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Where does the polarization come from?

Someone on my FB feed recently asked "where does the polarization come from?" with respect to U.S. government gridlock.

I actually think that's the wrong question, but my comment explaining why got really long.

Polarization is our natural state

If I'm part of a social group that advocates a particular thing, and some other social group exists (or is believed to exist) that advocates against that thing, one effective way to achieve social status in my group is by being seen as more committed and pure in my advocacy than the other members of the group. We sometimes call this a "standard bearer" for the group.

For example, if you agree with the other group on some issue and I disagree with them, my advocacy will be seen as more pure than yours, and I will gain status. It doesn't matter what that issue is. It doesn't need to have anything to do with the original point of advocacy.

Hell, it doesn't even matter if the issue even exists. If we believe that the Others wear orange, then I can gain status by making a huge point about how I never wear orange, and I will never be friends with anyone who wears orange, and yadda yadda yadda. My Others counterpart can respond by making a huge point about how they always wear orange. If we do it well enough, they and I both gain status, and now our groups are locked in a culture war about the color orange.

In other words, all it takes to create polarization is two or more categories of people with sufficiently differential socialization patterns that I can do well by becoming a standard bearer for one category and not worrying about what the other thinks.

It doesn't matter whether the categories are Christians and Jews, or Protestants and Catholics, or Sharks and Jets, or Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, or Republicans and Democrats, or McDonald's customers and Burger King customers, or people whose skin is black on the left side vs. the right side. As long as they socialize segregatedly, polarization is possible.

And that polarization doesn't "come from" anywhere. It's not that the would-be standard-bearers are evil or Macchiavelian or anything... I mean, they can be, but we usually aren't. We're just deciding to stand up and let our beliefs be heard, and finding the result is gratifying, and so we do more of it... post stuff to our Facebook feeds or whatever. And that's where it starts.

Polarization is just the natural state of people anywhere that's large enough and heterogenous enough to support segregated social subcultures.

Why is it worse?
"Well, yes, OK," I can hear the reply, "but with Republicans and Democrats it's gotten so much worse lately! Why has it gotten so much worse?"

Honestly, I'm not sure it has, compared to 50 years ago. But I wasn't alive then, so I don't really know.

I suspect it gets better and worse depending on all kinds of factors.

What we can do about it?

I see a few ways out of this sort of polarization:

1. Adding a third player
If the Squares and the Circles are set up such that the anti-Square Circles and the anti-Circle Squares have a lot of status within their local communities, introducing the Triangles can give would-be standard-bearers a new way to gain status by being anti-Triangle. Sufficiently "pure" anti-Triangle Squares can afford to cooperate with a Circle now and then, and vice-versa.

2. Socializing with the Other
If we dissolve the social boundaries between Squares and Circles such that they start hanging out together, having coffee together, playing together, etc, it may gradually turn out being an anti-Circle standard-bearer stops being such a great source of Square social status.

3. Waiting for individual heroes
An individual high-status Square can potentially announce that the current situation is so important that they have to cooperate with the Circles, and make it stick.
This will cost status among Squares, but sometimes people are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
It helps if something is seen by other Squares as so important that achieving it is more important than opposing the Circles. But this is rare. The last time I think that happened in the U.S. was 14 years ago, and it didn't last long.

4. Wiping the Others off the map
If the Circles simply kill all the Squares, or otherwise remove their power, there's no longer polarization. (There is instead either genocide or oppression.)


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2014 06:57 pm (UTC)
With the polarization *in Congress* specifically, I think it has gotten worse because the mass-media makes people more aware of what people in congress are actually doing on a day to day basis. 50 years ago, you could campaign on a "the Squares are terrible!!" platform, get elected, and go off to Washington and socialize with Squares and get things done, and people back home didn't hear so much about what you were doing there or the dealings you were having with Squares. So you got both the standard-bearer cred at home, and the socializing/working together situation at work.

