When trying to convince people of the problem of polarization and the necessity for depolarization endeavors, a common objection from politically passionate people goes, “But the other side is horrible, so polarization makes sense.” In this episode, I talk about what is probably the primary counterpoint to that objection: that us-vs-them anger, in a non-obvious way, can help create the very things we’re angry about. For this reason, if one wants to defeat extreme views on the other side (or on both sides), the way to achieve that goal is to take a depolarizing, anger-reducing, de-escalating approach.
Resources mentioned or related:
- Research by James Druckman et al, with a paper titled Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America
- Work on “mutual radicalization” by Fathali Moghaddam
- My podcast episodes on polarization-related topics
- Robert Talisse’s book Sustaining Democracy (best depolarization I’ve read)
- Site for my work-in-progress depolarization-aimed book
This is the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com; there are also transcripts and links to related materials on that site.
As I’m recording this today, there are a lot of birds chirping outside, so apologies for the bird noises.
If you’ve listened to this podcast before, you probably know I sometimes tackle topics related to political polarization. And I’m currently working on a book on this topic, with the working title Defusing American Anger: Why We Hate Each Other And What We Can Do About It.
When it comes to depolarization endeavors, I think it’s very important to try to overcome common objections. And one of the most common objections I hear is: “but the other side is so horrible, so it makes sense to be polarized.” Some people even think we need to be more polarized, to combat the obvious threat and danger of the other side.
I have a number of counterpoints to that. One is to point out that people engaged in depolarization efforts aren’t trying to change anyone’s political beliefs, which I think is often what people think. And I think this gets into some of the ambiguity in the term ‘polarization’; because there is ideological polarization, which is about beliefs, and then there is affective polarization, also known as emotional polarization, also known as us-vs-them polarization, which is what I like to call it.
So when people hear that I and others are working on “depolarization” they can think that we’re trying to change their beliefs, when what we’re really saying is: we are trying to reduce the anger. Or more accurately, we are trying to reduce the expressions of anger — the hateful insults and threats, the angry language — because we can see that those things are what drive our divides. One can have any range of political beliefs, even beliefs many would view as extreme, while seeing the wisdom of taking a depolarizing, de-escalating approach.
But the main counterpoint I’d make to people who perceive one group as hugely bad and dangerous is this: our us-vs-them anger helps create the very things many of us are angry about. Our us-vs-them anger is not some side event going on while we fight over the issues; it is actually the main event. Because that immense anger can actually shift our beliefs, and make us more extreme in our beliefs, and make us less willing to negotiate. Put in more technical, academic terms: our emotional polarization can create ideological polarization.
And research helps make this case. One of the most important studies on this, in my opinion, was one by James Druckman and his colleagues; that paper was titled Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America. It showed how political animosity pre-covid was tied later to more polarized, extreme covid-related beliefs and behaviors. I’m going to read some excerpts from my depolarization book in a bit, and I mention Druckman’s work in there.
One reason I wanted to create this episode was to create something that I could point people to. I wanted something I could share when people say “the other side is horrible so polarization makes sense.” And if you care about this cause, maybe you could share this episode with your audience, and explain why it’s important. Or maybe when you find someone making those objections, that polarization is okay, you could share this episode with them.
Another reason I wanted to talk about this topic was to see if people knew about research related to this. I’ve actually been a bit surprised how hard it’s been to find work related to the idea that emotional polarization amplifies ideological polarization. To me, it’s such an important concept, because it helps make the case to politically passionate people why depolarization efforts are so important. So if anyone has thoughts on this topic, or knows of related resources, I’d greatly appreciate you reaching out via the contact form of my site behavior-podcast.com.
Okay so next I’ll read a couple excerpts from my manuscript, and just please keep in mind this is from an early version of the book, so it is still pretty rough and unpolished.
We tend to think that our stances and the other group’s stances are things that exist on their own, apart from us. We tend to perceive that the other side is, suddenly and out of the blue, becoming more extreme and more detached from reality. But understanding polarization dynamics lets us see how our dislike of the other side contributes to creating the very things we dislike.
As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, put it in a 2022 talk on the Braver Angels podcast: “Culture wars are different than real wars: the more you attack the other side, the more you strengthen it.”
