WHY ARE WE SO POLARIZED?
In his book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein reviews how political parties such as the Republicans and Democrats have become so divided in recent years. Such division or polarization results in a complete breakdown of any compromising or negotiating on complex and important issues; with this polarization, people cannot reach across the aisle and “agree to disagree” or come up with solutions that might benefit the American people. What is left is a divided country, and with division comes weakness and lack of progress.
One of the principles of social psychology shows how people become locked into only identifying with their group (political party) and, as a result, blindly follow them and whatever their party dictates. People justify any candidate running under their chosen party, and this identity shapes their views. These partisan viewpoints have merged with racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities, all contributing to polarization and, thus, division in beliefs.
What happens if you identify as a Republican but believe in the earlier decision in favor of Roe vs. Wade? How do you reconcile this? What about the Democrats whose mission is to help the poor despite the rising debt ceiling, which could and is leading to inflation. Republicans stand for conservative ideologies and Democrats for liberal ideologies, but isn’t there some way to negotiate and solve some of the significant issues?
For example, immigration is a major issue for many people which remains unsolved. Some view it as something negative, and some view immigrants as possible criminals or involved in the drug trade! However, some of us view immigration as something positive for our country because most immigrants are hard-working people simply looking for a better life for their children and families. Each party has something to say – so what is the middle ground, and how do we reach that? I have spoken with immigrants who are now American citizens who believe that immigrants coming to this country should also go through the same process that they went through.
Klein states that both parties slander, undermine, plot against, and even physically assault each other. Realistically, we have had differences in our opinions and lack of consensus throughout the years, but in my lifetime, it is worse today. Many families have ceased speaking to one another because of these differences, especially when we are trying to sort out the facts from untruths. Whom do we believe? According to Klein, the “American system is broken, and the problem is caused by money, political correctness, social media, political consultants, or Mitch McConnell.”
The major problem exists today because of the people who represent us in Congress, which needs to be resolved. So, how can we change this? One way is to look to the past for advice, and in the words of Ronald Reagan: “I’ve always believed that a lot of the trouble in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other rather than about each other.” So perhaps, what we need as a nation is trained negotiators to help us communicate with each other and come to decisions that represent the American people.
Another way is to look at the results of psychology experiments that involve this division. Psychologists have looked at the reasons for prejudice and polarization over the years.
For example, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues did an ingenious study in 1966 to show the role of competition in promoting discrimination and division. The researchers created intense feelings of in-group and out-group identification in a group of 11 and 12-year-old boys at a summer camp by physically separating them into two different cabins and naming them the Rattlers and the Eagles. They assigned various projects to each group, such as building a diving board or cooking out in the woods.
Once each group developed strong feelings of group identity and allegiance through division on the first day, then the researchers set up a series of competitive games, including tug-of-war and touch football, and awarded desirable prizes to the winning teams. This competitiveness resulted in the groups picking fights, calling each other names, and raiding and vandalizing each other’s camps. The Eagles burned the Rattler’s flag.
In reviewing the actions of the people involved in the experiment, it was found that each group was egged on by Sherif’s research assistants to produce the results of division and perhaps supplied the matches to burn the Rattler’s flag.
Does this sound familiar concerning what occurred at the Capital building on January 6, 2021? What seems to have happened may be due to more of a “mob” mentality where people with intense feelings of patriotism can be overridden by a small minority whose sole purpose is to incite violent behavior. These behaviors we observe today are evidence of the research-produced prejudice and division/polarization.
After using competition to create this division between the two groups, the researchers went on to demonstrate how cooperation could be successfully used to eliminate it. They created tasks that required expertise, labor, and cooperation from both groups, which included awarding prizes to everyone.
For example, to solve the problem of lack of water in the camp, all the boys worked together with the common goal of getting water. As a result, the hostilities and prejudice between the groups slowly dissipated, and by the end of camp, the boys voted to return home on the same bus and even sat together.
Sherif’s study showed the importance of cooperation as opposed to competition in reducing prejudice or polarization.
How does this experiment relate to the division between the Republican and Democrat parties? Working together to solve issues like homelessness might solve today’s inherent division. And, as constituents, don’t we all want to solve these issues?
Come on, politicians and representatives, listen to one another, cooperate, and get things done! Fulfill your campaign promises, be accountable for being our elected representatives, and stop wasting time and money!