Polarization at the Tipping Point

The Long Term and Wide Angled Views

purple principle episode artwork with headshots of podcast guests Stephen Hawkins and Andrew Gelman

A Major Pandemic… Election 2020 that lasted weeks… And Election Denial 2020 is still going months later… Then Insurrection… Impeachment… And possibly more to come. 

There’s been a lot of polarized events, responses and counter-responses over the past few months. So it seems time to step back and take a longer ranged, wider-angle view of partisanship in our highly DisUnited States. 

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The Purple Principle does that in Episode 20 with featured guests Dr. Andrew Gelman of Columbia University (Departments of Political Science and Statistics) and Stephen Hawkins, Research Director of the international non-profit, More in Common, authors of the seminal study on American political identity, The Hidden Tribes

Andrew Gelman, one of the foremost statisticians on political partisanship, has some good and not so good news. “We’re not as polarized as we think we are,” says Dr. Gelman, as if to raise our optimism just a bit. “But we’re more polarized than we used to be.” Oh, well. He goes on to highlight the important role of negative partisanship (a.k.a detesting the other side) in our polarized predicament. 

Dr. Gelman also explains how polarization is measured over time with modern statistical techniques, which reveal how seemingly unrelated issue positions can form into partisan constellations. Why, for example, should someone’s position on the minimum wage correlate with their view on global warming? Logically, there’s little connection. But in our partisan age, these correlations are increasing over time, if not yet fully correlated. 

In the second part of the episode, Stephen Hawkins of More in Common defines the seven tribal identities found through extensive psychology-driven polling, from progressives activists on the left wing, then moving from left to right, traditional liberals, passive liberals, the politically disengaged (the largest, most diverse group), moderates, traditional conservatives, and devoted conservatives toward the far right. 

More in Commons defines the four groups in the American center as “The Exhausted Majority.” Hawkins explains that those suffering from partisan exhaustion may tune out from political news while our tribal wings not only garner more news coverage but consume more media as well. As a result, media companies play to those on the extreme, appealing to easily inflamed prior viewpoints and creating outrage at the other side. 

What’s a polarized nation to do? Hawkins suggests the answer may, oddly enough, lie back in the Cold War when a common enemy solidified American identity across the partisan divide. Tune in to learn more about both the major trends in polarization and our surprisingly complex political tribalism in Episode 20, “Polarization at the Tipping Point.” 

Stephen Hawkins:

Well, there is both a reason to be optimistic and a lot of reasons to be concerned. The optimism is that there is this sort of pregnant moment of the United States where there’s all of this frustration and fatigue with the political status quo that could overwhelm the partisan sides and bring about change.

Robert Pease (host): 

That’s  Stephen Hawkins. He’s the Research Director of More in Common, an organization that has taken a wide and deep view of partisanship in the U.S. and other nations as well. This is The Purple Principle. I’m Robert Pease.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And I’m Emily Crocetti. In addition to Stephen Hawkins, our other guest today is Andrew Gelman of Columbia University. He’s taken the long view in studying polarization in the U.S. over the past several decades. 

Andrew Gelman:  

We’re less polarized than you think, but we’re more polarized than we used to be.

Robert Pease (host):

Join us today as we pan back from headlines and soundbites on insurrection and impeachment to look at the larger forces and trends that brought us to this fractious point. Let’s start by asking Dr. Gelman about the methods used to measure this scary beast called polarization. 

Andrew Gelman:

So you can measure polarization in different ways. Maybe I should start with the big picture. So the big picture is that voters tend to dislike the other party more than they like their own party. So a lot of the polarization is people feeling that the other party is too extreme, not that their party is quite in the right position. We can measure polarization at the level of issues or voting or perceptions about parties and they can give different results. One thing you can look at is correlation between attitudes on issues. So I couldn’t find a lot of quotes from pundits who say how come because people have a certain view on abortion, then they have a certain view on the minimum wage or on foreign policy or tax policy, racial issues, whatever it is. It turns out that historically, the correlations between attitudes on different issues were kind of low. So you couldn’t easily predict someone’s position on issue one by just knowing about issue two. Unless there were highly related issues, those correlations are still kind of low, lower than you might think, but they have been increasing. 

