Six Reasons American Political Polarization Will Only Get Worse

Welcome to the world of dysfunctional Belief Communities.

"Americans ... values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years." (Pew Research)

Pundits bemoan this polarization, and await a leader who'll cut the Gordian knot of gridlock politics to deliver us to a bi-partisan nirvana. The pundits will have a long wait.

America's current hyper-partisanship stems from a perfect storm of factors (described below). And it's created Belief Communities -- where people who want to believe patently untrue things (e.g., that President Obama was born in Kenya) are never challenged in their beliefs, and may even be encouraged in their fantasies.

Let's examine the causes of American political polarization.

1. Confirmation Bias and Weak Feedback Loops:

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"When Democrats and Republicans see the same presidential debate on television, both sets of viewers claim that the facts clearly show that their candidate was the winner." (Daniel Gilbert)

We believe what we want to believe, and we selectively filter out information contradicting our preferences (this is called Confirmation Bias). Convincing us of something we don't want to believe requires: (i) repeated challenge and reinforcement with contradictory information, or (ii) strong immediate feedback loops (e.g., 99.99% of Americans believe a green light means 'go' and a red light means 'stop' because acting contrary to that belief causes car crashes). Unfortunately, many issues about which citizens are most detached from reality have weak feedback loops.

2. Changing Economics of the Media Industry:

Confirmation Bias was less of an issue in the 1960s, when Americans got their news from one of three TV networks, and local newspapers were often a monopoly. National TV was regulated and subject to licensing, and networks could lose their licenses for biased or inaccurate reporting. Under these conditions, news wasn't targeted to distinct Belief Communities. Instead, news providers tried to create a common narrative on current events. With the arrival of cable and the web, news media became more like the cereal business -- with different brands targeted at different segments. Through targeting and segmenting, people are told what they want to hear, about topics with non-immediate feedback loops (e.g., basic science and public policy). Fox News is the network of choice for the Right, and many smaller channels/websites are even more micro-targeted, all of which exacerbates the Confirmation Bias problem.

3. Filter Bubbles: 

Google/Facebook know whether you're a liberal, conservative, birther, believer in ghosts or whatever -- and your information is tailored to reinforce what you already believe.

4. Ideologically Safe Congressional Seats:

About 80% of all Congressional Districts are solidly Democratic or Republican. We have bipartisan agreement on one issue -- politicians prefer safe Congressional seats, which sometimes happens naturally, but also because politicians use redistricting to create them. Instead of engaging with challengers from the other party, most members of Congress now engage only with challengers within their own party -- Democrats with their Left, and Republicans with their Right. Bipartisan compromise becomes a dirty word, as a consequence.

5. Advocacy Industry Expansion:

Over the past generation, we've seen the rise of special interest groups, often narrowly focused on a single issue. The National Rifle Association, for example, spends $250 million/year fighting gun control. These advocacy groups employ a small army of people at high wages (the head of the NRA is paid $1 million/year). Institutionally, the NRA has every incentive to find new battlegrounds to justify its existence. Replicate this incentivized self-interest for all sorts of narrow issues, mix in even greater ability to raise funds due to Citizens United -- and you have a formula for polarization.

6. Lack of a Shared Context:

The post-WW II era of bi-partisanship (from the 1940s-1970s) was characterized by a shared context. Americans experienced some combination of: WW I, the Great Depression (25% unemployment rate), and WW II (requiring every healthy draft-age male to serve, with no college deferments). After WW II, Americans all faced the shared challenge of the Cold War. Today, despite a U.S. at war for the past 10 years, fewer than 1% of Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Neither Romney nor Obama has done military service, and few of their relatives and friends have either. (Note: President Clinton, President Bush, and Governor Romney all had children of appropriate age for military service, but none of them has served.)

We can begin to break the polarization cycle with: (i) Stronger public finance for political campaigns to reduce the power of special interest groups; (ii) Discouraging ideologically pure Congressional districts thereby forcing Congressmen to appeal to moderates; (iii) Setting limitations on algorithmic filtering of news; and (iv) Engaging Americans in a shared narrative/experience (e.g., requiring mandatory community service for all high school graduates).

Otherwise, welcome to the new normal. And without serious reform, things will only get worse

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