Political Polarization And Civil Discourse


The Definition: Civil Discourse

  • "Civility is a crucial principle of public life, one that speaks to “the fundamental tone and practice of democracy... a commitment to civil discourse— the free and respectful exchange of ideas—has been viewed as a democratic ideal from the ancient Athenian forums to the mediated political debates of modern times…” Coe, Kenski & Rains in the Journal of Communication.

The Issue

  • Political polarization in America is at a level unseen for many decades. According to the Pew Research Center, between 1994 and 2017 the American public’s values have grown increasingly “ideologically consistent” (consistently liberal or consistently conservative) and these values have become “more strongly associated with partisanship”. With Congress more ideologically divided than it was a generation ago, the ideological overlap between the two parties has been largely eroded, widening the gulf between the beliefs of the right versus the left. To add to this, thedeclining federal regulation of the news media has meant that mass media outlets have becomemore partisan and more numerous, further reinforcing polarization.

  • A recent research project on polarized democracies around the world (led by Jennifer Lynn McCoyfrom Georgia State University) examines the process by which societies segment into these ‘tribes’ and the damaging impact this has for democracy.

  • The research project explores how an “us versus them” mindset is established when political leaders define their opponents as immoral or corrupt, thereby creating what psychologists term “in-groups” and “out-groups”. This tribal dynamic fuels a growing distrust and enmity between the two sides, who each view the other as the ‘out-group’, and exacerbates the perception that politics is a zero-sum game whereby when you win, I lose. It is a dynamic that has been getting worse over the past two decades.

  • According to the Pew Research Center, a key tenet of partisan polarization “has been the growing contempt that many Republicans and Democrats have for the opposing party,” which has been steadily rising over the past two decades. While 21% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats viewed the opposition party ’very unfavorably” in 1994, by 2016 this had risen to 58% and 55% respectively.

The Consequences?

  • The impact of increased political polarization on our society is far-reaching. From undermining the federal government’s ability to reach compromise and make progress on any number of key policy issues, including decaying infrastructure, the opioid epidemic and financial regulation, toweakening its position on the global stage and the nation’s ability to reach agreements with other countries, to fuelling hate speech and encouraging acts of hate crime and political violence (hate crime is rising in America’s 30 biggest cities, despite the fact that the overall U.S. crime rate is continuing to fall across those same cities).

  • Last weekend, we saw two mass shootings take place within 24 hours of each other - one in Dayton, Ohio and one in the border town of El Paso, Texas - which killed 31 people and injured some 53. This took the overall number of mass shootings in 2019 up to 255, that’s more than there were days in the year as of August 5th (the 217th day of the year).

  • While the motivations for the Dayton shooting remain unclear, the suspected El Paso killer, whose actions have been declared an act of domestic terrorism by the Texan authorities, appears to have made his intentions known in what law enforcement believes is a hate-filled manifesto he authored and posted online just hours before the massacre. In it he spoke of the “Hispanic invasion of Texas”, which he warned would soon make it a solidly Democratic state, and of immigrants taking better and more high-skilled jobs. Actions like his, he said, would “remove the threat of the Hispanic voting bloc” and act as the sort of incentive he and other “patriotic” Americans would give to the Hispanic population to “return to their home countries”.

  • The manifesto was the worst example of an individual acting on the sort of divisive, hateful language we are growing increasingly accustomed to from our politics.

How we're making things worse...

  • So why is partisan polarization getting so much worse? McCoy and her team identified three key factors, which include: 1) The divisive rhetoric of political leaders who exploit voters’ grievances and focus on particularly polarizing issues in order to further their own agenda. A primary example of this would be President Trump's choice of language when discussing immigration. According to USA TODAY’s analysis of the 64 rallies he has held since 2017, he has used the words "predator," "invasion," "alien," "killer," "criminal" and "animal" more than 500 times while discussing the issue. 2) The reaction of the opposition party. When they return inflammatory rhetoric with inflammatory rhetoric, it can lock the two parties into a cycle of warring words. 3) When countries polarize around long-standing and unresolved issues of debate, they can prove much harder to overcome.