Robert Pease (host):

So let’s just make sure we understand that. You’re saying that if someone told you they were a Democrat or Republican in the 1970s, you would have had a hard time predicting their stand on certain issues. But today, five decades later, you can predict their opinions? Is that correct?

Andrew Gelman:

Yes. So sometimes this is called constraint. So it feels like your positions on a bunch of issues are constrained in some way. Not that your positions are extreme, but that there are certain constellations of views that are going to be more common than others and there are some political issues for which this is not the case, but more and more issues are becoming lined up like that, but that lining up is far from 100%.

Robert Pease (host):

So maybe not completely, utterly polarized there. But we’re also curious about the impact of big historical events and personalities on younger voters, people who are voting for the first time. How are they shaped by the previous decade or two? Has that been measured?

Andrew Gelman:

To some extent it’s been measured. So my colleague Yair Ghitza and I did an analysis looking at survey data, going back many decades, trying to estimate the extent to which people’s current political attitudes are shaped by what happened to them, what eras they lived in, in the past. And we found that the political climate when you were between the ages of roughly 15 and 30 had a disproportionately large effect on your political attitudes later. And often you can trace that back to who was in office at that time. Ronald Reagan was not so popular in the second half of his term and George H.W. Bush was not so popular for most of his term. And Bill Clinton was quite popular all the way through, almost all the way through. And so when you put that together, the sub generation of people who were young adults during that period became more Democratic. Then after a few years, George W. Bush was not very popular. Obama was fairly popular. So again, the unpopularity of someone like George W. Bush in his later years seems to have had an effect on younger voters, it sort of pushed them toward the Democratic party and the unpopularity of Trump. That said, I don’t know how much this will continue because it doesn’t seem in the era of polarization, it seems like it’s harder for presidents to be extremely popular, extremely unpopular for very long.

Robert Pease (host):

That does seem to be the case. We’re also interested in your own background. You went to MIT and Harvard studying math and statistics and various other things. So where does your interest in politics come from?

Andrew Gelman:

I think politics is important and so it’s interesting. It seems like there are a lot of empirical questions that can be estimated. And one of the first research projects I was involved in was looking at what we called the bias and responsiveness of congressional elections. So it used to be that traditionally they would say that the so-called swing ratio was two or three. So a 1% swing in the vote, but corresponds to a 2 or 3% swing in the seats in Congress. But then in more recent years, it’s declined to be closer to one, which means the same swing of voters will create a smaller swing in Congress. That means Congress is less responsive to the voters. They have less motivation to do what the voters want. You can see how that’s happening because there are fewer close elections. We were able to do better using more modern, innovative statistical approaches, but it had implications for politics, at least it helped us understand things better. So that was pretty much where I was coming from.

Robert Pease (host):

And how about your work currently? Do you have a project you’re working on now related to polarization?  

Andrew Gelman:

We’re looking at something we call social penumbras. So if you look at an attitude, like an issue, like let’s say gay rights or immigration, not that many voters are gay. And of course not that many voters are immigrants. But a fair number of people know a gay person closely and a fair number of people know an immigrant. So I think a lot of how we think about political issues has to be rethought because we have to think of the social penumbras. Not just think about individuals as members of groups.

Robert Pease (host): 

That was Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, one of the foremost statistical researchers on U.S. politics today giving us the long term trends in polarization.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

If you’re a pessimist, you could say negative partisanship is increasing and so are the clustering positions within the two major parties, even if those positions don’t have much logical connection.

Robert Pease (host): 

Which helps explain our gridlock on immigration, climate change, gun violence and a bunch of other issues. But looking on the slightly brighter side, Gelman does say we are less polarized than we think and these issue clusters are not set in stone. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And It’s also important to note that Dr. Gelman is turning some of his research efforts away from individual positions and toward social group dynamics.  