There’s plenty of evidence that our stances on issues can be affected by our us-versus-them feelings. Our dislike of the other group, our fear of them and anger at them, can make us form more extreme and hardened positions on issues. And this is a hugely important point because it helps us see that our us-versus-them anger is often creating the very things we’re angry about.
This gets back to the feedback loop involved in these dynamics. Our dislike of the other group makes us form more extreme positions, which increases the other side’s dislike and makes them form more extreme positions, which makes us dislike them more, and so on.
A 2020 paper by James Druckman and colleagues was titled Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America. In that work, they showed how people’s political animosity influenced later stances on covid. The more us-versus-them animosity people had, the more likely they were to have more extreme stances on how to respond to covid: either being for an extensive response to covid, or being for very little response. Importantly, that research showed that us-versus-them animosity came before the covid stances, showing that emotion influenced beliefs (and not the other way around).
Via email correspondence, Druckman summarized his views on how our us-versus-them emotions can affect our political beliefs:
Our theory is that as affective polarization increases for someone, they become more likely to align their beliefs with those of party elites. Party elites tend to be more ideologically polarized and thus the more affectively polarized people follow those cues, and that leads them to become more polarized on issues (as was the case with COVID-19 policies).
In other work, we find this holds across various policy domains, support for political compromise, and norms. For example, those who are more affectively polarized are more likely to oppose checks and balances when their party holds power but then flip to support them when their party is in the opposition. It is similar to policies; they are more protective of their policy and thus become more extreme.
So in short, we can see that political animosity, either directly or indirectly, is likely influencing our beliefs..
And we can see how this dynamic may be playing out for many issues we fight over. The more we dislike the other side, the more we’ll have an instinctual urge to align against the other side’s stance.
And each group’s divisive rhetoric will play a role here. When liberals say things like, “Conservative stances on immigration are due to racism,” it’s understandable how it would be that conservatives might feel even more emotionally committed to their anti-immigration stances. Their dislike of liberals will manifest as more committed stances against immigration.
When conservatives say things like “Liberals want to increase immigration because they want to destroy America” or “because they want to get more votes,” some liberals will feel various pressures to be more committed to pro-immigration stances.
And we can see real-world evidence of this playing out for various stances. To take one example: A 2020 Pew Research survey showed that back in 2015, roughly 65% of Democrats agreed with the statement “immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” In 2020, that number had risen to about 86%, a rise of about 20 percentage points. We can see this dramatic change in liberal-side views as being a direct result of perceptions that Trump and the GOP were being insulting and threatening to immigrants. We can understand it as liberal-side beliefs being shifted due to a growing perception of the other side’s moral badness.
To be clear: this is not to say that having positive feelings about immigrants is an extreme belief. It’s just meant to be an example of how our us-vs-them emotions can shift our beliefs. And we can imagine how related beliefs could be shifted in ways that some would view as extreme: for example, we can imagine that dynamic being at play with an increasing number of Democrats saying they’d be for open borders policies or having no border control at all. On the other side, we could also imagine that emotional dynamic being at play for increasing support for a border wall.
We define ourselves by what our in-group is like, but also by what a perceived out-group is like. We define ourselves partly by the ways in which we are not like a disliked outgroup. This helps explain why it can seem that we can become angrily polarized over anything, especially things that aren’t yet associated with one party or the other: all it takes is one group taking a stance on something, and the other group can have a reflexive instinct to criticize that stance and align against that stance.
When we’re polarized, there’s a natural feedback cycle that causes things to keep getting worse. And this helps explain why we will naturally keep finding ourselves polarized over new issues, like covid. For my podcast, I interviewed Michael Macy, who with his colleagues worked on a paper titled Opinion cascades and the unpredictability of partisan polarization. In that work, they studied how we can polarize randomly on issues that aren’t yet tied to a political party. Similar to how in many complex systems, slightly different initial conditions can lead to vastly different results later on, early conditions, including early opinion-holders and influencers, can influence a political party to be aligned with one or another stance on an issue. These early choices have a cascading effect, meaning that, for some issues, the political parties could hold reversed positions if things had gone a bit differently.