Now the 24/7 news cycle means that people at home hear constantly about what you're doing in Washington, so if you want the standard-bearer cred, you can no longer relax your "standards" while you're in DC.
Jul. 2nd, 2014 07:02 pm (UTC)
That seems likely.

On the other hand, we don't have congresspeople/senators caning each other on the debating floor these days. So maybe the perception that it's worse is not unequivocally true?
Jul. 2nd, 2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
"It's not as bad as when we were getting ready to have a civil war" is only slightly reassuring. :-)

I think most people mean "it has gone downhill from when I was a kid" not "it's the worst in history," and I think the first statement is true for most periods when most of us were kids.

(And again, I'm limiting that to how polarization is thwarting the political process in Congress directly, not to "how do run of the mill party members view the other party.")
Jul. 2nd, 2014 08:02 pm (UTC)
Jul. 2nd, 2014 07:33 pm (UTC)
(nods) Seems plausible.

Cf "Ignorance is Strength"
Jul. 2nd, 2014 07:31 pm (UTC)
I'd contend it HAS gotten worse
And you don't need to go back 50 years to see it. I remember when Reagan, and even the first Bush were president. I didn't agree with most of what they said or did, but I could understand why people supported them. Right now, I can't understand how rational people can think that Sarah Palin is a viable presidential candidate, why Sean Hannity should be taken seriously, or that corporations should be able to avoid providing compensation to their employees simply because they believe that the compensation - which they are legally mandated to provide - is in some way immoral. Meanwhile, there are a large number of people who thought I was an idiot for supporting Clinton, but at least understood why. Now they can't understand how rational people can think Barack Obama is a good president, why Rachel Maddow should be taken seriously, or that the government should mandate health care.

It's not just me; there's a LOT of empirical evidence of a growing political divide.

Edited at 2014-07-02 07:31 pm (UTC)
Jul. 2nd, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
Re: I'd contend it HAS gotten worse
I haven't read the linked article yet, and I intend to, but a quick note... the reason I said 50 years ago is that I agree it's gotten a lot worse since the 80s, maybe a bit worse since the 90s (remember, Clinton got impeached!) and the 00s, but I get the feeling the 80s were a lot less polarized than the 60s, which is why I say I think it gets better and worse.
Jul. 3rd, 2014 06:08 pm (UTC)
I think something that can contribute to polarization is the nature of some core values are. For instance, if a Cardinal Value is "We Must Cooperate To Survive", the standard-bearers and extremists are going to behave differently than if the value is "Convert Or Die".

Other values/beliefs that contribute to polarization, aside from the particular issue or the truth value, are probably things like "Ends Justify Means", "Our Group Is Most Special", "God Likes Us Best", "The Lurkers Agree With Me", and my personal favorite, "We Are The Victims Here".*

Sometimes, there's a core value of cooperation. Other times, there's a core value of opposition.

Obviously I come up with this model because I think that there's an oppositional team with any-means-necessary core beliefs going up against a team that values cooperation and explicitly not using all those possible means to reach the desired end.


Or, in another example, I can get into bitter political fights with my aunt, because we set each other off, neither of us seem to value the relationship more than not setting each other off.

However, even though there's more nasty political content in the air with my sister, we both apparently care more about maintaining the relationship than arguing. We each have the value "Sisterhood Trumps 'You Suck'" and so polarization does not happen.

I shall call this the "Let's Go Out For Ice Cream" principle. This argument sucks, let's go for ice cream.

My bias says that there's the possibility of a core value of looking at the truth before adopting a fundamental value, but that's because I think I'm right, that I believe in SCIENCE TM, and that I have changed my teaming in response to "hey, is that really true?".

*waves orange flag*
Jul. 3rd, 2014 06:39 pm (UTC)
> Sometimes, there's a core value of cooperation.
> Other times, there's a core value of opposition.

Yeah, I dunno.

I mean, sure, that's possible, just like some people might have a core value of watching the world burn.

