…and that’s a problem. Rampant polarisation gets in the way of everything from friendly relationships to good governance
Three friends were looking for rooms to rent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city famous for its steel production, bridges – and universities. Their advertisement on Craigslist gave all the usual details about rent, cleanliness and house rules. It then gave an indication of the sort of flatmates they were hoping to find there. You might have expected a list of desired personal qualities and habits, the need to keep the noise down or to enjoy a friendly beer. But, no, the main thrust of the advertisement was as follows:
“We are all open-minded, fun individuals, are open to all religions, genders, sexual orientations and races. No judgement here! However, we hate Trump.”
According to a 2019 study among university students in the US, partisan preference is the biggest factor in determining who gets chosen as a roommate.
Perhaps you aren’t that surprised. In a world of deepening polarisation, the partisan labels we use act as shortcuts for differences in beliefs, values and behaviour. And once a group identity is adopted, it changes what we think and do. Issue-based differences rapidly become differences of social identity, morphing into what’s called “affective polarisation”. When that happens, people increasingly dislike and distrust those from an opposing side, irrespective of whether they actually disagree on a specific issue. A loved “us” emerges, versus an often-hated “them”. Feelings become more important than facts.
You are more likely to vaccinate your child if the presidential candidate you voted for is elected. If you’re a doctor, the course of treatment you recommend for a patient may well be influenced by your own politics and perception of their likely political leanings. If you’re a manager, the same consideration will shape your hiring decisions. We select those we choose to listen to, from individuals to media organisations, according to their political viewpoints. We are more likely to find attractive and fall in love with people who support the same political party as us. We are less likely to believe a criminal allegation, such as one of sexual assault, if it’s brought against someone who belongs to our ingroup.
There is no part of our lives, in fact, that goes untouched by the influence of these identity-based partisan labels. So insidious is this that often we’re not even aware it’s going on.
No one should be blind to the dangers of a perniciously polarised society. Polarisation leads to suspicion and distrust. It undermines and gridlocks institutions. As the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington DC on 6 January demonstrated only too well, partisanship can exacerbate the tendency of those already prone to violence.
But violence is far from the only consequence of polarisation. Where does polarisation leave the intellectual diversity that leads to innovation? Or good governance and decision-making? Healthy conflict – where different views can be aired, debated and resolved – is a vital part of how we live, and it occupies a place at the core of a modern democracy, but there are huge risks if partisan conflict becomes all-encompassing, as it eliminates space to engage across the divide.
While there’s nothing new about such polarisation, our tendency to cling to these identity-based groups has – thanks to socio-economic circumstances, technological changes and a rising sense of uncertainty – deepened in numerous countries in recent years from the levels seen immediately after the Second World War. Financial shocks have left many people insecure and exacerbated the divides between the haves and have-nots. Trust in our institutions has plummeted, often enabling populist leaders to step in and fill the void. Our online world, while creating the opportunity for many new networks and connections, has also set up virtual barriers and has a distancing effect that allows us to reject or avoid, rather than engage with the views of those with whom we disagree.
To make matters worse, the partisan online world has been monetised, rewarding those who put out emotionally charged content to attract attention. Polarisation can offer significant immediate paybacks in money and power, but at what hidden and longer-term social and political costs?
Polarisation distorts our perceptions of the world. Italians believe unemployment rates are more than four times higher than they actually are. British people overestimate the immigrant population of the UK by 54 per cent. People think they hold accurate views, but the odds are that they don’t. They believe themselves able to process and evaluate information objectively, but, in reality, they struggle to do so, particularly if an objective assessment would place them out of step with their group. They find it very hard to change their opinions even when they are demonstrated to be wrong or if the situation has changed.
And these are not failings unique to particular groups. They’re common to almost all of us.
It’s telling that, historically, much of the most useful research on polarisation has been undertaken by scholars who have witnessed at first-hand what its terrible effects can be: the social psychologist Henri Tajfel lived through the era of the Holocaust; the psychologist Muzafer Sherif grew up in a region that experienced the First World War and the Armenian genocide. Today, much valuable work is being done in the US, but important voices are going unheard in studies that primarily involve privileged, often white, university student volunteers.
It’s easy to take a pessimistic view of our polarised world, particularly in the light of recent events – from the Covid crisis to the American presidential election of 2020 and its aftermath. It’s certainly the case that division will never go away completely. We should not expect it to. Nor, actually, should we want it to. A degree of division and disagreement is healthy. It stimulates debate and innovation and challenges groupthink and a desire for the status quo.
But, without a doubt, a high level of polarisation can be destabilising and dangerous. It’s this we have to counteract. And here’s where we can afford to be optimistic: since we are all part of the problem, we all have at least the capacity to be part of the solution.
Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images
Ali Goldsworthy and Laura Osborne’s book with Alexandra Chesterfield, Poles Apart: Why People Turn Against Each Other, and How to Bring Them Together, is now available.