A talk with Andrew O’Donohue, co-author of Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Andrew has studied how societal conflicts play out in many countries, and the harm resulting from those conflicts. Transcript is included below.
Topics discussed include: common objections people have to thinking about polarization or considering it a problem; what American polarization has in common with polarization in other countries; the common psychological drivers of polarization, no matter where it happens; the potential effects of modern life and social media on polarization; what we can do in our lives to reduce polarization; and more. If you don’t already believe that polarization is an important topic, I do hope you give this episode a listen.
Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:
- Andrew O’Donohue’s website
- Andrew’s Google Scholar page
- Episodes of this podcast focused on polarization-related topics
- A Carnegie Endowment piece about polarization growing across the world
- Andrew O’Donohue and Thomas Carothers interviewed on Democracy Paradox podcast
- Referenced in podcast: article about Georgia’s voting law
- Referenced: survey about voter ID
- Referenced: paper by Guy and Heidi Burgess about polarization
Zach: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. To learn more about this podcast, go to www.behavior-podcast.com. If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family; that would be hugely appreciated, because the more listens it gets, the more I’m encouraged to do more episodes.
Did you know that research shows that most countries have been growing increasingly polarized since 2005? For this episode, I talk with Andrew O’Donohue about polarization, with a focus on how polarization plays out across the world in various countries, and on the psychological drivers behind polarization.
If you’re someone who wonders how a divided country might be able to heal, or if you’re someone who is skeptical or uncertain if polarization is really a big problem, I hope you give this episode a listen. I think these are very important topics; to me, they’re literally the most important topics we could be talking about.
I’d also say if you enjoy this podcast, I have quite a few other episodes on polarization-related topics. If you go to my website behavior-podcast.com and look for the post for this episode, you’ll see links to those episodes and other resources related to this topic.
Andrew O’Donohue is a political scientist known for his research and writing on polarization and the challenges facing democracy. He is the Carl J. Friedrich Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in the Government Department at Harvard University, as well as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. His book, Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization, looks at why divisions have deepened in numerous democracies and what can be done to heal them. Previously, he was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In this episode, Andrew and I talk about: common objections people have to thinking about polarization or considering it a major problem; we talk about what American polarization has in common with polarization in other countries; we talk about the common psychological drivers of polarization, no matter where it happens; we talk about the potential effects of modern life and social media on polarization; we talk about what we can do in our lives to reduce polarization; and more. If you don’t already believe this is an important topic, I do hope you give this episode a listen and be willing to think about these topics.
Regarding Andrew’s book Democracies Divided: I interviewed Andrew’s co-author, Thomas Carothers, for this podcast about some similar topics, with more of a focus on what leads to democracy breakdown and authoritarian regimes. So if you enjoy this talk, you will probably enjoy that earlier one.
Okay, here’s the interview with Andrew O’Donohue.
Hi, Andrew. Thanks for coming on.
Andrew: Hi, Zach. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Zach: So I’ve talked a good amount about polarization in this podcast in the past, but maybe a good starting point for people who don’t have that context would be to try to define what we mean by polarization, because there can be different categories of polarization such as ideological and then more emotional us versus them polarization. Then there can be the point that some amount of polarization is normal and even helpful in many cases because it’s normal to disagree and things like that. So would you be up for explaining a bit about the usual context and meaning when people talk about extreme polarization being a problem?
Andrew: I think this is the perfect place to start because one thing that I think is really crucial to understand about polarization is that in many ways it’s a Goldilocks problem. So on the one hand as you pointed out, you can actually have too little polarization. And I think one thing that surprises many people is that in the 1950s, the American Political Scientist Association– a group of political scientists– came out and said the main problem with American political parties is they’re not polarized enough. So, as you pointed out, one essential feature of a democracy is that citizens need to be given meaningful choices. And so I think the key place to start is that on the one hand, you do need a certain amount of policy or programmatic differentiation between the parties. But on the other hand, where polarization becomes really dangerous and often deadly for democracy is when polarization takes on an affective dimension. And by affective, I mean a really emotional basis that’s rooted in people’s social identities; a feeling not just that I disagree with the other side, but that I hate the other side, that I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone from the other side. Then that, I think, is when we think about polarization that can be deadly to democracy, the polarization that tips into this, the category of too much polarization.