Robert Pease (host):

That’s right. Social groups may well be where the real action is in terms of how polarization ebbs and flows. The research group More in Common has been extensively polling and analyzing group dynamics in the U.S. over the past decade. And not simply in terms of red and blue.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

Exactly. They’ve divided the U.S. voters into not one, or two, or three, but seven different hidden tribes 

Robert Pease (host): 

And they coined a phrase for the majority of Americans stuck between our extreme tribes that’s widely cited, and probably fits many Purple Principle listeners –  “the exhausted majority.”

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

Extremes do get so much attention. 

Robert Pease (host): 

And are so exhausting. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

I spoke with More in Common Research Director Stephen Hawkins about the methods and findings of their study, The Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.

Stephen Hawkins:

And so we had respondents answer questions that wouldn’t seem necessarily related to politics, such as do you think that children should learn to respect authority or should they learn to be independent? Should they be creative or should they respect authority? And so by using those variables about people’s psychology and their political behavior, we created a typology, which is to say we created seven different categories of Americans. And so on the far left, we have the progressive activists and then moving from left to right, we have the traditional liberals, the passive liberals, the politically disengaged, which is our largest group and which has the most diversity and variety within it. And we have the moderate group, a traditional conservative group, and then a devoted conservatives group. And so what we’re trying to achieve with this is the best description of what is happening at the psychological level when we disagree on questions of societal debate in this country.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

You mentioned a little bit there that along the political spectrum of these hidden tribes, there’s the progressive wing and the conservative wing. But what about the tribes in the middle, which you call the “exhausted majority”?

Stephen Hawkins:

Yes, so we identified four tribes that we described as belonging to something called the exhausted majority, which is two-thirds of Americans and those are the traditional liberals, passive liberals, politically disengaged, and the moderates. We found that while they differed in terms of being either independents or Republicans or Democrats and had some different political orientations, what they shared was a sense of fatigue at American politics and a sense that their voices weren’t necessarily reflected in the debates in the political space and in the media and that they were more likely to support compromise and were less eager to see their side defeat their opponent. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Yes, we are definitely feeling that a lot these days. Do you have a sense from your research where the independents or politically unaffiliated people fall within the seven tribes?

Stephen Hawkins:

So they would fall overwhelmingly within the exhausted majority to begin with and then would fall disproportionately among the politically disengaged and the moderate groups. But the group of independents is larger as a percentage than the group of Democrats or Republicans despite how it may seem. But it’s also a controversial and complicated group, because independents, as I’m sure you know, tend to still vote in predictable ways either as Republicans or Democrats and often refer to themselves as independents because they want to preserve or they want to signal that they are thinking actively and critically about what’s happening and who’s running. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

We’ve heard that from a lot of our guests that a lot of independents tend to still vote consistently with one party. However, if they are the majority, why do you think there isn’t more of an effort by the media to reach them as an audience? Your report talked about how the media tends to really just focus on the extremes.

Stephen Hawkins:

There is a disproportionate amount of news consumed by wings of the political spectrum. So it isn’t necessarily the case that a lot of independents and people from the politically disengaged and other center groups are watching the news frequently. They’ve already made a decision that the political theater is just too cacophonous and irritating and grating or too simplistic or too negative. And so from the standpoint of news media, their consumer base is slightly smaller than the American population. And within that space, there’s likely pretty strong incentives to reward people’s priors, meaning reinforce the worldviews that people already have and they’ll watch your show; get them outraged about the other side, and they’ll watch your network. So it’s a complicated mix of political incentives and market incentives that preserve and exacerbate these tensions and this polarization that we’re seeing in the country.

Robert Pease (host):

And there certainly are a ton of incentives out there working hard to pull us apart. With regard to polarizing social media, our previous guest Dr. Robert Elliott Smith stated that pretty emphatically. 

(previously recorded audio, Robert Elliott Smith):

I don’t think any of the major media providers are actually deeply evil. I don’t think that’s true. I do think that the goals that we’ve programmed them with, through programming and AI, these goals may not be compatible with having an effective society. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And in terms of political incentives, Trevor Potter, former Chair of the Federal Election Commission, explained why his Campaign Legal Center is working hard to combat the polarizing effects of gerrymandering at the state level. 