Research also shows how the more we view a stance on an issue in moral terms, the less willing we are to negotiate. One study that talks about this was from 2022 and was titled Moral Frames Are Persuasive and Moralize Attitudes; Nonmoral Frames Are Persuasive and De-Moralize Attitudes. That study found that quote “the use of moral frames can increase and entrench moral divides rather than bridge them.” end quote. This isn’t surprising: the more we see something as a moral disagreement, the less likely we are to want to budge on that issue. And the more we perceive the other political group as alien and monstrous and evil, as an entire group, the more of a moral framing all disagreements on issues will have, no matter the issue. So we become more gridlocked and unable to negotiate, and the resentment over that lack of negotiation grows and feeds back into our us-vs-them anger.
Fathali M. Moghaddam is a psychologist and conflict researcher, and author of the book Mutual Radicalization: How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes. In that book, he writes that mutual radicalization occurs when quote “two groups take increasingly extreme positions opposing one another, reacting against real or imagined threats, moving further and further apart in points of view, mobilizing their resources to launch attacks, and finally attempting to weaken and destroy each other.” end quote. Here’s another excerpt from his book on how entrenched and malleable us-versus-them feelings are:
This work on mutual radicalization highlights a destructive process that can become self-perpetuating, self-contained, and independent from ideology and other characteristics of groups. Irrespective of whether the groups and nations involved are capitalist or communist, Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or some other religion, or what their ethnic or gender mix and other characteristics are, once they become entangled in mutual radicalization they can be sucked into a spiraling and ever more destructive process.
Although individually those entrapped in this process might include highly insightful individuals who can recognize that the collective is going down the wrong path, the sheer force of mutual radicalization often overrides their objections and pushes them along to conform, obey, and speed toward a destructive end. In mutual radicalization collective pressures override individual intelligence.
We often fight over which political group has grown more extreme. People on both sides will try to make the case for why one side or the other has grown more extreme in the recent past. But the fact is that there is no one measure of extremity or radicalization. As extreme polarization grows, each group will adjust their stances in big ways on some issues and not so much on other issues. All this complexity means that it’s possible for each group to form narratives about the other side’s growing extremity and have points to back those claims up.
If you’re someone who thinks that dangerous people with extreme beliefs are hurting America—whether you see that as an issue on both sides, or almost entirely on one side—the way you defeat those people and ideas may be, counter-intuitively, by reducing our collective us-versus-them anger. Because it’s our collective anger that gives power to the most polarized people and views.
For my podcast, I interviewed conflict resolution expert Guy Burgess, and one thing he said was, “The idea is to see yourself as others see you. Once you do that, then you get a sense of what makes others so mad at you and willing to fight so hard. And you can then start asking questions about, well, do I really need to do those things? Or maybe if we did it this way, I wouldn’t provoke so much opposition but I’d still get the things that I really care about.” end quote.
And again, this is not to say we shouldn’t have passionate stances about things that are important to us: we’re talking about the unreasonable levels of animosity we can have and express towards our fellow citizens. That animosity is the problem.
Us-versus-them polarization is a powerful, self-reinforcing dynamic: a kind of self-sustaining perpetual anger machine. Like a nuclear reaction or a hurricane forming in warm waters, once set in motion, all the elements are there for the process to ramp up and spiral out of control.
In Robert Talisse’s book Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe To The Other Side, he writes about the indirect dysfunction caused by us-vs-them polarization. One less obvious problem is that the more polarized and angry we grow, the less able we become to work even with people who used to be or could be our political allies. We can see this dynamic playing out with people in both parties becoming more antagonistic and argumentative with each other. The most polarized people are focused on purity and ridding their side of the impure and the not properly polarized. We can see it playing out, for example, in many progressive-leaning organizations that have become dysfunctional due to internal divisions and fights, something written about in a 2022 Intercept article titled How Meltdowns Brought Progressive Groups to a Standstill. The angrier we become, the more intolerant we become of dissent, and the more we harshly judge even people who are largely politically aligned with us. In this way, more us-vs-them anger makes people less likely to achieve the normal political goals of persuading people and forming large coalitions. It results in a general maddening and meanness, across the board.
And just a note here that if you’re interested in these topics, I highly recommend Robert Talisse’s book Sustaining Democracy. It’s the best book aimed at American depolarization I’ve yet read.
