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Why We’re Polarized


In America, we’ve become more divisive and more polarized in our politics, but why?  In Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein seeks to explain the progression of polarization and the factors that drive it.  Short on solutions, Klein is content to describe a problem of polarization and its causes with the hope that others will be able to help in the identification of solutions.

While Klein’s focus is squarely on politics and how we’ve changed the way that we view political parties over the decades, other researchers have been looking more broadly at how we end up in extreme positions.  Cass Sunstein examines polarization in Going to Extremes.  Alexandra Stein in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing explains how cults create alternate realities and separate people from the rest of society.  Buster Benson for his contribution seeks to help us find ways to bridge the gap and have productive disagreements in Why Are We Yelling?  In Resolving Conflicts at Work, Kenneth Coke and Joan Goldsmith provide tips targeted at resolving conflict at work but end up with a useful framework of ideas for any kind of conflict.

The Pull of Polarization

There’s no doubt that we’re more polarized.  It’s not just the news or noticing – there’s a measurable pull towards polarization that’s driven by the forces of the two-party political system.  For a candidate to be viable, they must be the most extreme version of the ideals that the party holds.  It’s like what draws us to art – it’s the extreme form that we find most interesting.  (See The Tell-Tale Brain for more.)  Candidates become leaders, and leaders’ positions pull us to more extreme positions.  This isn’t unlike what Cass Sunstein observed in Going to Extremes.

Bedrock Identities

We all have multiple identities.  We’re husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, professionals and more.  Our identities are generally fluid and work together to form a coherent self-image.  However, some identities are more powerful than others.  When two identities are in conflict, we’ll lean towards one that seems more important.  These are bedrock identities – the ones that we’ll go back to in times of crisis and concern.  There’s been an evolution with our bedrock identities.  No longer do we consider religion a bedrock identity.  (See Spiritual Evolution.)  We no longer identify with the groups we belong to – because we don’t really belong to any groups.  (See Bowling Alone.)

In the absence of these historical, powerful bedrock identities, we’ve substituted our political affiliations, and we protect them with the same veracity.  We feel as if people who have different perspectives than those held by our core identities are wrong, misguided, or evil.  Bedrock identities aren’t bad – but our need to protect them (because if they’re not right, then somehow we’re not right) is bad.  It separates us from others with different views, prevents us from learning, and leaves us even more polarized.


The challenge with bedrock identities defined by political parties is that these identities are too amorphous and changing.  What the party stands for may appear to be consistent, but it’s clear that not everyone in the party holds the same view.  A review of positions over time shows that the parties do change their positions at a much faster rate than the change in religious groups.  In short, we’ve defined a shortcut – but the shortcut keeps changing.

We need shortcuts to live.  Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow explains how we need to make simple decisions where we can, because we need to conserve glucose.  The Rise of Superman affirms that our brains are glucose hungry.  In fact, they’ve got more need for glucose than our bodies can steadily supply.  The Organized Mind makes the same point differently – we’re in an era of information overload, and we’re filtering information to cope.  We malign stereotypes – which have their faults – but we need them.  The Signal and the Noise explains that “rules of thumb” are both error-ridden and necessary.  Kahneman and colleagues revisit the problem in Noise.  We need shortcuts to cope – but we need to minimize the damage caused by using those shortcuts inappropriately.

We can’t mitigate the damage of shortcuts when the shortcuts are changing underneath us.

Negative Partisanship

However, the problem is more complicated than just the shortcuts that we use to identify ourselves.  The research finds that we don’t vote for people as much as we vote against the other guy.  The other party, the other views, and the other people are so repugnant to us that we’ll take anyone with our own party just to avoid them.  There’s no secret to our negative bias.  (See The Resilience Factor and Hardwiring Happiness for more.)  There’s an evolutionary reason for this bias.

It’s sort of the opposite of Pascal’s wager, which argues that the wins and losses for not believing in God are far worse than the wins and losses of believing in God.  (See The Mind Club for more.)  If we err on the side of believing that a threat isn’t a threat – but it is – we may wind up dead.  We can either be unnecessarily concerned about a lion in the grass – or we ignore the lion and we’re dead.

Policy Views

Those who don’t follow politics are more likely to view political decisions in terms of their own best interest, while those who do follow politics are more inclined to view political decisions from the lens of their identity.  For those of us who are only peripherally interested because we neither have a professional reason nor consider it a hobby or area of expertise, we make the decisions because they seem to be best suited for positive outcomes.  However, as people focus more attention on politics, they start to believe that the meaning behind the decisions – rather than the actual outcomes – are more important.

The truth is that most of the public won’t – and can’t – have a strong position on a policy issue or a political appointment.  Most people don’t have the time or capacity to process the issue that deeply.

Agrees with Me

The definition of expert seems to be “a credentialed person who agrees with me.”  Like many things in politics, everything stops mattering except if they’re “for me or against me.”  Thomas Gilovich explained in How We Know What Isn’t So how we believe things until we can’t any longer.  We seek confirming evidence while eschewing evidence that doesn’t agree with us.

If you provide the actual evidence on gun control efficacy to those that believe strongly in gun control and ask them to do the math, they’ll suddenly be bad at math.  Similarly, if you ask gun advocates why people “need” their guns, they’re likely to make slightly – or completely – illogical arguments.  We are more compelled to protect our beliefs – and, more importantly, our identities – than we are to seek the truth.  Amy Edmondson in Right Kind of Wrong explains that we don’t like being wrong – and we’ll resist it.

The Fiction that We All Believe

There’s an idealized image of colleges and universities that they are places of unrestricted thought.  People can explore any line of thinking that is important to them.  They’re places of debate and civil disagreements.  However, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain in The Coddling of the American Mind, this is no longer the case.  Instructors now must warn students that what they’re about to be exposed to may be offensive, shocking, or triggering to them.  Klein questions whether this concern for decorum is any different than in previous generations.

The answer is probably both.  Certainly, speech and thought are freer inside the relative safety of a university – but those walls have always been permeable, and people needed to consider what others might think.  But our polarization leads us to find even less safety in universities.  The idea that we can explore ideas inside of a university is likely fiction today – and it may always have been.  Yet most people would say that universities are full of free thinkers.

Interests and Identities

Marketers figured it out a long time ago.  They figured out that they had to find the identities of people to craft messages that resonate.  They weren’t looking for the person who was interested in a dog.  They were speaking to the dog owner who viewed that dog as a part of their identity.  They were looking for the person who wanted to feel happy – and that’s why advertisements almost universally feature people who are smiling.

What we believe are the interests of others are aspects of their identity – and those aspects, when activated, have the power to unite or divide.  When stated generally, “cat people” aren’t activated by conversations about dogs.  Similarly, “dog people” aren’t activated by conversations about cats.  However, frame the conversations about the relative benefits of a canine or a feline, and the fur will fly.  Positioned as a competition or as a single “right” answer, our identities have us arguing that we’re right.

Politicians realized, too, that they needed not to just get people to support them but rather get activated people, people who will campaign and canvas for them if they’re going to win elections – and that means getting people angry.  It means engaging the emotion.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more about engaging emotion.)

Our polarization is a natural result of the forces that reinforce extreme positions – yet we still ask Why We’re Polarized.