by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
January 25, 2023
We did a colleague activity post about America’s Divided Mind when it first came out in July of 2020, but in light of where this discussion has been going, I thought it was worth revisiting in more detail here. Both reports explain the nature of the hyper-polarization and threats to democracy problems, but they also suggest ways that private citizens and leaders can work to address these problems. They argue in the executive summary of the newer report that
now is our time to re-rebuild our democracy, and it will take all of us, working on multi-faceted solutions at the local, state, and national levels. Only then can we re-envision a society where we don’t fear and dismiss one another, but a society where we all depend on one another.
Is it not obvious why we like this? They are describing what we call "massively parallel problem-solving!" But we also like what they have to say on the more granular level.
Key Ideas from America’s Divided Mind
The 2020 report on polarization says that Americans are not as divided as they think they are. However, the belief that the other side is so different from one's own causes both Democrats and Republicans to dehumanize the other, seeing the other less as a fellow human being and citizen, and more as an enemy who presents a profound threat to their own identity, and hence one who must be defeated, no matter the cost.
When this mindset develops, compromise with the other side is viewed as weakness or betrayal, and their gain is seen as our loss. Toxic polarization must be addressed with a sense of urgency and a deeper understanding of how polarized psychology works. (p. 4)
(This set of observations reminded me a lot of Kristen Hansen’s observation that both Republicans and Democrats feel threatened, but there is practically no overlap between the two sets of threats!)
Using the Beyond Conflict Polarization Index, in 2019, Beyond Conflict found reasons for concern and hope.
- We found significant levels of polarization between Democrats and Republicans, as seen through measures of dehumanization, dislike, and disagreement. However, we also found that Americans believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with their own party about twice as much as they actually do.
- Large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans substantially exaggerate the extent to which members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them—creating a significant divide between perception and reality.
- The more we feel disliked and dehumanized by members of the other party, the more likely we are to express greater dislike and dehumanization toward them. In this way, the divide between actual and perceived dislike and dehumanization can create a downward spiral of hostility that fuels further toxic polarization.
- The depth of the divide between perceived and actual levels of enmity is correlated with outcomes that are harmful to American democracy, including: support for actions that benefit one’s political party at the expense of the country; lower levels of trust in the country’s civic institutions, such as the Supreme Court and Congress; and a growing discomfort with, and isolation from, members of the other party, such as having a member of the other party serve as your doctor or your child’s teacher. (p.5)
They go on to argue that left unchecked, political polarization poses a serious threat to American democracy:
While substantive disagreements over ideology and policy can be a healthy and essential part of any democracy, for instance,by encouraging activism toward reform, extreme polarization can lead to rea challenges. In extreme cases, political polarization can undermine the legitimacy of democratic norms and institutions, increase the risk of political violence, and ultimately unravel a country’s social fabric. ... When the leaders and members of one group are perceived by the other group as a profound threat ;to the country, we begin to believe that the other ;side is willing to abuse existing institutions in order to advance their interests at our expense. This calls nto question the legitimacy of the shared institutions and norms that sustain a democracy. If we begin to believe that the other side is so extreme that any interaction with members of the other party is hopeless at best, and damaging at worst, then the likelihood of cooperation on critical issues is substantially reduced. If we believe that the other side poses a significant threat to our core values and interests, not because of what they believe, but because of who they are, then the likelihood of political violence grows, particularly when previously commonly accepted norms are ignored. The result is a form of toxic polarization that can damage American democracy.
However, they point out that many Americans, at least in 2020, were "not aware that this divide exists, and even if they do, they may not know what to do about it." They argue that if it can be shown that Americans are not as divided as people think they are, then it should be possible to increase the likelihood of constructive engagement and dialogue across party lines.
They suggest this might be done in four ways. But, they caution "these actions cannot be accomplished by any single organization and require collaboration and partnership between multiple entities at the local, state, and national levels." (Emphasis ours.) The four suggested actions are:
1. Educate opinion leaders in the media, politics, faith, and culture about the dangers of toxic polarization and show them how they can play an important role in reducing it. (The Solutions Journalism Network is a good example of this approach to the media.)