  • But our own cognitive biases, aided and abetted by the echo-chambers we’re able to furnish for ourselves on social media, may also be making things worse. A seminal paper by psychologist Ziva Kunda in 1990 made the case for motivated reasoning, arguing that “people are more likely to arrive at conclusions … that they want to arrive at”. That is, we seek out and remember information that confirms our world view, making us blind to information that may contradict it.

  • In a tribal political system, where our identities are evermore bound up with our party affiliation (according to a recent Stanford study, Americans’ partisan identities are stronger even than race and ethnicity) it is easy to see how this can enter into a sort of “cognitive tribalism”, whereby motivated reasoning makes people seek out information as a marker of identity, a way of showing which tribe they belong to.

  • And this has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence. In fact, according to Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University, the higher someone’s IQ, the more skilled they are at coming up with arguments to support their world view.

What next?

  • So where does this leave us? Entrenched in our ideological camps and increasingly unable to engage in a productive dialogue with the ‘other side,’ it would seem. But this cannot be the way we do politics. An inability to discuss ideas and debate solutions is the lifeblood of democracy. Which leads us to civil discourse. A concept as important as it may seem alien in today’s fractured political world.

  • As we set out to explore what it means and how we might revive it ahead of the 2020 U.S. election, we’ve selected three podcasts below that provide some fascinating insight into how we can get started on improving conversations across the political aisle, and begin to find common ground. We intend for this issue of the newsletter to establish a framework for a deeper and more comprehensive exploration of civil discourse as we examine future topics.


How To Have Hard Conversations

Megan Phelps-Roper was five years old when she started picketing alongside her family, holding up signs that read such hate-filled messages as ‘God Hates America', 'Fags Doom Nations' and 'Your Pastor Is a Whore'. She was part of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small community comprised mainly of Phelps's extended family, whose religious views are centered upon a belief that God condemns homosexuality above all else - the group’s most recognizable slogan is "God hates fags”. Viewing themselves as the mouthpiece for God’s hate, they picket 365 days a year, targeting events that are peripherally related to homosexuality and which range from the funerals of gay soldiers and the victims of shootings, to concerts put on by singers they see as promoting promiscuity.

Megan left the church in 2012 thanks to conversations she had with strangers she met on… Twitter, who fundamentally changed the way she interacted with the world outside her church.
In this episode of TED Radio Hour, we hear from Megan on what the experience has taught her about overcoming division between polarized groups, and delve into how and why we should have conversations with those with whom we disagree.



Tribal Politics

It goes without saying that America is currently experiencing a period of extreme political polarization. The divide between Red vs Blue seems deeper and more acrimonious than ever. The common explanation for this is that Democrats and Republicans simply see the world in fundamentally opposing ways and, as the different groups pursue increasingly different political goals, find it evermore difficult to understand, or even tolerate,  those with whom they disagree on the key issues. 

But, political scientist, Lilliana Mason thinks otherwise. In her recent book, Uncivil Agreement, she argues that polarization is rooted less in differing beliefs than in tribal identification. Being a Democrat or a Republican has, she says, become an increasingly fundamental tenet of people’s sense of self, particularly as party identities have begun to overlap more completely with other core identity structures, like race, religion and sexuality. 

In this episode, Mason discusses how this type of social sorting, wherein our social identities build us a partisan identity, has entrenched an ‘us versus them’ mentality amongst political groups, and the ways in which this has informed how we approach politics.



Finding Common Ground

Bipartisan cooperation is hard to come by in today’s political environment. Yet criminal justice reform is one area in which people on both sides of the political aisle are working together to push for change. The recent ‘First Step Act’ is a prime example of this, constituting a rare piece of bipartisan legislation aimed at addressing America’s mass incarceration crisis. But what does it take to find common ground on an issue of bipartisan interest, when the two sides have different ideological perspectives?

In this episode, leaders from the left-leaning ‘American Civil Liberties Union’ (ACLU) and the right-leaning ‘Right on Crime’ group, who together were key to pushing through The First Step Act, discuss how they were able to put aside their differences and work together on this key piece of criminal justice reform. Some food for thought as we consider the art of civil discourse in these polarized times.


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