Zach: So I’m someone who believes that the effect of the emotion-based us versus them polarization is the biggest problem we face. And I’d say not just in America, but across the world. I just see us humans as having such a huge flaw on our psychology that makes us so often come to hate each other and see each other in distorted ways and it becomes this cycle that so often happens. And I see it as not just dangerous on its own and how it leads to violence and wars, but also it makes us spend all of our energy and focus on these fights and creates this gridlock that prevents us from solving other serious problems that are huge threats. But there are many people who don’t see polarization as a problem, and some of those people will even scoff that it’s a problem at all. Some of those people will have views like, “Well, of course we’re polarized. The other side is just so horrible and we can’t bargain with those people or negotiate with them.” That view is a pretty common one I hear from people on both sides and that’s just the nature of polarization. And some of those people are very polarized. Some of those people want a lot more polarization who they feel like they’re in a good versus evil war. They really view the other side with moral scorn and a lot of hatred and fear. And then there’s other people that simply just aren’t aware that there’s anything that unusual going on, and that kind of response from them would be something like, “Well, we’ve always been divided. It’s not as bad as people think.” And imagine that you’ve heard all sorts of these types of arguments that get in the way of people acknowledging or thinking about polarization as a problem. And I’m curious, is there an elevator pitch that you have about why should people care about polarization, especially for the people that think the other side is bad so polarization’s not a problem, it’s not our problem.
Andrew: I think that one of the key insights that we came away with and here I’m drawing on a book project that I did with my co-editor, Tom Carothers, is that polarization often takes on a life of its own and becomes self-reinforcing and escalates much faster than people might expect. So to start with the people who say polarization is not really a problem, I think that what that perspective often misses is that polarization often becomes this intensely escalating cycle where tit for tat gestures escalate beyond what people ever intended. That what was once a normal partisan battle can escalate to the point where democratic institutions, societal cohesion is under threat and even political violence begins to break out. And that once this cycle of polarization begins, it’s extremely difficult to reign in once you have episodes of political violence.
We’ve seen this in the United States, but also in other places like Kenya in 2007, India today, it’s extremely hard to get polarization on check. So I would say to those people, the polarization is almost like a forest fire, that it can grow out of proportion extremely quickly. To those who say that the other side is so horrible that no redemption is possible and that this is a good versus an evil struggle, I think there are really two key problems with that view. And the first is that that ignores the possibility of working with people who are on the other side, who are willing to work with you, the people in the United States, for example, that we might see as Liz Cheneys or Joe Manchins. But there are genuinely certain people who occupy a center position and that often working with those people, they casting it as a good versus evil struggle, ignores the possibility of collaborating with those people.
But secondly, I think that another problem is that when that kind of polarization sets in, you often find that the dynamics within one side become toxic in themselves. The people are afraid to call out the people that they sort see are leading their side and they become willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior even by the person on their side in the name of sticking it to the other side, beating the other side at all costs. And I think a really interesting study of this was done by two political scientistsMatt Graham and Milan Svolik from Yale, and they find that when candidates are very starkly polarized on the ballot, ordinary Americans are willing to vote for politicians who enforce decidedly anti-democratic positions. And it’s because they see themselves as locked in a struggle versus good and evil, and because they think I need to vote for my side because the other side is even worse. So I think that the key problem is that that good versus legal relationship can lead to you even excusing a certain amount of evil behavior or anti-democratic behavior to be more precise from its own side.
Zach: And one argument I make about polarization in trying to get people to see it as a big problem is that seeing it as a problem doesn’t mean you can’t work very hard towards a political goal. And it doesn’t mean you can’t criticize people who you think are doing bad things. I think for many people they think that acknowledging polarization as a problem somehow hurts them noodles then in some way, makes them weaker or makes them forced to negotiate in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. But I think the big point there is that you can still work very hard towards a political goal, but it’s about recognizing the divides of us versus them language that really plays a role in these dynamics. And I’m curious if you would agree there that it’s about seeing how the language we use and especially about the entire other group and like you mentioned, the distorted views we can have of conflating everybody in the other group as being all the same as the worst people in that group and how that plays into the dynamics and makes the other group more angry and so on part of that cycle. So I’m curious, do you think I’m getting at a good point there that it’s about focusing on how we contribute with our language to these divides?
Andrew: I think that’s a great point and that often the framing of these debates is part of what makes issues that otherwise would not be extremely polarizing, quite polarizing. But I think that this is one thing that is difficult is that often for ordinary citizens, the framing of these debates feels like it can be outside of our control. And part of that is because political leaders in many ways set the agenda and set the agenda deliberately in terms of stark us versus the minor race because they know that that is effective towards rallying their political base, rallying political support, making their side feel like they’re under attack. So I agree that I think a lot of it is, and in many ways it’s often possible to reach consensus on certain issues by avoiding that us versus them framing. But part of the problem is that political incentives often lead politicians to frame it in us versus them terms on a very narrow basis as a matter of political survival more than it is about achieving a concrete policy goal.
Zach: Right. I think that’s a good point about the leaders, the people that can either be the most polarized people in the group, the political leads, or else they’re trying to to use polarization, harness it for their own power and such or to get things done. I think it can be important to separate how we talk about our fellow citizens from how we talk about the political leaders or specific people. And I think that’s a big part of how our language plays into this because, for example, say we’re angry at Trump and we speak in ways that insult the entire other group and vice versa too for both groups we speak in. And so these people, the people that are amplifying the polarization are really in the midst of the us versus them battle can make us speak in ways that insult the entire other group which leads into these vicious cycles of us versus them thinking.