(previously recorded audio, Trevor Potter):

Despite it not being an easy task, we do think there are opportunities in a number of states to argue that a gerrymander, if that’s what the legislature does, violates that state constitution. There are some states that do not have independent commissions yet. But there is a way for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot and we will be working in those states with local groups to help word those propositions, and then inevitably defend them in court.

Robert Pease (host): 

Gerrymandering was certainly at work not very far behind the scenes when 140 House Republicans voted against certifying the 2020 election. No less than 120 of them are from safe Republican seats and won reelection by more than 10 points.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And both market and political incentives help feed negative partisanship in our country, which is that primal tendency to fear and detest the other side. So I asked Stephen Hawkins about what his group calls “the perception gap” between our major political tribes.

Stephen Hawkins:

So in the perception gap study, what we did is we asked Republicans and Democrats to answer questions about their views and then we asked members of the opposite political party to predict what responses would be from their political opponents. And we found that on the whole Americans weren’t very good at this exercise. And we found that this correlated very positively with what’s called affective polarization or negative partisanship, which is a kind of academic way of saying that the more you are inaccurate in your view of your political opponents’ viewpoints, the more you hate them. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

Let’s put the extremes aside for a minute and talk about the exhausted majority in the middle. How are they perceived by society at large, and by people on the wings, or by each other?

Stephen Hawkins:

Independents at this moment are caught in a bind because the level of negative partisanship in our country is extremely high. And what that is causing is a sense of necessity of picking a side. So just for one data point on this, if you go back to the 1960s, which was a time of very turbulent division in the country over Vietnam, over race, increasingly over gender, it was a lot of turmoil and division in the country. But if you ask people at that point, how would you feel if your son or daughter married someone from the opposite political party? Only about 4% of Americans would say, I wouldn’t like that. So fast forward to the present day, 60 years later. And you find that about 40% of Americans, 40% of Republicans and Democrats, more or less, would say they don’t want their son or daughter marrying someone from the opposite political party. So that’s a 10-fold increase in the hostility that we have towards the other political party. So independents who seemingly can’t select among these two sides will probably receive a little bit of contempt or judgment from anybody who is a partisan because of the clear dichotomy, moral dichotomy, frankly, that Republicans and Democrats perceived the country to be in right now. And there’s a clear right side and a clear wrong side.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And it seems like it’s challenging for independents to achieve sort of a cohesive group identity or group dynamic because there is so much diversity among them in terms of worldview and stances on various political issues. 

Stephen Hawkins:

That’s right. And the independent group also includes a lot of people who are politically disengaged and who opt for the independent label because of disinterest in politics. Or cynicism towards politics. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

I hope you don’t mind if we ask you more of a personal question. We ask all of our guests to show a little bit of their own purple. So can you tell us a little about your journey through the political spectrum?

Stephen Hawkins:

Sure. So I have a wonderful family. And my family on my mother’s side is evangelical and Southern and conservative and Republican from Atlanta, Georgia. And my father’s side is British, but he’s basically apolitical. And so I grew up in a home that was very characterized by my mom’s culture and I grew up overseas. So for much of my upbringing, I went to a Christian missionary school that was an American school, but it was Bible class every day and so on. And in my college years, I was on the executive board of the college Republicans at one of the most politically active schools in the country, George Washington University. And in my early twenties, I started to shift away from those identities. And fast forward to post-grad school, and I was 26-27, I started working for an LGBT-run progressive organization that runs campaigns for climate change activism, for same sex marriage, for women’s rights. So I found that in about a 10 year span, I had swung fully from, “Hey, I’m a missionary, a Christian missionary” style all the way over to a progressive or liberal missionary organization. And I emerged from that with some common frustrations with both sides where at this moment I find that it’s very difficult. I had been drawn away from being a Republican by the left being committed to always following the science and to being open to different perspectives and believing in dialogue and not being dogmatic. And it was finding that those trends were less and less true of the progressive space. And there was now really only one viewpoint to have on most important issues and that there was a lot of judgment to go around. And so I’m now in a place where I’ve taken a step back from both of those two worlds and I’m really interested in how we can weave them back together and how we might come back together as a society, as audacious as that sounds. It’s a very compelling mission for me personally because I have a lot of affection, a lot of respect, and a lot of friendships and relationships more generally in both worlds. And I think that there is a real potential for us to come back together as a society.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

So I know it’s pretty hard to characterize reports of this complexity, but, overall, do you think it’s more optimistic or pessimistic in terms of society being able to come back together? 

