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We Can’t Even Agree on What Is Tearing Us Apart

Today, even scholars of polarization are polarized. This was not always the case. In 1964, Philip Converse of the University of Michigan wrote a …

We Can’t Even Agree on What Is Tearing Us Apart
25.05.2022 13:56

Today, even scholars of polarization are polarized.

This was not always the case.

In 1964, Philip Converse of the University of Michigan wrote a groundbreaking paper, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” that attempted to determine the size of the share of the electorate that could reasonably be described as having a consistent set of political convictions.

Converse, a political scientist, was interested in figuring out how many people have what he called “a belief system, a configuration of ideas and attitudes in which the elements are bound together by some form of constraint or functional interdependence.”

For Converse, such a system suggested that if “an individual holds a specified attitude, he holds certain further ideas and attitudes.” For example, “If a person is opposed to the expansion of Social Security, he is probably a conservative and is probably opposed as well to any nationalization of private industries, federal aid to education, sharply progressive income taxation, and so forth.” Converse called voters who fit this description “ideologues.”

At the time he was writing, Converse noted, only three and a half percent of voters could be described as “ideologues,” another 12 percent as “near ideologues,” and the remaining 84.5 percent cast their ballots on the basis of whether their group would benefit, the state of the economy or, in Converse’s words, “no issue content.”

Now, nearly six decades later, the issue is not the lack of an ideological and partisan electorate, but the dominance of polarized elected officials and voters, some driven by conviction, others by a visceral dislike of the opposition, and still others by both.

This turbulence has proved to be a gold mine for scholars seeking to find order in the disorder.

Take two papers, both published in August 2021: “Constrained Citizens? Ideological Structure and Conflict Extension in the U.S. Electorate, 1980 –2016,” by Christopher Hare, a political scientist at the University of California-Davis, and “Moderates” by six political scientists, Anthony Fowler, Seth Hill, Jeff Lewis, Chris Tausanovitch, Lynn Vavreck and Christopher Warshaw.

Hare, in his paper, argues that polarization is present throughout the electorate:

The level of conflict, Hare continued,

Citizens with low and moderate levels of political sophistication, Hare argues, “are catching up to their highly sophisticated counterparts in terms of ideological constraint” and this

In an email, Hare argued that the current trends in partisanship “all seem to contribute to a feedback loop.” The sorting of voters into two camps, Democrats and liberals versus Republicans and conservatives, is not

Fowler and his co-authors, on the other hand, contest the view that voters are deeply polarized:

There are, Fowler and his collaborators point out,

In an email responding to my inquires, Fowler wrote:

There is a second crucial area of disagreement among scholars over what is known as “affective polarization,” the idea that there has been a steady increase in the level of animosity among voters toward members of the opposite party.

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, described affective polarization in a 2016 paper, “A Cross-Cutting Calm: How Social Sorting Drives Affective Polarization”:

For those whose social identities have become deeply entwined with their partisan identities as Democrats or Republicans, political defeat can produce intense anger. “This anger,” Mason writes, “is driven not simply by dissatisfaction with potential policy consequences, but by a much deeper, more primal psychological reaction to group threat. Partisans are angered by a party loss because it makes them, as individuals, feel like losers too.”

In a separate 2018 paper, “Ideologues without Issues: The Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities,” Mason argued that “American identities are better than American opinions at explaining conflict,” noting that

Two political scientists, Lilla V. Orr at Stanford and Gregory Huber at Yale, dispute Mason’s portrayal of affective polarization in their 2019 paper, “The Policy Basis of Measured Partisan Animosity in the United States.” They argue that policy and ideology play a strong role in the level of dislike or hatred between members of opposing parties and that policy agreement can moderate much of the hostility:

Perhaps most striking, Orr and Huber found that “respondents more favorably evaluate out-partisans who hold a shared policy position than co-partisans who disagree on policy.”

In an email, Huber wrote that there is “a very simple alternative” to explain growing partisan animosity:

Huber elaborated:

Orr contended in an email that

In an effort to clarify the relationship between ideological and affective polarization, I queried a number of political scientists and received some thoughtful responses.

Sean Westwood of Dartmouth stressed the importance of “sorting”:

What, then, about affective polarization?

Unfortunately, Westwood continued,

How do sorting, ideological polarization and affective polarization interact?

At the same time, Westwood argues,

Yphtach Lelkes, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed my queries from a different angle, emphasizing ideological constraint:

Political scientists, he continued,

That is changing, Lelkes argued, citing the work of Chris Hare in the paper I already mentioned: “Hare (who knows a ton about this stuff) has recently shown that public opinion is now collapsing onto one dimension.”

Affective polarization can have substantial real-world consequences.

James Druckman, Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, Matthew Levendusky and John Barry Ryan, of Northwestern, the University of Arizona, Stony Brook, the University of Pennsylvania and Stony Brook, studied partisan responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in their 2021 paper, “Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America,” and found:

Gary Jacobson, of the University of California-San Diego, summarized the evolution of polarization in his emailed reply:

Political cleavages that once split the public in diverse ways, Jacobson continued,

Sorting, in Jacobson’s view,

Demographic sorting by race, education and geography “contributes to affective polarization by clarifying who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them,’ ” Jacobson wrote: “The more the parties appear to be differentiated by morality and identity, the more intense the partisan conflict and the greater the likelihood of violence.”

Jacobson was not sympathetic to the findings in Fowler’s “Moderates” paper:

Jacobson stressed that the authors of “Moderates”

As a sign of the schisms in the American electorate, Jacobson recalled a defeated congressman “complaining that voters showed their desire for moderating national politics by voting out all the moderates.”

There is another key factor underpinning growing polarization and the absence of moderate politicians.

“Most legislative polarization is already baking into the set of people who run for office,” Andrew Hall, a political scientist at Stanford, wrote in his book, “Who Wants To Run: How the Devaluing of Political Office Drives Polarization”: “Indeed, when we look at the ideological positions of who runs for the House, we see the set of all candidates — not just incumbents — has polarized markedly since 1980.”

This trend results from the fact that since “the winning candidate gets to influence ideological policies” in increasingly polarized legislatures and the Congress, “the ideological payoffs of running for office are not equal across the ideological spectrum.” As a result, “when costs of running for office are high or benefits of holding office are low, more moderate candidates are disproportionately less likely to run.”

In other words, polarization has created its own vicious circle, weeding out moderates, fostering extremists and constraining government action even in times of crisis.

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