Zach: And one specific example that came to mind for that, I was reading a book aimed at healing America and aimed at depolarization by David Blankenhorn, who was the co-founder of the depolarization group, Braver Angels. He also happens to be a scholar of Abraham Lincoln. And in that bookwhich I can’t actually remember, I think it’s called something about our better angels, our bravery angels, the book title, but he talks about how Abraham Lincoln, even when he made very forceful choices, very hard, tough choices, he never used dehumanizing language about his political opponents. And Blankenhorn gives examples of that about how even in the midst of that extreme conflict, he was always cognizant to speak, attempt to appeal to make rational arguments, make persuasive arguments, and not dehumanize his opponents before and during the Civil War. So I thought that was a really interesting example of what the point is here. It’s not like you can’t make tough decisions and work hard towards things, but it’s about recognizing how your rhetoric and the way you behave and speak about the entire other group really play into these things. And I’m curious if you think that’s a good example.
Andrew: I think that the evidence is extremely strongly supportive of this idea that both political rhetoric matters, but also the media of communication makes a huge difference too. So to start with the first point about Lincoln, I think unfortunately what we’re seeing right now is the precise opposite or the mirror image. So in one case study that we conducted in this book, Democracies Divided on polarization globally, we looked at the case of polling and what we saw was that when the ruling Law and Justice party, a populist right wing party, chose to make immigration one of their major campaign issues and started really digging in on an antimigrant message. Public opinion polling on immigration just changed almost overnight. I think that resistance to refugees increased by 30% points in the span of a few months. So the key thing here is that often these attitudes are extremely malleable and that political leaders who whip up antagonism or often hatred against minority groups, end up changing people’s attitudes very quickly. But the second thing is that, as we know, these political messages aren’t just being communicated in a vacuum. So I think there’s certain media that actually lend themselves very well in the modern era to depolarization and to your credit, I think podcasting is one of them. There’s not really, in the same way that you could have a clickbaity headline, it’s very rare to have a clickbaity podcast because we’re getting into these issues and they’re nuanced. Of course, they’re, but the problem is that oftenand this will be a familiar argument to youis that social media organizations often amplify the most divisive or angry or emotive messages. And we’ve seen this in studies where people are actually randomly assigned to delete their Facebook. They’re paid to delete their Facebook. And what we find is that these individuals, they become less polarized just by virtue of having been assigned to delete their social media. What’s interesting too is that they also become less informed because they no longer can rely on Facebook as a source of information, for example. But so I think that the other key change from Lincoln Zero is that the incentives are all structured the wrong way to reward in many ways this polarizing rhetoric.
Zach: That’s a good point about how quickly the views in society can change. It’s almost as if once we have a certain level of us versus them feelings in a society, it’s almost like things can change overnight as far as how that emotion is expressed, which helps explain why things can change so quickly because it’s just such a turbulent environment. So it’s like, look over here, here’s another thing for you to be polarized around. One big obstacle I’ve seen when it comes to polarization and the people who don’t want to consider it as a problem, or even offended that people talk about polarization as a problem, I think people will feel threatened by that because the implication is that there’s something for both sides to work on in a polarized environment that you’re basically acknowledging that both sides can be contributing. And when you do that,it feels like you’re helping the other side or hurting your side. So when attempting to talk about polarization, you’ll hear a lot of criticisms like that’s a false equivalency. You’re making a both sides argument. One side is much worse, that you can’t compare these groups. So even trying to talk about polarization can trigger these tribal emotions and it seems like polarization creates an environment where it’s hard to even talk about polarization. And I see that as the reason polarization is just so hard to combat despite it being so ubiquitous throughout history and throughout the world. Currently, it’s like our tribal instincts make us unsuited to even talk about the underlying emotional causes out of fear of hurting our side or helping the other side. And an argument I’ve made for that is to try to overcome that obstacle is that you can continue thinking one side is much worse than your group while still believing and trying to see how us versus them polarization is a problem and thinking about how these things contribute and thinking about how to reduce it. So I’m curious if you would agree with all that or have anything to add there.
Raja Sundar: I’m Raja Sundar, the host of the Healthcare for Humans podcast. In every episode, we talk about the history and culture of the different communities in Washington state.
Speaker 4: So, providers should think about what they say to island people when they try to connect with them. We most the time don’t want to hear about your vacation in Waikiki. [laughs]
Raja Sundar: It’s about how we can care for people how they want to be cared for, respecting their values and beliefs. You can listen to the Healthcare for Humans podcast wherever you get your podcast, or visit healthcareforhumans.org to get connected.
