By Jonathan Iwry
The last few decades, particularly since the start of the 21st century, have seen a significant rise in polarization. Politically, American society is fundamentally divided, and tensions are running high. It might be tempting to conclude that polarization results from ignorance—that we are divided because we know so little. In reality, increased polarization might largely be attributed to something far more concrete: redistricting.
The effects of redistricting have been well established. Redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts is creating more politically homogenous distributions of voters. Inter-ideological dialogue is diminishing, and group dynamics are holding more sway over the political process.
To better understand the rise in polarization, it helps to think of political parties and communities as social institutions, rather than as mere alignments of ideology.
The idea that beliefs are tokens of communal identity and subject to social forces is hardly new. Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 magnum opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, introduced the notion of science as a collection of institutions with group dynamics and socially enforced standards of thought. Far from being perfect, the scientific community passes through paradigms of accepted beliefs and facts, and Kuhn encourages readers to think about science through a social lens.
If that’s true of science, how much more true of politics. Our political institutions are collections of individuals operating under a set of rules. Many of those involved in the political process are genuinely convinced of their beliefs, but their justification is not always so strong— oftentimes it is downright flimsy. Those beliefs frequently emerge out of a social context instead of through sound reasoning, and they might crumble quickly under close analysis.
Although the Founding Fathers were rather wary of undue social influence— Madison warned against the “tyranny of the masses”—the United States’ political structure places considerable faith in the everyman’s god-given faculties of reason. However, recent developments in experimental psychology and the social sciences throw that optimism into question; it would appear that our faculties of reason are less divine than we would like to think. More precisely, our supposed rationality comes with a wide range of biases, intuitions, and habits, not least of which is the desire to conform to social settings. These rules of thumb, or heuristics, are a constant part of human cognition, and they have the power to dramatically affect—or even cloud—our everyday judgments.
Of the many sub-rational pitfalls of thought and behavior, the tendency to conform in social settings poses a particular obstruction to political progress. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together; like-minded voters and politicians tend to identify with each other, forging social and emotional bonds out of their similarities and creating a powerful in-group affiliation. Those who hold other views come to be seen as part of the out-group and can quickly turn into effigies.
The general fact of in-group/out- group behavior applies strongly to political affiliations. Studies have shown that self-identifying Democrats and Republicans given partisan cues are more likely to ramp up adherence to their in-groups, as well as hostility toward those on the other side of the aisle (Ledgerwood and Chaiken, 2007).
The water cooler effect is a direct result. Psychology professor and author Nicholas DiFonzo points out that people are more willing to trust their own in- groups than the media, creating “echo chambers” in which appealing beliefs circulate among like-minded groups and grow in perceived credibility. What emerges is a social amplification of partisan views motivated by widespread confirmation bias.
By increasing political homogeneity, redistricting puts communities at risk for such persuasion. If voters were to have greater direct exposure to opposing viewpoints and access to cross-party dialogue, they might be able to better understand the broader political context surrounding such topics; at the very least, they would strengthen their own beliefs in the process. Doing so would have the additional advantage of breaking up the emotional and social bonds that entrench commonly accepted views.
Group dynamics and social influence play an underlying role not only among voters, but also within political parties themselves. Pressure is just as strong among politicians: as increasingly radical and partisan representatives take office, they reinforce each other’s tendencies, eventually establishing them as the norm. Collective partisanship escalates and in-group behavior strengthens — individual politicians feel greater pressure to toe the party line. Breaking rank is rarely in their interest and would likely be met with sharp criticism from their peers, if not social isolation.
Political scientist Seth Masket puts it nicely when he says that our political system is not fragmented, but rather “networked” – parties have strayed from their original function. Rather than represent ideological philosophies, they have been boiled down to power relationships, personal interest, and social status. In short, political parties have succumbed to party politics.
For its part, polarization likely has a negative effect on our ability to analyze politics. By dividing the political landscape into strict dichotomies—us versus them—people will frame issues and develop outlooks in absolute terms, as well. As like-minded people reinforce prejudices, independent thinking becomes easier to avoid. The increased polarization of political parties is strongly conducive to political ignorance.
Increased homogeneity poses a host of problems for reasoned political discourse. Lack of direct exposure to other views not only compromises people’s abilities to develop rational political beliefs, but also enables aggressively partisan politicians to get elected more easily by appealing to local partisan spirit. The problem isn’t political ignorance per se—it’s the groupthink that redistricting triggers and that political ignorance allows to incubate. Even so, staying politically informed might act as an effective buffer against the social dynamics inherent in our political system. Rolling back redistricting may be the best cure, but shows no sign of happening anytime soon; it is incumbent upon those interested in defusing partisan conflict to stay informed and analyze their beliefs with care. Relying on our social groups will no longer do the trick.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of PPR.
Image (Attribution License) courtesy of Truthout.org–Jared Rodriguez on Flickr.