But far more often context matters.

A lot of the folks on what I think you're labeling the "core value of opposition" team, for example, are strict authoritarians, who can cooperate with each other very efficiently if they are all given the same orders from authorities they respect.

And a lot of the folks on what I think you're labeling the "core value of cooperation" team, for example, strongly believe in ethical principles where it's better to defect than to subvert those principles.

All of that said, I certainly agree with the weaker claim that some values correlate better with cooperation across a broad range of plausible contexts than other values do.

But actual correlation is separate from (and perhaps independent of) labeling... people who go around extolling the value of cooperation don't necessarily cooperate better than people who don't.

"Nice is different than good," and all that.

> I shall call this the "Let's Go Out For Ice Cream" principle.

(nods) Totally. This is similar to what I was trying to get at with "Socialize with the Other." I've also heard it called the "Mow their Lawns" strategy in the context of queer equality.
Jul. 4th, 2014 11:09 am (UTC)
So interesting!

The natural state argument depends on having two groups pretty clearly defined, no?

So why not include in your list of options abolishing political parties entirely?

Then people might feel free to advocate on an issue by issue basis, rather than assuming that half the people think one way about *everything* and half the people disagree about *everything*.

Just because I agree or disagree with someone about abortion or other "wedge issues" doesn't mean we agree or disagree about how political campaigns should be funded or the relative priority of fixing potholes vs adding a new subway line (for example). Why let ourselves be wedged?
Jul. 4th, 2014 04:27 pm (UTC)
It's a fair question.

My instinctive response is because forming coalitions and identifying with those coalitions is just what people do, and expecting us not to is just whistling past the graveyard, but when I stop to think about it I don't endorse my instinctive response.

I mean, yes, there are sound game-theoretical reasons why we do that, so preventing it isn't as simple as saying "Let's not do that anymore," but if we wanted to prevent it we could, and it would be valuable in the ways you describe.

And one place to start is certainly by individuals choosing to not identify with such large-scale groups in the first place.

So, yeah, you're right.

Thanks for pointing that out.
Jul. 6th, 2014 04:34 pm (UTC)
Any time.

To be clear, I'm not opposed to coalition building at all. But I do think that political parties are a particular kind of institutionalized/reified coalition that are warping our political process so that they can maintain their power.

I feel like there's a tie-in between corporations and political parties. As in, you can make an argument that you need investors to make the free market work, and people vote with dollars, and it really is a meritocracy of products and services. Similarly, you can argue that getting votes to win elections is what politics is supposed to be about--puts the right people in office and all. But then you have people in both cases organizing institutions (parties, corporations) and doing stuff to support those institutions that really screw things up over all. And you end up in both cases, with a small number of people with a hugely disproportionate amount of power, who end up acting to preserve the institutions over any original focus on public good.

I'm ok at complaining about it, have yet to find a magic fix though.
Jul. 6th, 2014 04:38 pm (UTC)
In the short term, I'm not sure there is a fix. This is just what happens when you try to build social systems out of humans.

In the long term, I have some faith in our eventual robot overlords.
Jul. 6th, 2014 04:50 pm (UTC)

Yeah, I saw that.

I guess I see some combination of robots and organizers or organizers using robots (except that the robots are expensive...).
Jul. 6th, 2014 04:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I see that in the mid-term. Robots deliver better price-performance as time goes by.
Jul. 5th, 2014 02:11 pm (UTC)
I wonder if prosperity has something to do with it. Because what we're seeing is that the price of being *completely* polarized is that very little gets done. If we're prosperous enough, perhaps it's easier to allow nothing to get done; but if we actually have a problem that government must solve, absolute obstructionism comes across as deleterious in a way it doesn't right now.
Jul. 5th, 2014 07:19 pm (UTC)
Yes. It's no coincidence that the last time we saw the polarization fade for a while was after the WTC bombings. (And perhaps the results of that might be an argument in favor of polarization.)
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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