Andrew: Well, I do think that one thing that is a background condition is really crucial, and that even before we talk about this issue of the blame game, both sides do need to factually agree that polarization is a problem. And sometimes that’s not even possible. So in the case of Turkey today, an extremely polarized society where a very illiberal president, Tayyip Erdoğan, has relentlessly polarized society in particular through tactics of repression. One major problem is that his supporters,specially parliamentarians politicians, systematically deny that there is polarization in Turkey society. And they say, this is just the opposition complaining, but there is no polarization. And in those kinds of situations, it’s extremely hard for any reform to occur that in cases where you are actually able to make progress on polarization, often unfortunately there needs to be some cataclysmic event that leads both sides to just shake out of it, like a fever for the fever to break. One example of this that we looked at in the book is Kenya after the election violence in 2007, which killed more than 1,000 people, where civil society, parties from both sides got together in a really serious way to draft the 2010 Constitution, which has not been perfect, but has created some institutions in Kenya as in particular really powerful Supreme Court to moderate that violence and to moderate that polarization. To your point though, I do think that you’re very right that both sides often end up playing the blame game and trying to prove that the other side is at fault, but that that’s really not a path that leads to anywhere productive. In the first place, it’s almost impossible to get politicians to admit that they’re at fault. They have no incentive to do so. But second, when you make the argument that the other side is the one to blame,ften you end up giving up hope that there are people on the other side that you could work with. And for example, I see this because a lot of people in the United States claim, especially liberal commentators, of course, that the Republican Party is to blame or the Republican Party has radicalized. And what I worry is that those people often give up hope of working with moderate Republicans, the people like Liz Cheney, and they instead target their arguments almost exclusively at liberal or democratic audiences. And I think that that’s the wrong approach, and I think that it’s something that often comes out of the idea that polarization in the US is asymmetric, that there’s no one on the other side that we could work with.
Zach: Yeah. Getting into that idea of one of the common obstacles or criticisms is the idea that we can’t negotiate with these people, and for an example, like on the liberal side, you’ll hear, we can’t negotiate on voting rights. And on the conservative side, you might hear, we can’t negotiate on trans issues with liberals who want to allow mutilation of kids. And to be clear, these aren’t my beliefs, I’m just quoting what I hear from both sides, these kinds of things. But that elides over a lot of nuance because the truth is that unless you want to enter a war, at some level, you do have to negotiate. You do have to reach negotiations because the truth is just that our fellow citizens do believe such vastly different things than us, and we do have to coexist with our fellow citizens. And I think the idea that, you know, negotiation isn’t possible or dialogue isn’t possible is impossible, is exactly part of the problem because if you start believing that, then the only option left is basically some sort of war. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on those kinds of we can’t negotiate types of statements.
Andrew: Well, Zach, I think this is one of the most difficult moral dilemmas that polarization poses, which is that often, especially in democracies, polarization results in significant anti-democratic behavior. And the question becomes whether or not we can, or within a society, people who stand up for and believe in democratic values should negotiate with decidedly anti-democratic figures. And different societies have struck this balance in different ways. In Latin America, after some extremely bloody and repressive and brutal military dictatorships, civilian governments often thought that the only way that they could rebuild democracy was to give some level of impunity to military torturers effectively. And there’s an argument that people in the left on the United States might make that voting rights should be non-negotiable. The other side is anti-democratic if they’re trying to make it harder for people to vote. And I think that that’s a balance that different democratic societies strike in different ways. There’s no one right answer to that question of whether or not it’s appropriate to negotiate with a side on the other side that is flagrantly violating democratic rules is and potentially in cases of dictatorships engaging in human rights violations.
Zach: A small note here in case it came across that I was acting like voting rights were trivial or something that we could easily compromise on, it’s definitely a serious topic, but I think there’s a lot more nuance even in that area than many people are aware of. For example, the fact that with all the anger around Georgia’s voting laws, it’s still easier to vote in Georgia than in quite a few other states, including some Democrat majority states. This is not to say that voting restrictions are not a problem and there’s nothing to worry about, but just to say that it’s possible to see some of the rhetoric around that topic as exaggerated in a way that makes it harder to have helpful conversations. And for another example, a majority of people, including a majority of Democrats, are shown in surveys to support requiring ID to vote. This is just to say that sometimes the issues we think are clearly a case of good versus bad can have a lot of nuance and a lot of room to make both sides happy, or at least both sides equally unhappy. And the more we talk about these issues as good versus bad and binary, and the more we act as if the other political group are completely irrational and incapable of discourse, the more we’ll accentuate our divides. But obviously there are no easy answers, especially the more polarized and high conflict as society becomes. Okay, back to the interview.
Zach: Yeah, there’s definitely no easy answers. The more these things get worse, I think that’s what makes these things just so hard to talk about because there’s always gonna be a range of responses and views of what the proper responses are.
Andrew: And can I add one, one point on this? I think that I wanna be extremely clear here, which is to say that I don’t think that reducing polarization is necessarily an end in itself. That reducing polarization should always be the goal of democratic activists and organizers. And I think that the best example of this is that pushing for democratic change, especially bringing new groups into politics, is often highly polarizing. And the US is a fantastic example of this, that during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, people that we now think of as rightly as American heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King were extremely polarizing and often hated figures. And so this is a pattern that repeats itself in other democracies that have serious democratic deficits, but often overcoming those deficits, especially of exclusion can be a tremendously polarizing process and often violent.
