence by political leaders, in particular, may provide a sense that acting violently against those groups will be permitted, may not be punished, or could be lauded and turn one into a hero (such as how Kyle Rittenhouse was supported monetarily and publicly embraced after he traveled to Wisconsin to offer “protection” from a Black Lives Matter protest and shot and killed two people).” Also,

….As political leaders gin up anger and reduce the sense of consequences, and as affective polarization creates a sense of community and belonging for aggressive, more authoritarian personalities, all types of targeted violence are increasing. Not only are American politicians (from school board members to representatives in Congress) receiving more threats, but also, threats against judges are up, hate crimes are at the highest recorded point in the twenty-first century, and mass shootings are spiking, with perpetrators adopting some political rhetoric into their manifestos or targeting scapegoated groups…..Unfortunately, much prodemocracy programming enhances fear that the other side poses an existential threat to democracy. The attempt to use fear to get voters to pay attention to serious threats to democracy is understandable, particularly raising alarms in certain states or about certain politicians given the degree to which the Republican Party is being taken over by an antidemocratic faction. However, the broad sweep of fear may encourage people to vote while also building support for antidemocratic behavior. This is a real problem the prodemocracy community must consider seriously, possibly by experimenting with more positive, aspirational mobilizing strategies rather than relying on threats. The effects on younger voters, who are already less attached to the democratic system than other demographics, may be particularly harmful over time.

…The affective polarization conversation misses the reality that a portion of angry, low-trust Americans do not simply dislike the other party but distrust nearly every institution in American life: big business, schools, newspapers, television news, Congress, the criminal justice system, and organized religion, among others.40 In reality, they are polarized from a political and economic system that feels separate (hence “elite”) and insensitive to their needs. While polling geared toward affective polarization has found them disgusted with the other party, they in fact feel frustrated and hopeless about the entire U.S. political and economic system in general. Instead of focusing on polarization, the alienation they feel needs to be addressed by enabling agency around problems they—and the people they are often pitted against in more simplistic media accounts—both want solved…. Understanding which problems are shared and solvable cannot be guessed beforehand: it requires discussion and trust-building.

….Polarization is a highly nuanced field, and small assumptions can lead to big mistakes. Practitioners and philanthropists should be particularly careful about assumptions regarding moderation. People who poll as moderates may also be antidemocratic or supportive of political violence, especially on the right. On the left, support for democracy may coincide with support for violence.

Many people think of Americans as arrayed along a straight line, with the far left on one side and the far right on the other. They assume that the people at the edges are the most polarized, the most partisan, hold the most extreme ideological views, and are the most supportive of antidemocratic actions and violence. This is not the case. Consistent conservatives and liberals who are more politically engaged are both more affectively and ideologically polarized and more prodemocracy than those in the middle.

It is a common assumption that people who hold views from both sides of the aisle are economically conservative and socially liberal—the profile of many in the upper-middle-class political elite trying to reduce polarization. In fact, a 2016 study showed that this type of moderate ideology was held by only 3.8 percent of the electorate. Instead, the preponderance of Americans who respond to ideological survey questions with answers on both sides of the aisle (28.9 percent of the electorate) tend to be pro–economic redistribution while also upholding the belief that American citizens should be White, Christian, and born in the United States.44 That mix of views led this group to be swing voters for many years, although since 2016 many have moved more decisively into the Republican Party.

….the antidemocratic right is a plurality of somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Republican Party.49 The proviolence left is tiny and composes an insignificant part of the vote share of Democrats, especially since many may vote for third parties. Both are surrounded, however, by a penumbra of apologists and soft supporters who normalize their behavior. This has allowed the antidemocratic faction of the right to achieve a nearly complete takeover of the Republican Party that is giving it significant political power. Maverick activists on the left hold virtually no political power at any level of government, but their views have achieved outsized cultural sway. Despite their asymmetry, the bogeyman of these two groups is fueling the other and is the main force tearing the country apart—not a more generic or symmetrical polarization.

Kleinfeld adds that “it is worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not think much about politics, do not hold strong ideological views, and can remain quite inconsistent or apt to alter replies when survey wording changes because their views are so weakly held. What is held strongly is a sense of identity. However, political campaigns trigger identity, making it hard to disaggregate in the real world.”

