Heroism, Hostility and Politics: Part 1, Affective Polarization and Political Tribalism

As an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, I was invited to contribute to the most recent issue of Fuller Magazine, a special issue focused on politics and the election.

My article was entitled "The Hope and the Horror: Reflections for an Election Year." I thought I'd share some of the main parts of the article this week.

The hope from the title speaks to how in our elections we feel that we are given the reins of history, a real chance to make a difference in our lives and the lives of our neighbors. Participatory democracy is empowering. It gives us hope for tomorrow.

And what about the horror? 

The horror is our dread of election seasons. The hostility, anger, and vitriol. The fights we have with friends and family members. How we have to block people on social media because we've lost or collective minds. Sure, democracy fills us with hope, but as the election season drags on we grow weary, stressed, and exhausted. We just want the whole thing to be over with.

As I talk about at the start of my article, much of this weariness comes from the rise of what political psychologists call "affective polarization":

Over the last few election cycles, social scientists have been tracking the rise of what is called “affective polarization” within the American electorate. Affective polarization is different from issue polarization, which speaks to the degree of agreement or disagreement among Americans across a variety of issues. In other words, how much “common ground” exists between us on the challenges we face, from climate change, to health care, to immigration, to responding to a global pandemic...

Affective polarization concerns the feelings we have about the people on the other side of the political aisle––it describes the feelings Democrats have about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats. And as we’ve all observed, affective polarization has been steadily increasing. The authors of a 2019 study of affective polarization summarize, “Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party. Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.” 

We’ve seen the effects of this on Facebook and over Thanksgiving dinners; we’ve witnessed firsthand how affective polarization poisons the political well. Affective polarization explains why political conversations are so difficult, tense, and unproductive: we’re demonizing our conversation partners. The possibility of compromise evaporates when seeking common ground is experienced as a moral failure, caving in to the forces of evil. Bright ideological lines dividing the agents of light from the agents of darkness are patrolled with vigilance. No ground can be ceded in this struggle. To fraternize with the enemy is betrayal. 

One force driving affective polarization is how politics is increasingly becoming an group identity marker, which is driving the tribalization we're witnessing in politics, an Us versus Them mentality:

Affective polarization is one force behind the great tribalization of American politics. In this tribal landscape, political issues aren’t debated to seek common ground or solutions. Issues become identity markers, social tools we use to figure out which political team you’re on. We’ve all witnessed this moral sorting on social media. An event crashes into our collective consciousness and we watch the two tribes predictably array themselves on either side of the emerging debate. This moral sorting explains why our political debates, whether at the family reunion or on social media, have become so unproductive. We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances.

In fact, our political tribes have become more important than traditional demographic markers of group identity, like race and ethnicity. In a fascinating study done in 2015, participants were asked to select a candidate for a college scholarship. The candidates were identical in their qualifications, except for race and political affiliation. Interestingly, white participants were slightly more likely (55.8 percent) to award the scholarship to the black student. But when it came to political affiliation, 79.2 percent of Democrats picked the Democratic student for the scholarship and 80 percent of Republicans picked the Republican student.

Politics is increasingly becoming a marker of group identity in America. Consequently, affective polarization is simply the manifestation of some well-known social dynamics you learned about in Psychology 101. Specifically, group identity is often achieved through two related mental and emotional biases: in-group favoritism and out-group denigration. We see the biases at work everywhere in our lives, from the positive feelings we have toward the people in our “tribe” to the suspicions we harbor about “those people.”

But it’s not just that humans are wary of difference. It goes deeper than that. Group identity is a large part of how we achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance. Make a list of the things that give you a sense of meaning and belonging and much of that list will involve group membership. You’re an American, a Christian, a Fuller alumnus. You belong to a church, a family, and a place of work. We are members of groups and organizations that represent our deepest values and concerns, declaring these allegiances with Facebook groups and bumper stickers. Gather up all these groups and you have an identity, a location where you stand in the world. 

I'll share more tomorrow about this last bit, how the sense of self-esteem and significance we gain from these group identities is implicated in the social hostility we observe in politics. For today, I just want to underline the point about how when politics is practiced as "holy war" we fail to engage our problems pragmatically. As I wrote above, "We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances."

Basically, politics should be a tool, a way to solve our social problems. But politics has become increasingly moralized, transforming itself into a holy war, a clash between Good and Evil. The pragmatic spirit is lost, and politics ceases to function as a tool to solve our problems. It's all identity markers, wherever you look across the political landscape. No solutions, just the social signaling of Us versus Them.

As I described above, the tools of pragmatic problem-solving require negotiation and compromise as we seek to balance competing goods. But in a holy war, compromise and negotiation are moral failures, waving the white flag of surrender, and caving in to the forces of darkness.

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