Tag Archives: polarization


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.

How To Talk Politics at Thanksgiving Without Causing a Family Feud: The key is humility and a genuine willingness to learn

This piece was written for, and appeared earlier this week in, Discourse Magazine. See it there at https://www.discoursemagazine.com/ideas/2022/11/14/how-to-talk-politics-at-thanksgiving-without-causing-a-family-feud/.

As you pack your bags for your Thanksgiving trip, you may be starting to worry about that “crazy” uncle, extreme aunt, or other sour relative whose political views are so different from your own that anxiety turns expectations of what should be a happy family gathering into the grim anticipation of impending doom.

Many people resort to telling their children, siblings, and spouses not to discuss certain topics at the family gathering for fear of setting off those relatives—or just giving them an excuse to rant about whatever their cockamamie view is that day. Total avoidance is the only way they can see to keep the peace and prevent the polarization that exists across the country from leading to acrimony at their own feast.

The suggestion that we should not discuss the controversial topic du jour is now often defended with claims about how it is uncivil or disrespectful to disagree with anyone or to bring up controversial issues that are sure to encourage disagreement. Despite the popularity of this view, it is a mistake.

Not only is the avoidance policy a fool’s game, destined to fail regardless, but it is also misguided from the outset. There will always be disagreements. If we don’t disagree about defunding the police, Black Lives Matter, this president’s immorality, that president’s idiocy, or the government handling of COVID-19, we’ll find something else to disagree about. Trying to suppress disagreement simply causes festering animosity.

The reason the animosity festers is that if you refuse to allow yourself to disagree with someone, you’re essentially accepting that they are not capable or worthy of honest discourse. You might think Uncle Dan can’t be reasoned with; he’s an imbecile, so why even try? Thinking in those terms leads not to acceptance or love of the other, but to disgust, and that disgust is often hard to shake. So disagreement will emerge one way or another, and trying to prevent it is likely to make the disagreement that finally erupts more acrimonious and less civil.

Importantly, though, honest disagreement is not uncivil or disrespectful in the first place. Indeed, it’s a sign of respect. If my 3-year-old told me that I was wrong to think a particular politician is terrible because that politician is actually quite wonderful, I would not argue with him. Why? Because as a 3-year-old, he is simply not in a position to have a reasonably well-thought-out view of the matter. 3-year-olds deserve respect, but not for their political views.

Uncle Dan, I assume, is not a toddler, but if I refuse to argue with him about a politician, I am treating him as I would my 3-year-old. This is the opposite of respect! To show respect for Dan, I must be willing to engage with him. I must recognize that he, like me, is a person with his own views and his own reasons for those views, and that he is also capable of changing his mind, like any rational being. Yes, disagreement is a sign of respect.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to treat those family members with whom you disagree with respect. Engage them, not with vitriol, but with curiosity and an eagerness to learn—if not to learn how you’re mistaken, at least to learn why they think differently from you. Assume they have reasons because they probably do. If they don’t, perhaps you can uncover the etiology of their belief instead. In discussion, maybe they can also come to understand why you think the way you do. Indeed, you might both learn something about yourselves and each other.

I can’t say this is an easy task. It can be difficult—in part because of the anxiety we often manufacture around such discussions and in part because it requires allowing ourselves to be intellectually and emotionally vulnerable. You cannot go into a discussion like this holding steadfast to your own beliefs about the topic at hand. If you think they are wrong, remember that they are also thinking you are wrong. In fact, maybe you’re both wrong. You won’t know unless you are willing to take them seriously, treating them as a reasonable person who can be corrected—and recognizing that you also may need correction.

When you approach a discussion this way—recognizing that you and Uncle Dan are both due the respect of disagreement and are both capable of being wrong as well as capable of being corrected—you can learn more about the world, as well as more about each other. Admittedly, you may not change each other’s minds; perhaps after extensive discussion you each understand where the other is coming from but still think the other is clearly wrong. Yet even if neither of you changes your beliefs about the topic, you will have learned more about each other!

Increased mutual understanding through discourse is extremely helpful—and exactly what we need in these polarized times. The same model of respectful disagreement that works among individuals can work for society as a whole. It can lead to more compassion for each other and a happier Thanksgiving feast with love and fellow-feeling—something to be truly thankful for.

Watch me discussing these ideas on C-Span Sunday morning: https://www.c-span.org/video/?524342-5/washington-journal-andrew-jason-cohen-discusses-politics-civil-discourse.