Zach: Yeah, it’s definitely not easy to talk about these things. And I would say when it comes to practical takeaways, if I had to sum things up about how I see it, it’s like aiming for depolarization is about thinking about the distorted ways that we speak about the other group and looking for ways to reduce that. It doesn’t mean not criticize or not working towards things. I think it’s just thinking about all the distorted things that we say, like on social media, like, this group is X and being aware that we can often make the same arguments but make them in a way that is more persuasive to the other side or towards the people in the middle. I think that’s the practical thing to me is focusing on like how we speak and really thinking about how we might be contributing.
Andrew: I think that’s a valuable framing that polarization, it certainly in those cases should not be gratuitous as you’re pointing out that conflict is not necessarily bad in a democracy, but it shouldn’t be in this way that distortedly demonizes the other side.
Zach: So you’ve studied polarization around the world and how it happens in many countries, how it plays out. And I’ve read that polarization has been rising in most countries since 2005. And maybe you could give a brief overview of that research and tell me if that’s an accurate summary of the way things are in the world currently.
Andrew: And I think that this is a key argument that my co-editor Tom Carothers and I make in our book Democracies Divided, is that polarization isn’t just an American problem, it’s a global one. That in many ways polarization in the United States stands out in terms of how old it is that we argue that polarization has been really gradually intensifying since the 1960s. But that if Americans take a broader view, we have a lot to learn from other countries because polarization is genuinely tearing at the seams of democracies globally. Countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela, all of these countries have experienced really sharp affective polarization around deep identity divides. So to your first point, I think it’s absolutely true in sort of survey data run by The Varieties of Democracy Project that polarization appears to be an increasing trend. Scholars have of course debated the causes of that, whether it’s globally applicable forces like social media or more particular domestic forces like the rise of populist or illiberal leaders. But one thing that I would point out thinking in global terms is that the more– in the book we looked at the experiences of other divided democracies– the more we realized that US polarization is extremely unusual and extremely worrying.
The first thing that was unusual, and I’ve mentioned this, is that polarization in the United States has been accumulating for a very long time. Today’s divisions date back at least to the 1960s, so 60 years. And most other cases of polarization are much more recent in origin. Another thing is that the US effect of polarization is extremely distinctive and that it combines a combination of ethnic, religious and ideological divisions. In many other countries, polarization really hinges on one of those key identities.
In Kenya, it’s the division between the Kikuyu and Luo and Kalenjin and other ethnic groups that often drives polarization. In Turkey, the polarization is in particular rooted around Islamist versus secularist conceptions of Turkish national identity. But in the United States, this is something that we as Americans don’t often think about because it’s the air that we breathe. Ethnic, religious, and ideological divisions really interlock in a very powerful way that we call the iron triangle of polarization in the United States. On the one hand, the US is part of this global picture, rising polarization, but there are reasons to be in particular very concerned about the United States.
Zach: So obviously, every country is unique with its own issues and different types of governance and different personalities to name a few factors. But I’m curious if you see the underlying human psychology, the group versus group psychology that arises, do you see it as being pretty much the same?
Andrew: I do think that polarizing leaders often appeal to very similar types of social identity divides and that this division between ingroup and outgroup is deeply rooted in human psychology. I think that the social or emotional bases that leaders appeal to is often different. There are different kinds of ideologies for example that leaders appeal to on the left or on the right. Polarization isn’t of all the same flavor, you could say, in every different country. But I think that these divisions appeal to deeply rooted human impulses. You need to look no further than how much people love sports teams, how much we get emotionally attached to a sports team. The stakes are so low in practical speaking terms for me whether or not the Yankees win, but we’re just emotionally attached to our group.
So I think that this desire for this group has a tendency in human life is just an incredibly powerful force. And mobilizing that into political conflict, of course, supercharges this us versus them divide. Because often so much is at stake in terms of policy resources and status in a country when these polarized divides are mobilized.
Zach: Would it be accurate to say that if there are a good number of people in a country that have high poverty and don’t have much to eat, that seems to me like it might be a separate emotional, psychological thing going on like a different class of polarization if you’ve got those kinds of things leading to polarization versus like countries that are doing better financially and such that they come to be very polarized. Is that accurate to say?
Andrew: That’s very interesting. Actually, in this book Democracies Divided, we looked at nine different countries that are along a very broad spectrum of the income distribution, so extremely wealthy countries like the United States, more middle-income countries like Poland and Turkey and then also lower income countries like Bangladesh and India. We didn’t find actually that poverty or the relative level of income in these countries made the difference in terms of shaping the variety of polarization.