  • The American public feels affectively polarized largely because of misunderstandings about the other side (though the misunderstandings seem sensitive to actual ideological differences). Older Americans are polarizing more quickly than younger Americans. And the United States is polarizing much more rapidly than other Western democracies; partisans even more so. However, the United States may not be more affectively polarized than a number of other multiparty democracies whose systems are functioning much better. The rapidity of U.S. polarization compared to similar wealthy, consolidated democracies suggests that domestic issues in the United States are likely to be driving more of the country’s polarization than issues affecting many other countries.
  • A number of interventions have been shown in lab settings, games, and short experiments to reduce affective intervention in the short term. These include:
    • correcting misperceptions about the other party’s demographics;
    • correcting misperceptions about the other party’s ideological beliefs;
    • forming a dual identity that builds a shared common identity alongside existing minority or other identities; and
    • bringing people of similar economic class and age together in controlled, well-moderated circumstances to engage in a shared activity while building understanding.
  • Reducing affective polarization through these lab experiments and games has not been shown to affect regular Americans’ support for antidemocratic candidates, support for antidemocratic behaviors, voting behavior, or support for political violence.
  • People may be more at risk of affective polarization and more supportive of same-party antidemocratic breaches if they fear that the other party will gain power and use it to undermine democracy. Affective polarization is likely driven more by feelings of threat than simply feelings of dislike.
  • America’s entire media system—not just social media—may be playing a role in both ideological and affective polarization. Highly polarizing cable news and talk radio shows are probably more to blame than social media, and all of their polarizing effects are likely exacerbated because the United States lacks a single trusted media source or trusted local media organizations. Increasing the availability of trusted local media may be a helpful remedy but requires more study.
  • The interaction of economic precarity in rural areas facing a tougher recovery from the 2008–2009 financial crisis—at a moment when greater cultural attention was being directed at racial identity and politicians were exacerbating a sense of status anxiety—may be making rural Americans more vulnerable to racial resentment and affective polarization.
  • Politicians and political incentives are probably playing a larger role in driving affective polarization than structural issues such as inequality or geographic sorting.
  • Interventions to reduce affective polarization will be ineffective if they operate only at the individual, emotional level. Ignoring the role of polarizing politicians and political incentives to instrumentalize affective polarization for political gain will fail to generate change while enhancing cynicism when polite conversations among willing participants do not generate prodemocratic change.
  • Adversarial approaches that position other Americans as immoral and antidemocratic also ignore the understanding that affective polarization is a political strategy. By deepening the binary, us-versus-them frame, they offer a gift to polarizing politicians who wish to generate backlash and deepen polarization.

Finally, it’s appropriate to draw two takeaways from the decade’s worth of research into polarization in general, and recent findings regarding affective polarization.

First, researchers are drawing overly broad, even hyperbolic, conclusions in both positive and negative directions from short-term lab experiments. For example, a 2022 paper by Jan G. Voelkel and other researchers analyzing a “megastudy” of the dozens of Stanford anti-polarization interventions found that a number of “successful” interventions reduced affective polarization based on effects that were tested at most two weeks afterward.207 A second paper released later that year by Voelkel and an overlapping group of scholars declared, “our findings suggest that affective polarization may not be as problematic for democratic societies as is widely assumed.”208

Self-reported surveys based on short, online interventions, trust games, and other lab tests are not necessarily indicative of actual behavior in the real world, where people are subject to greater social cues, accountability, media bombardment, and other pressures pushing in multiple directions. All claims of success or failure should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, it is not enough to focus only on interventions that reduce the emotions of affective polarization at the individual level. Interventions should consider the interplay between affective polarization and political structures, incentives, and strategies.

Interventions that focus on individuals’ emotions may not be useful at all because they tend to target willing and more moderate participants who are not driving current democratic problems. Or they may not be useful unless carried out in tandem with interventions that directly address antidemocratic behaviors and/or violence at the social and political level. That understanding would accord with the growing literature on comparative democracies and civil war scholarship. A metastudy of interventions to reduce conflict in other countries, for instance, found that “programming that focuses on change at the individual level that never links or translates into action at the Socio-Political level has no discernable effect on peace.”209 Dialogue can improve understanding and reduce prejudice, but it will not result in social or political improvements at the state or national levels unless those relationships are directed toward collaborative action that creates positive change in a broader cultural or political context, not just the feelings of individuals.210

At the same time, interventions focused on changing political or social structures that ignore how polarization is used as a political strategy are likely to generate backlash, deepen polarization, and exacerbate a sense of threat that enables antidemocratic behaviors. In a perniciously polarized environment like the United States, highly adversarial, polarizing advocacy—even to achieve prodemocratic ends—can be used instrumentally by polarizing politicians to cement their political success. Efforts at cultural and political change are essential, but in an environment in which affective polarization is rife and is being used strategically by politicians, advocacy for change must sidestep polarization by engaging unlikely allies who agree on the particular issue despite often being on opposite sides of polarized debates. Advocacy that attempts to overcome the other side by simply amassing on one side of a polarized divide will generally result either in failure or in cycles of Pyrrhic victory and cultural or political backlash that deepens the extremism of the other side.211

Finally, the third generation understanding of polarization, which is just emerging in the United States but is more established abroad, considers the political structures that incentivize politicians to exacerbate affective polarization for their own benefit. Winner-take-all political systems, where winning 50.1 percent of the vote wins the entire district even if 49.9 percent of the voters wanted someone else, are correlated with more affective polarization, as well as greater discontent with one’s own party.212 Altering U.S. political structures in order to change the political incentives that are exacerbating affective polarization is almost certainly part of the solution to ensuring a more cohesive citizenry that supports a stronger democracy in the United States.

Kleinfeld’s nuanced, data-driven observations are a lot to chew on as we begin establishing accountability for the political violence fallout the 2020 presidential election and the dangerous polarization which began long before the current crisis. But it would be nearly impossible to overstate the importance of understanding these phenomena better — if we want to save democracy and secure a more peaceful future for our society.

One comment on “Dems Take Note: ‘Affective Polarization’ More Destabilizing Than Policy Polarization

  1. Victor on

    So basically Biden’s positive approach is good, but Democrats’ approach as a party is wrong and guarantees further violence down the road.

    The problem of course is that given the division of the US into states, there are few electoral reforms that are constitutionally feasible (adoption of electoral reforms will still give outsize weight to red states that will still probably elect radicals) and those reforms are unlikely to be adopted by GOP state legislatures.

    Congress could impose some electoral reforms but in the short term they are likely to further dilute Democrats’ power, so the incentive is also not there.


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