Let me skip to another related excerpt from the book:
In a polarized society, people in both groups often have blind spots for seeing how their side is contributing. When the other side seems so egregiously wrong, the bad behaviors of people on our side can seem minor by comparison. Either that, or we genuinely don’t see how our group contributes.
Reading this, you’ve likely had some thoughts like, “I’ll concede that there are a few people on my side who add to our divides, but clearly, the other side is much, much worse, so thinking about how my side contributes strikes me as a bit pointless, and maybe even dangerous.”
When asked to examine how the left might be adding to our divides, some liberals will object that this is making a false equivalency or that it’s a “both sides” argument. They’re saying it’s wrong to speak as if the two groups contribute similarly. But this can be seen as a defensive reaction to avoid the real issue. Acknowledging the flaws of your group is not making a false equivalency or a “both sides” argument: you can see how your group has issues while thinking the other group is worse—even much worse.
People who study polarization understand that in every polarized nation, both groups in conflict almost always play a significant role in amplifying the divides.
Even in the case of Nazi Germany, a situation where most people would perceive one group as much worse than the other group (to put it lightly), there was significant violence and aggression from the far left at that time that contributed to the nation’s collective us-versus-them narratives and anger.
The following is from a piece about post-World War I Germany from History.com:
Against this background, Germany had to create a new government and try to reinstitute law and order. But the ministers and politicians of the newly established Weimar Republic had formidable enemies: their own people. The new republic saw pitched battles between increasingly polarized left and right-wing groups. The early government was seized by left-wing revolutionaries, and communist uprisings roiled the streets.
In response, private armies called Freikorps fought back. These groups were funded by former officers of the German army, which was now under severe restrictions in terms of both size and scope because of the Treaty of Versailles. The paramilitary groups came and went as political crises erupted. They were staffed by a vast group of discontented men, from former soldiers who were indignant at Germany’s surrender to young men who were angry at being unemployed. Eventually, as many as 1.5 million German men would join a Freikorps group. They represented a growing tide of nationalism and right-wing extremism that would erupt into political chaos and eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi Party.
The new government lacked authority, so it leaned on the Freikorps to fight its battles. The country was plagued with wave after wave of violence, both from workers’ groups on the left and increasingly combative right-wing groups who resented what they saw as Germany’s complete abdication to the international community’s demands after the war. And the Freikorps and other paramilitary groups were in the middle of the often bloody fray—legitimized and bolstered by a government so weak it gave them free rein to terrorize whom they pleased. [end quote]
(And as a quick note here, to be completely clear: this example I chose is not meant to compare current American political groups with those in WW2 Germany.)
This example was chosen to make the case that, ven in situations where most people would judge one side to be much worse than the other, both groups will almost always have played a role in amplifying the divides. Some will perceive this point as akin to victim-blaming or making excuses for an aggressive group’s attacks, but it’s not. It’s simply recognizing how human conflicts almost always work. It’s recognizing how the roots of our us-versus-them anger form and grow.
The 2006 book The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, written by C. Terry Warner and The Arbinger Institute, examines the hidden emotional forces that can help drive conflicts. It explains how, in conflicts—whether a marital fight or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—people on both sides can contribute, sometimes without even realizing it. That’s because when a conflict begins, we stop seeing the opposing side’s humanity and increasingly see them as objects. Even if we believe we’re simply trying to achieve correct and rational goals, if our “hearts are at war” with the people on the other side, those negative emotions change how we speak and behave. And soon, that animosity plays a bigger role than the issues we initially were arguing over. This starts a cycle where our negative emotions induce equivalent negative emotions on the other side. To quote from The Anatomy of Peace: “We begin provoking in others the very things we say we hate.”
Okay, that’s the end of me reading excerpts from my work-in-progress book, which is currently titled Defusing American Anger.
Again, if you like what I’m doing with this work, you can sign up for a premium membership to my podcast at behavior-podcast.com, and that will also get you a free copy of my book when it’s ready. Aside from that, I’d highly appreciate you sharing this podcast with others. Consider sending this specific episode to people who you think might appreciate learning more about polarization dynamics and why depolarization is an important goal.