What we did find is that often it’s not the amount of income that makes a difference, but rather a sense of relative deprivation that precipitates in a cycle of anger against the political class, which is not the same as polarization. But two great examples of this are Turkey in 2002 and then Venezuela in the late 1990s. Just to briefly summarize, I think that in cases where a massive economic crisis really undermines the standard of living, people often revolt against the political class and that this creates an opportunity because the political parties are so weak for a polarizing figure like a Chavez in Venezuela or an Erdogan in Turkey to come to power.
So I think that really the key is often a relative decline in living standards brought about by an economic crisis. It doesn’t necessarily cause polarization, but it can weaken and debilitate existing political parties and create the opportunity for a new polarizing force to come to power.
Zach: When it comes to comparing the polarization in the United States with other countries either up today in countries today or countries in the past, are there certain countries, other nations that you see as somewhat similar in terms of how polarization is playing out here?
Andrew: Absolutely. To begin as I mentioned, I do think that US polarization is extremely distinctive. But I think that as the US starts looking for ways to manage our divisions, we need to be thinking about comparative cases. Two countries in particular come to mind. The first perhaps surprisingly for many Americans is the Latin American country of Chile during the 1970s.
Chile, many Americans may not know, was the model poster child for democracy in Latin America in the 1960s, the 1970s. It was seen as having one of the most effective rule of law systems, the most stable democracies, one of the most prosperous economies. Polarization ripped Chilean democracy apart. In the specific case of Chile, actually, the United States was involved in fomenting the 1973 coup d’état.
Second, I think that other countries that are similar are often Eastern European cases like Poland and also Turkey that combined this ideological polarization often with religious or ethnic tones. I think that in these cases, one of the unfortunate lessons is that polarization can often totally overrun the rule of law institutions that we think will keep political competition in bounds. Poland is a really sobering example of this that the constitutional court in Poland, basically the tribunal ruled that the incumbent government populist far-right government couldn’t appoint certain justices to the Supreme Court. The president of Poland just refused to listen and obey what the constitutional orders. In Turkey as well, judicial independence is basically been driven into the ground.
I think that what’s really sobering about these comparative cases is the sheer extent of democratic erosion that’s been experienced in the Chilean case where polarization destroyed a very old democracy that people thought would be able to withstand it and in places like Poland and Turkey where institutions are not as deeply rooted as they are in the United States. But nonetheless, they’ve been extremely weakened in their capacity to constrain the government.
Zach: One thing I’ve wondered is you hear a lot of examples of right-wing authoritarian countries that have resulted from polarization. I know it can be hard to exactly quantify things in those terms, but I’m curious, are there well-known examples more associated with liberal or left-wing polarization and authoritarianism? Hugo Chavez is my understanding he would be categorized as a left-wing populist. Is that accurate? If that’s true, are there other examples like that?
Andrew: Yes. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, the Latin American political scientist Sebastian Mazzuca has argued that polarizing left-wing populist parties are in many ways more dangerous for democracy than populist right wing parties. That is to say given the fact that you have a populist party that’s come to power and wants to erode your democracy, would you rather it be a far-right party or a far-left party?
Perhaps counterintuitively, Mazzuca’s point is that left-wing parties that came to power like Chavez in Venezuela but also the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, that because these left-wing parties centered their political message on expanding state programs, expanding resources, including cash transfers to the poor, built up the state apparatus in many ways by investing in new social programs, these regimes turned out to be quite durable in terms of staying in power because they were providing lots of resources to voters. Those resources ultimately became a certain form of clientelism or a tit for tat we the Chavez guys are going to give you the resources in exchange for votes that this became a mechanism through which they stayed in power. I think that there are certainly examples of left-wing governments that have moved towards authoritarian politics.
The other thing I would say is that I think many Americans misunderstand the right-wing governments in places like Poland and Turkey. We often think of these people as being right-wing in the sense of perhaps economically conservative when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth that the Law and Justice government in Poland, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, both of these right-wing parties are conservative on religious issues, for example, but they spend a ton of money, they dole out patronage, they provide support for new families, child allowances, these kinds of things. That is a huge part of their appeal, which is that they give a lot of money to ordinary citizens, and especially to their supporters.
I think that there’s a mixed picture here. The story isn’t totally one of right-wing governments eroding democracy, that in many ways it’s a more complex one.
Zach: I’ve been pretty surprised and maybe even shocked at how little polarization as a concept is discussed by politicians and journalists and pundits and such. As we’ve discussed, it’s such a super common human dynamic and happens to so many countries and yet it barely seems talked about outside of academic world or a few people that are interested in depolarization. I think that gets back to what we were talking about how polarization creates an environment where it’s hard to talk about polarization. But I’m curious if do you think if we took the approach of trying to get more people to talk about it and treat that as a valuable thing to promote and got more people talking about it, do you think that’s one way to combat and lower the temperature on these things?
Andrew: I think that is very important, because I think that in many ways politics generally suffers from the problem, and I’m not just talking about the United States but more broadly, the problem of extreme motivated voices dominating the conversation. Just take a very concrete and tangible example, gun rights in the United States. There is a very broad majority of Americans who support universal background checks or some form of background checks before purchasing, especially the most lethal firearms, but you very rarely hear from the ordinary Americans… I might say, let’s put you in that position, Zach. You may be a gun rights advocate or a gun control advocate. I don’t know.