2. Create awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions. They suggest creating a "citizen's guide to polarization" which explains how toxic polarization works, and what individuals can do themselves to reduce it. Beyond Conflict's report does this, as do many of the Beyond Intractability materials. But neither of us, as far as I know, have created a "one pager" to hand out at schools, churches, board meetings, etc. If a number of organizations did this, it might help.
3. Facilitate effective dialogue across the political spectrum. "Once people find a common cause or engage with someone outside their group, they often find they have more in common than previously assumed." The good news here is that 100s of organizations are now doing this, as is evidenced by the numbers of members of the Bridge Alliance or The ListenFirst Coalition.
4. Systematically measure polarization over time. "By examining the psychological factors contributing to polarization over time, we can better diagnose toxic polarization when and where it occurs, track changes,
and use insights to further develop targeted tools for engagement." Beyond Conflict has been doing this--and report the results in this and their following report.
Key Ideas from Renewing American Democracy
Beyond Conflict's 2022 Report, Renewing American Democracy, shows the divisions presented in the earlier report have continued and in some cases have worsened. But it goes beyond the earlier focus on polarization to explore a broader range of psychological processes that drive social division and threaten American democracy. Most importantly, they observe that
The US is rapidly changing in a way that heightens uncertainty, triggers perceptions of threat, and increases the impulse to protect what feels safe and familiar. The nation’s racial, ethnic, and religious landscape is evolving such that majority populations, which are White and Christian, are projected to have decreased demographic representation and socio-cultural influence5 in the decades to come. Simultaneously, mobilization of the largest civil rights movement in our nation’s history is inviting a national reckoning on race, forcing us to confront the consequences of centuries of structural inequality. segregation, and marginalization. Levels of economic inequality are at an unprecedented high, trending in tandem with national-level polarization. At the same time, COVID-19 has disrupted any sense of normalcy, highlighting our interdependence while providing fodder for our divisions.
For majority groups, these changes could be perceived as identity threats––particularly as fear, conscious or subconscious, over losing their relative power and status. Increases in perceptions of identity threat among majority group members, can lead to greater support for populism and authoritarian tactics, making it more difficult to see ourselves as a unified American people and work cooperatively together to solve the pressing challenges of our time.
Investigating the psychology behind social divisions in the US reveals how identity threat, competitive victimhood, and feelings of exclusion combine to interfere with healthy democratic practice. (Emphasis theirs). (p. 9-10)
The report also identifies four "primary identity-related drivers of social division in the U.S., which it says are 1) factionalism and partisan sorting, 2) residential segregation and declining social trust, 3) information echo chambers and 4) divergent racial attitudes and support for racial equity.
They go on to list several intervention pathways to address each of these drivers. For example, for the problem of factionalism, they suggest increasing people's openness to informed intergroup engagement, highlighting cross-cutting identities, normalizing disagreement as a central characteristic of democracy, and increasing the use of electoral methods that encourage cross-party coalitions. They make similar suggestions for the other drivers: mainingly involving bringing people together in different venues but across divide, helping them learn more about the other side, and teaching people how to discuss difference in constructive ways, They conclude by saying
Promoting intergroup contact between partisans can dampen anxiety and promote trust, empathy,and solidarity across group lines. Specifically,contact that highlights the common interests among economically disadvantaged groups could replace resentment and hostilities with interracial solidarity. Leveraging the common, distinctive, and multiple cross-cutting identities across groups could mitigate stereotyping and bolster identification with others across group lines. And correcting exaggerated meta-perceptions about other groups and stemming the spread of misinformation may reduce animosity and mitigate the possibility of social media platforms being used to incite violence. Ultimately, to renew American democracy and strengthen the capacity of Americans to address the fundamental challenges confronting the nation, it is essential to understand the psychology behind the fear and anxiety that drives us apart. Without understanding how growing identity-based polarization shapes our psychology, we will be stymied in addressing the endemic and systemic problems that jeopardize the wellbeing of all Americans and the future of our country. Only together will we be able to build a more inclusive and representative democracy for the American people. (p. 36)
This is just a cherry picking of the many important ideas in both of these reports. We urge our readers to follow up by reading the original reports!
Read Renewing America's Democracy