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Voters Aren’t the Problem. It’s the Media and Political Institutions.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an excellent bit of descriptive political journalism from Aaron Zitner looking at the evidence around rising partisan polarization and its potential causes—“Why Tribalism Took Over Politics. Social science gives us an uncomfortable explanation: Our brains are made for conflict.”
Drawing on time series data from the Pew Research Center, the WSJ published a remarkable graph showing the sharp increase from 1994 to 2022 in self-identified Republicans and Democrats (excluding independents and leaners) holding very unfavorable opinions of the opposite party.
As Zitner writes:
More than 60 percent of Republicans and more than half of Democrats now view the other party ‘very unfavorably,’ about three times the shares when Pew Research Center polled on it in the early 1990s. Several polls find that more than 70 percent within each party think the other party’s leaders are a danger to democracy or back an agenda that would destroy the country.
The article outlines various explanations for why this might be the case including demographic sorting, the alignment of ideology and religion with particular parties, and declining interactions between people with different views and partisanship. Zitner also summarizes some of the behavioral research on how the human mind gets warped by partisan identity:
Party allegiance can affect our judgment and behavior, many experiments show. When Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University and Sean J. Westwood, then at Princeton University, asked a group of Democrats and Republicans to review the résumés of two fictitious high-school students in a 2015 study, their subjects proved more likely to award a scholarship to the student who matched their own party affiliation. People in the experiment gave political party more weight than the student’s race or even grade-point average.
In a landmark 2013 study, Dan Kahan, a Yale University law professor, and colleagues assessed the math skills of about 1,000 adults, a mix of self-described liberals, conservatives and moderates. Then, the researchers gave them a politically inflected math problem to solve, presenting data that pointed to whether cities that had banned concealed handguns experienced a decrease or increase in crime. In half the tests, solving the problem correctly showed that a concealed-carry ban reduced crime rates. In the other half, the correct solution would suggest that crime had risen.
The result was striking: The more adept the test-takers were at math, the more likely they were to get the correct answer—but only when the right answer matched their political outlook. When the right answer ran contrary to their political stance—that is, when liberals drew a version of the problem suggesting that gun control was ineffective—they tended to give the wrong answer. They were no more likely to solve the problem correctly than were people in the study who were less adept at math.
These social scientific theories and findings make intuitive sense and are consistent with much of human history: people are tribal and tend to sort themselves into “us vs them” groups based on identity and shape their opinions, beliefs, and actions accordingly.
But individual level causes alone seem insufficient for explaining rising partisan animosity in American life. After all, human beings weren’t any different or less hardwired for tribalism in 1994 than they were in 2022. And other advanced democracies have the same challenges as the U.S. but without the intense partisan divides, culture wars, and mutual loathing based on politics.
So why do Republicans and Democrats today hate the other side so much more intensely than just a few decades ago?
Short answer: the media and political institutions did it.
Someone or something had to exploit people’s tendency toward tribalism and sectarian politics for these trends to grow so rapidly.
If we look briefly at the time period covered here we can see how this partisan animosity was generated. On the media side, both MSNBC and Fox News began operations in 1996, and later evolved into the primary cable proprietors fueling intense partisanship on both sides of the aisle. If a person wants selected nuggets of information to dunk on the other side, they can get them all day long. If they don’t want them, they get them anyway. Likewise, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter started in the early 2000s and grew exponentially over the next decade—along with lightning fast internet access and everyone having a smart phone. If a person wants to get outraged and yell at people randomly online, or listen in on others on a podcast or video doing it for them, there’s an app for that. If they don’t want it, some algorithm might boost the anger anyway.
When the Supreme Court eliminated virtually all restrictions on corporate and individual spending on politics in 2010, partisan advertising, organizing, and ideological combat soon became a multi-billion dollar operation. If a rich person wants to launch scurrilous attacks on leaders, parties, and other Americans—or advance a pet radical cause or culture war issue through a tax-exempt organization—nothing stands in their way. Small donors can now do the same.
The politics of this time period match the media trajectory with steadily increasing partisan hatred and little common sense. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 for his personal behavior followed closely by the lengthy and widely disputed resolution of the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush. The 9/11 attacks temporarily united the country under Bush who then promptly squandered the good will in Iraq and with his grinding “war on terror” politics. The financial crisis hit—and despite some public optimism around Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 and attempts to break the blue-red divide—populist uprisings ensued and public discontent grew. The national mood further soured toward the end of the second Obama term and then Donald Trump won the 2016 election in an Electoral College fluke.
The rest of the political story—the “resistance”, the partisan Trump impeachment, the stolen election lies, January 6, and a second arguably more justified impeachment—is well known up until 2022 when Pew last tested this question. It hasn’t improved since as House leaders just this week launched another partisan impeachment inquiry (without a vote) into Joe Biden in response to multiple criminal cases against the former president.
Politics today is little more than raw hatred of the other side.
Although Americans have always been divided by politics, and psychologically prone to tribalism, the opportunities for these divides to be forced into all aspects of life grew substantially over this time period. People didn’t change. What changed was the ability of major institutions and companies to turn partisan inclinations into a serious business model built on mutual hate: Pick your side, pick your tools, pick your facts, and pick a fight.
The conditions were ripe for media, tech companies, and political organizations to become flame throwers of partisan hatred—and that’s what they did.
So the question of how to “fix” political tribalism, if it can be fixed at all, must focus more on the supply side of the equation—who or what is creating and fanning the divides and for what purpose. Building alternatives to the current models will be the topic of future columns.
Government and corporations can’t—and shouldn’t—try to change Americans or curtail them in some way.
Instead, if we want to ratchet down the temperature and rhetoric, we need to figure out how to develop better media, non-profit, educational, governmental, and political institutions—built on basic liberal values with fewer instincts towards sectarianism—while maintaining a firm commitment to free speech and free enterprise.
We need to counterbalance the bad institutional actors with better ones.