But my point more broadly is that on issues where there is actually mass agreement on an issue, one problem is that the extreme voices tend to dominate. This is, for example, groups like the National Rifle Association, or NRA, which is a very loud voice speaking up for the maximalist position on the right to own and bear arms.
I think that part of the problem that you’re very astutely pointing out is that these voices in the middle, people who care about the polarization, who care about a more central politics are often drowned out in conversation by people who have very specific policy demands. Because people who care very deeply about a specific policy, whether it’s for example a total ban on abortion or a total ban on a specific type of legal firearm, those voices tend to dominate the conversation much more than people advocating for lowering the temperature in the room.
Zach: And it might be obvious, but even aside from the depolarization attempts, the people aimed at depolarization, it seems just even trying to have that conversation is so hard even just to broach a subject. I guess maybe it’s related. It’s all related. You can’t talk about depolarization. You can’t talk about polarization. But it’s just so strange to me that it’s such a common human dynamic. And so obviously inside of us, for us to behave this way is so common, but it’s like why don’t you see people talking on the news about journalist talking more about all this is similar to other things that have happened throughout history or are happening now throughout the world.
We have this almost like some people have said it’s due to our sense of American exceptionalism that we’re different, but I almost think it’s just due to how polarization works. Because we in a polarized environment, a polarized society will always see its own issues as being unique and important and not really related to these other things that have happened to other people, then that’s what’s so pernicious about polarization because it feels the thing you’re going through is so important, it’s so life or death or whatever. That is what makes it so powerful that it’s not relatable to these other things, even though they’ve happened a million times.
Andrew: I think that’s a crucial point that in many ways, every country is dealing with its own struggle over national identity. What we find looking across different cases of polarization is that really often the core of the issue is fundamentally different conceptions of national identity. So different ideas of India, for example, is India a secular country or is it a Hindu nation? In Turkey, is Turkey an Islamic country first and foremost or is it a secular state? In the United States, what should the rule of religion be in public life? These are very… The specific context and history of course plays out in a different way, but there is a clear pattern of differences fundamentally related to national identity and to brilliant scholars of polarization.
Jennifer McCoy who you’ve hosted on the podcast and her colleague Murat Somer find that this is what they call formative rifts that often in the process of creating a country, there are unresolved divisions about what that national identity should be like. That is something that every country grapples with in its own unique way, but it’s a common pattern that we have a lot to learn from other cases, especially the United States where we’re often closed to that kind of comparative perspective.
Zach: It’s my own belief that many liberals are a bit oblivious to the ways in which liberals can contribute to polarization. I think for me, the obliviousness from some people is just due to the fact that liberal thought and perspectives dominate so much of mainstream media in the form of TV, news, shows, movies, educational institutions. And so, this can make it pretty hard to really understand other points of view, even reasonable and well-meaning points of view on the conservative side, and to really see how some liberal rhetoric can be seen as divisive. So basically, the idea that it’s a bit of a bubble basically.
A small note here, if you’re looking for an example of what I mean by some liberal rhetoric being divisive, I’d recommend a previous episode of mine where I interviewed Leonie Huddy on the topic of liberal side perceptions of racism in America. I’d also recommend checking out John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism, which examines some of the divisive aspects of liberal side stances on racism.
One politically liberal political researcher I corresponded with said that he believed that more than half of our challenge with polarization was getting liberals to see the ways in which they contributed to polarization. To take another example, and a recent paper by Heidi and Guy Burgess about applying conflict resolution strategies to polarization, they said the following, “The objective of the progressive left seems more ambitious. To cancel and drive from the public square, anyone who has ever expressed the slightest doubt about the merits of any aspect of the progressive agenda.” Those are just a few examples.
I think it’s important to understand how it is that rational and well-meaning people can see liberals as being divisive. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with that, but I do think making the attempt to see those points of view can help us understand our fellow Americans a bit better and make dialogue more possible.
Okay, back to the interview.
What’s your take on that? Do you think the more we talk about these problems do you think more people will be aware of the ways they might be contributing?
Andrew: I think in any context to polarization, whether willingly or consciously or not, both sides are contributing to polarization. I think that the biggest way you see this is often certain kinds of purity tests that take place in terms of the willingness of individuals to engage in conversation in good faith dialogue. That often part of the problem is that certain people perspectives are seen as immediately disqualifying, that there’s no need for further conversation, that that’s the end of the story. But I think that this is a problem too that often both sides live in a certain form of echo chamber, that certain types of media should have constantly exposed individuals to one perspective even if they try to be balanced in terms of the issues that they prioritize and otherwise.
