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Aug 13, 2019

How We Polarize Ourselves

Why do we demonize those with whom we disagree?

Back in the twentieth century, there was room in American politics for bipartisanship, deliberation, negotiation, and compromise.  President Lyndon Johnson needed the support of Republicans to pass his landmark Civil Rights Act.  President Ronald Reagan spent his two terms coaxing legislation out of a Democratic Congress.

Today, the sort of cooperation that took place between Johnson and Everett Dirksen or between Reagan and Tip O’Neill would be impossible.  Our polarized constituencies would not allow it.  As twentieth-century comic-strip character Pogo quipped, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Political scientist Lilliana Mason has studied trends in opinion surveys and found that in recent decades  Democratic voters and Republican voters have become much more antagonistic toward one another, even though on issues their views have not hardened significantly.  In my observation, when it comes to politics, Americans no longer view those who disagree with them as decent individuals like themselves.  Instead, we see political disagreement as a threat, and we regard those on the other side as deliberately out to cause harm.

When progressives demonize their opponents as out to cause harm, they use language that implies that others are on the side of oppression.  Consider the example of African-American football players kneeling during the national anthem.  Progressives see these protests as calling attention to general mistreatment of African-Americans, and they see opponents of the protests as racists.

When conservatives demonize their opponents as out to cause harm, they use language that implies that others are on the side of barbarism.  They see the American flag and our national anthem as symbols of our highest virtues, and deliberate disrespect for those virtues is an attack on civilization itself.

Why do we demonize those with whom we disagree?  The basic reason is that it helps to protect us from having to question or doubt our own beliefs.  If we see others as decent human beings, then we have to consider how they arrived at a point of view that differs from our own, and even consider the possibility that they could be at least partly correct.  But instead, if we regard them as driven by evil motives, then we feel no need to give their actual arguments any sort of fair hearing.  Demonizing them saves us the hard work of listening and the emotional challenge of self-doubt.

Our polarization is reinforced by another psychological defense mechanism, called confirmation bias.  Researchers have undertaken experiments in which people with different positions on an issue were shown an identical set of facts on the issue, and each side reported that the facts strengthened its position! 

We instinctively elevate the significance of evidence that supports our point of view and dismiss contrary evidence.  A real-world example of this is the reaction to the Mueller report, which supporters of President Trump saw as exoneration while opponents saw it as making the case for impeachment.

It is likely that one cause of increased political antagonism in recent years is the media environment.  In the 1960s, national television news was on for half an hour in the evening, and the three main networks competed for a mass audience.  Today, cable television and the Internet are available 24/7, and the competition is for niche audiences.  The most successful tactic in this competition is to create melodrama, which means that progressive outlets emphasize the threat posed by conservatives, and conversely.

Consider that in 1977, there was a notorious event in which American neo-Nazis staged a march through the heavily Jewish suburb of Skokie Illinois.  After that event took place, those neo-Nazis were never heard from again. Free-speech advocates felt vindicated.

Now, with smart phones and the Internet, fringe hate groups never disappear completely from view.  Moreover, if we should forget about the “alt right” or “Antifa” or other extremists, our “friends” in social media and broadcast media are there to remind us that these evil demons are out there and pose a threat that we must attend to. 

If we are going to overcome dangerous polarization and return to a more constructive politics, we will have to stop rewarding media figures and politicians who amplify threats and demonize people on the other side.  We will have to get back to treating those with whom we disagree as decent human beings, and we will need to insist that other participants in political discussion do the same.


Arnold Kling updated his book, The Three Languages of Politics, to include the hyper political polarization we have witnessed in the last two years. The book is available now!