A Broader Understanding of Political Polarization in the U.S.

The social and political landscape of the United States has been characterized more and more by extreme polarization between Republicans and Democrats. This notion of polarization has traditionally referred to the increasingly divergent policies of each party. In this way, we could focus on Trump who seems to have pulled the ideology and policies of the Republican Party to the far right while the Bernie Sanders clan within the Democratic Party seems to have pulled the party towards a more progressive path. Yet, studies have shown that this ideological polarization has been moderately stable.

Another definition of polarization, more relevant to this article, concerns aversion between Republicans and Democrats. It turns out that this polarization can be understood with a perspective based on social psychology and identity. This perspective, which will be at the heart
of this article, can help any foreigner wishing to live in the United States or work with Americans to better understand the deep divisions that characterize American society.

This article draws heavily on arguments from the book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity by Liliana Mason. It should also be clarified that this article is not intended to provide a full explanation of the phenomenon of polarization, but rather to offer an alternative perspective, which could potentially provide insights to analyze other democracies.

Democrats and Republicans: two social groups in conflict

Rather than viewing polarization as a disagreement between Republicans and Democrats based on political ideology, this article considers parties and their supporters as two groups in conflict with each other. In this way, it is possible to analyze the social context in the United States with contributions from social psychology and more specifically, research on intergroup conflicts which are often based on identity and an “us vs. them” mentality. Biological studies have shown that it is natural for humans to want to belong to a group and that group membership creates an attachment to one’s group without necessarily causing the dislike of others. It is only when there is conflict between groups that aversion appears. Inter-group conflicts with high aggressiveness are not new in the United States, periods such as the 1960s illustrate this, for instance. However, it is more recent that the opposing sides of a conflict tend to be almost exclusively associated with the Republicans and Democrats.
While studying the effects of social media on polarization, Mr. Sabin-Miller and Dr. Abrams observed that people being exposed to content in line with their views reinforces their own opinions. Furthermore, they found that the exposure to content from the opposite side on social media creates a repulsion, which they claim is a stronger psychological force than the attraction to one’s own side. According to these researchers, the Russian hackers who interfered with the American presidential elections have identified the power of this repulsion and used it as a tool to promote their interests.
Liliana Mason, therefore, underscores that polarization does not only represent strong disagreements on political issues, but also aversion between each group. This aversion has created a determination to “win” and “beat the other party”. This is generally reflected and emphasized by the media who tend to portray legislative processes as wins or losses. Passing a bill thus becomes a victory for one party and a defeat for the other, which consequently portrays compromises negatively since they are then perceived as defeats. One real example concernsguns. Polls showed that after the 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook, 90% of Americans and 86% of Republicans supported mandatory background checks to purchase a gun, but only 56 % of Republicans supported a resolution in Congress.

Identities increasingly aligned with a party

More and more, identities are aligning with one of the two political parties. Statistics from the past decades show that Republicans increasingly make up white, religious, rural, and male Americans. On the other hand, Democrats tend to attract other identities more, notably racial minorities, urban populations, and women. This tendency to see identities distributed within each party strengthens party attachment because identities reinforce each other. For example, a white, Christian, rural Republican man would tend to feel a particularly strong affiliation with his party because he shares these other identity traits with more Republicans than Democrats and likely spends more time with them. Taking into account the conflicts between Republicans and Democrats, this strong party attachment can then increase his aversion towards Democrats.

Choosing a party according to one’s opinions, or vice versa?

It would make sense that individuals have political opinions which lead them to affiliate with a political party. However, research has shown that American’s attachment to their party can be so strong, that it is also the stance adopted by a party that can shape the political opinion of its partisans.
We can observe this phenomenon when the stance adopted by a party changes. An example regards the image of Russia held by Republicans. A study showed that in 2014, only 22% of Republicans considered Russia to be a “friend or ally” of the United States compared to 40% in 2018 after Trump adopted a more friendly approach towards Moscow.
Like Liliana Mason, Achen & Bartels argue in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government that voters, even those who are informed and engaged, make political choices more on the basis of their social identities and party loyalty rather than according to their opinions on political issues. So, rather than thinking that individuals only vote for a candidate because they have political values and opinions similar to those embodied by the candidate, we must adopt the perspective that individuals also belong to social groups and that their feeling of belonging influences their political behavior.


Attachments that blur reality

Not only can a party’s stance shape voters’ opinions, but it can also affect their perception of reality and facts. Indeed, Liliana Mason argues that humans are inclined to view the world in a way that makes their groups look good. As an example, she cites a study that showed that Americans tend to think that the economy is in bad shape when their rival party is in power and that this perception can be reversed very quickly after an election won by their party, but before new policies can have an actual impact on the economy.


The relevance for intercultural studies?

First of all, this article is one of the countless examples reminding us that a country is not a culture. Thinking of all people from a country as a homogeneous group can easily create prejudices, misunderstandings, and harmful generalizations.
Moreover, keeping in mind the ideas of intergroup psychology applied to Republicans and Democrats, we know that it is natural to be attached to a group that is part of our identity, including cultural groups. However, if a conflict between two cultures emerges, it is necessary to control any feelings of aversion towards others, to not put every member of that culture in one box, and to avoid losing the thread of reality.
Finally, while this article gives only a small insight into the complexity of political and social divisions in the United States, it also points to the importance of intercultural management. Indeed, each country has its unique complex and multifaceted dimensions. While goodwill and open-mindedness are essential, the most successful expatriations, company mergers, or other international developments, are supported by a concrete preparation.
By Eizo Lang-Ezekiel
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