Elephants and Donkeys Are Killing The United States: Why We Need Political Diversity

Polarization is making us less empathic and more violent. In addition to making us less factually accurate and thoughtful, political polarization and partisan selective exposure justifies and increases intergroup violence through a process called dehumanization (Crawford, Modri, & Motyl, 2013; Crawford, 2014). By cultivating caricatures of opponents as evil, dumb or completely devoid of any positive human qualities (Lewandowski et al., 2013), we paint partisans of the opposing side as worse than enemies; they’re inhuman.  Political scientists have found that people are now more likely to explicitly discriminate against others based on political party affiliation than they are based on race (Iyengar & Westwood, 2015). This outgroup hate is leading us to react to each other violently out of fear (Iyengar, Sood, & Lelkes, 2012). Protesters rioting and throwing eggs at Trump supporters at a rally in San Jose and supporters pepper spraying protesters outside a rally in San Diego, amongst other violent clashes, have all been attributed to rising political polarization in the U.S (Elving, 2106).  While this discrimination may seem ok when you are surrounded by ideologically similar others, it will be strikingly problematic when you find yourself in the midst of the opposing camp.

Polarization making us less politically effective. Finally, the end result of a lack of political diversity within our immediate social networks is an inability for our communities and government to function as they were intended. Politically polarized districts have lower rates of voter turnout (Rogowski, 2014), and lawmakers’ unwillingness to compromise increases to the extent that their voters don’t weigh bipartisanship as a factor for re-election. When a single political party is endorsed by the majority of the population in a district, political candidates’ only competition is their primary election competitor. In these cases, politicians are incentivized to become more extreme to out-compete each other in the primaries, which decreases the number of moderates in Congress and makes bipartisan collaboration punishable in the next election cycle (VoteView.com, 2016).

With fewer moderates to reach across the aisle comes higher political gridlock, larger and larger portions of the legislative agenda is left unresolved (Bishop, 2000).  Liberals protest and vilify the Republican-dominant Wisconsin Legislature for limiting collective bargaining rights without Democratic support, but believe that the unilateral passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”) by Democrats in Congress as being necessary due to a lack of compromise from their conservative counterparts. Our moral outrage when our opponents push something through legislature without bipartisan support is staggering, but when our side does it we see it as a necessary countermeasure for the good of the country. Even when the majority of the population agrees on something, Congress is unable to make progress. The Senate has continued to reject bills that include background check measures for gun sales, despite bipartisan public support for these measures steadily holding at over 80% (79% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats; Pew Research Center, 2015).

Ok, it’s a problem, and it’s getting worse. What can we do?

Recognize your own biases. We all suffer from what psychologists call naïve realism, or the belief that our interpretation of the world is objective and unbiased, but other people’s viewpoints are either biased, irrational, or both (Nasie et al., 2014). The first step in overcoming political polarization is admitting that we too are biased, and that our understanding of the world is probably at least a little bit false. Each side is morally motivated, and we all must beware our own sacred values. Next time you respond to someone else’s viewpoint with an immediate viscerally negative reaction, ask yourself if your prior beliefs may interfere with accurate perceptions.

Reduce threatening interactions. Think about the last time that you had a serious argument with someone and told them they were 100% wrong. Whether it was your friend, child, parent, or romantic partner, odds are that they immediately went on the defensive, the argument escalated, and nothing positive was resolved. Why do we think this tactic will work with opposing partisans we don’t know personally, when it doesn’t even work with our closest friends and family who care about us? Only by showing respect for our debate partner and acknowledging that their feelings and beliefs are a part of the conversation can we begin to bridge the partisan gap. By fostering positive social interactions between partisans, interventions based in social psychology’s Intergroup Contact Theory have successfully decreased demonization of outgroup members and increased intergroup cooperation (Allport, 1954; Iyer, 2016; Pettigrew & Trope, 2006).