We talk a lot about polarization today, but polarization is not a simple single thing. The term is used in different ways by different people. Most usages are pretty sensible, but I think it would be useful to clarify what is usually meant when we talk of polarization. There are actually (at least) 3 main types of polarization. My aim here is to make the 3 clear and to point out how we are and are not polarized.
Perhaps the most ordinary use of the term polarization is to indicate that there are, in fact, two polar extremes when it comes to political views. Call this empirical polarization (EP). EP exists when there are two camps/sides taking opposing views about some issue or set of issues. That points to one distinction immediately: it could be broad or narrow EP—that is, it could be EP about overall worldviews or EP about specific issues. Presumably, there could be a spectrum. Cutting across this divide, though, we might also be concerned about specific groups—for example, is the EP present in the general population, political office holders, the literati, or some other group? I assume the most ordinary use of the term polarization regards the presence of broad EP in all three of these groups.
The second form of polarization we should note is what has been called affective polarization (AP). AP is present when people in two camps feel like they are seriously opposed to—and by—those in the other camp. Democrats feel like Republicans are evil, anti-democratic, out to destroy the polity. Republicans feel the same way about Democrats.
The interesting thing to note now is that though it seems fairly clear that there are high levels of AP in the US right now, the feelings on both sides don’t well correlate to actual differences of opinion. That is, though AP is high, EP is not. The evidence shows that democrats and republicans do not disagree about all that much. They think they do regardless. To shocking extents. Consider that
only 35 percent of Democrats thought that Republicans would say that “Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes.” But 93 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.
only 45 percent of Republicans thought Democrats would want students to “learn about how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality.” But 92 percent of Democrats said students should learn this. (Education Week, making use of More in Common)
This is striking.
The third form of polarization that I think we should be aware of is what Bob Talisse calls “belief polarization” but I will call “dynamic polarization” (DP). DP exists when group dynamics take the presence of any EP or AP and push members of each group to more extreme versions of the group’s beliefs. Those on the left who are “woke” associate with others who are “woke” and jointly push each other to be even more woke. Those on the right who are anti-woke associate with others who are anti-woke and jointly push each other to be even more anti-woke. Given this dynamic, each side comes to see the other side more and more as evil (and as more and more evil). Also, though, each side loses patience for those on their own side who have any inkling of genuinely dialoguing with those on the other side. Each side becomes more conformist and purified by ridding itself of those who won’t go to the same extreme as the rest. For more on this, see Talisse.
Again, affective polarization can be high even if empirical polarization is low—even if there is not much in the way of real disagreement. Dynamic polarization tends to go along with affective polarization. It is the fact that our affects are as they are that we are pushed to more extreme versions of our beliefs. The more we feel different from the other—whether or not our beliefs are different from theirs—the more we lose willingness to engage with those who seem willing to consider what the others have to say.
What is the take away here? If you associate only with people that you tend to agree with, you should wonder whether the claimed disagreement with others is real or, if it is real, if it is as significant as those you speak with believe. While it may be, there is a very good chance it’s not. Especially if you are a US Democrat or a US Republican. If more people realize this, perhaps we can stop DP and reduce AP. For 6 steps that might help, see this piece at Discourse Magazine.