But I think what’s difficult is that in any polarized society, there’s not really a neutral position. So the best that you can do is try to incorporate as a collectively as possible different perspectives to listen and to avoid that kind of critique. So I think you’re absolutely right that on both sides, people are often not fully conscious of the ways in which they’re contributing to polarization.
Zach: I’m curious if you have any thoughts about the idea that the modern world in making us more isolated from each other, more lonely as shown in studies and such has created a situation that is conducive to more polarization? Because it seems like the more lonely we are, the more isolated we are from each other socially, the more we’ll look not to the people around us for meaning, but the more we’ll look to these big distant fights, these more conceptual fights about who we are and these fights that give us a sense of meaning. I’m curious if you think that our increased isolation in the modern world could be a big factor here in explaining what seems to be almost like a modern pandemic of polarization?
Andrew: That is a fascinating question. I think the world is going through a huge test of this right now as we look at the political aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, that increased isolation and loneliness due to people’s political preferences? I think that there is evidence, as you pointed out, that loneliness can shape political preferences in that way. But polarization and loneliness can also be deemed mobilizing. It can demobilize people politically, people become less politically active. Or in terms of political science, they have a lower sense of efficacy or a feeling that they can change the world, get involved in politics, for example. So I think that the jury is still out on that question.
One thing I will point out though, as you’ve said, is that often that polarization is deeply entrenched in human psychology in many ways, these kinds of us versus them divisions. I think that what has changed is not necessarily perhaps that people are more lonely, but that they have much greater access to people who are willing to spread deeper polarizing messages. So if you think about this in a variety of contexts, it seems that political establishments that previously represented centrist political positions have been losing ground. This is partially because of media contro,l the way that social media has increased the ability of new politicians like a Trump or a Bolsonaro in Brazil to spread polarizing messages and circumvent the new usual channels of the media like TV. But it’s also the way that people like Trump and Bolsonaro are able to crowdsource funds as part of their campaign. So I think that part of the modern world’s effect has also been that political parties that were once moderators of the democratic discussion are becoming less powerful and less capable of shielding us from or constraining the most polarizing voices in the system.
Zach: Yeah, that gets into something I think about a good amount, which is we often talk about the role of social media or the role of media or whatever. I think it’s a mistake to view social media as like this separate thing from all the other technology and media that’s been in process for decades cable TV and all this stuff, the internet in general. To me, it’s like it’s just this amplification of information load, these messages flying all around us. We’re bombarded in the modern age with messages with information. It’s almost like all these things are just an amplification of what humans do in the first place. We already clearly have the capacity to be polarized pre-high technology. But then you add in basically like this accelerant, this amphetamine of human experience, these messages flying everywhere around us and it allows us to build these perspectives, these narratives, these us versus them narratives just that much more quickly because we’ve got these messages flying around. So it’s almost like I really see these things as just an accelerant of human social interactions, whether that there’s good aspects of that obviously and there’s dark aspects of social psychology. That’s how I view it. I’m curious if you have any thoughts there?
Andrew: No, I think that’s exactly right that in many ways social media is the intensification of a previous trend toward the diversification of the media landscape, that the rise of new cable channels like Fox TV, for example, are represented in the late 1990s and early 2000s and a broader symptom of a world in which political establishments have much less control over who is going to be on the ballot, who’s going to be the president.
Zach: This is great. I think we covered a lot of things. Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t mentioned?
Andrew: Just that I think podcasts are a great medium for deconstructing or rather pushing back against polarization. It’s great to have a long thoughtful conversation. So thank you, Zach.
Zach: Thanks, Andrew.
That was Andrew O’Donohue, co-author of Democracies Divided. And just a reminder that I interviewed Andrew’s co-author, Thomas Carothers, in an earlier episode.
And just a reminder that I have other polarization-related episodes. If you go to my site behavior-podcast.com and look at the page for this episode, you’ll find some links to those. If I had to recommend one episode, I’d say check out the recent interview with Thomas Hornsey, where we talk about group psychology and polarization, and persuasion.
I also wanted to say that it’s hard to talk about these topics. It is hard to talk about polarization because by talking about it, you touch on such controversial and emotion-producing topics. It’s a bit like walking through a minefield, because no matter how careful you are to speak in persuasive or bridge-building ways, in a polarized society there will be a good number of people on both sides of an issue who will take offense at the things you say, who will hear something that angers them and say “these depolarization people are clueless, they don’t really understand what’s going on.” Personally I’ve experienced people on both sides filtering the things I say through the worst possible interpretations, essentially sifting my language for signs of insults to their group, or signs of having hidden, malicious motives, or just of being clueless and oblivious.
I mention this just to say that hopefully you can see how for a society to get better, it might require more people to try to overcome our emotional reactions a bit more, and listen to more viewpoints, and try to see the well meaning motivations and goals of others, and examine their ideas. And sometimes those ideas will at first seem strange or insulting or oblivious to us, but sometimes they’ll make more sense the more you think about them and see how they can be practically applied.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. Again, if you like this podcast, please share it with your family and friends.