Stephen Hawkins:

Well, there is both a reason to be optimistic and a lot of reasons to be concerned. But the countervailing forces are the institutionalized incentive structures of both the political system and the media system that we’ve talked about earlier in the conversation, which serve to undermine the ability of that exhausted majority to step forward and find a cohesive message and organize politically and serve that purpose. One of the things that we as More in Common are very interested in at the moment as a possible avenue for solutions, is creating a greater sense of shared American identity. And if you look at some of the findings that we have in Hidden Tribes, you find that among the things that varies across the political spectrum is the amount to which people feel proud of being American and feel that being American is a big part of who they are. And the far right, it’s very significant. On average they say that being American is their most important identity. You moved to the far left, you see the opposite. That being American is of minimal significance to progressives. And the challenge there is that we can’t appeal to an identity which is grander or which is an umbrella identity over our political identities. So just to make a comparison, during the Cold War, we had a very clear opponent that was communist, it was atheist, that was Soviet Union. And so differences along party lines were also more manageable because at the end of the day, we could say we’re all American. And so where we are optimistic is if we can restore a sense of shared American identity that makes us motivated to work through our political differences. 

Robert Pease (host): 

That almost makes me nostalgic for the Cold War, Emily, until I actually remember it.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

But we may not need that kind of common enemy. Maybe there’s a chance the fight against COVID could now become a unifier, as well as getting the country back on track thereafter. 

Robert Pease (host): 

On the other hand, our featured guest in Episode 7, former Congressman Jason Altmire, was really struck by how the country failed to come together when COVID first hit.

(previously recorded audio, Jason Altmire):

That’s unfortunately very different than what it used to be in this country, where crises would bring people together. It would be the one unifying factor that was out there, where people would put politics aside. It is exactly the opposite. Now it only exacerbates the problem of partisanship. It highlights the divide of the country and you are seeing it with COVID-19. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Fair enough. But that was several months ago and just a few things have happened since then. Like an election and an insurrection. Oh yeah, and a pandemic. In fact, a few things seem to happen every day right now, with Inauguration just a week away.   

Robert Pease (host): 

Definitely not an easy time to step back from headlines and look at long term trends and  forces. So kudos to our listeners for doing that and for thinking about how to bridge our polar divide. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

On that note, we’d love to hear from you, our independent-minded listeners, about your levels of optimism or pessimism these days. Are you feeling less partisan angst than you were at one point, with the election settled, and the possibility of turning the tide on COVID sometime soon?

Robert Pease (host): 

Let your voice be heard on these questions and issues via social media and our website, purpleprinciple.com, as we plan for Season 2 beginning in February. This has been Robert Pease and Emily Crocetti for our very able, purple, and principled team: Kevin A. Kline, audio engineer; Emily Holloway, Senior Researcher and Fact Checker; Johnnie Dowling, Research Associate. Original music composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney. 

Andrew Gelman, Department of Statistics and Department of Political Science, Columbia University

More in Common

Andrew Gelman (2010), Culture wars, voting, and polarization: divisions and unities in modern American politics.” 

Andrew Gelman (1/23/14). “How better educated whites are driving political polarization.” The Washington Post.

Frank Newport (7/25/13). “In US, 87% Approve of Black-White Marriage, vs. 4% in 1958.” Gallup. 

Austin C. Kozlowski & James P. Murphy (11/27/20). “Issue Alignment and Partisanship in the American Public: Revisiting the ‘Partisans without Constraint’ Thesis.” Social Science Research. 

DeliaBaldassarri & Andrew Gelman (2008). Partisans without Constraint: Political Polarization and Trends in American Public Opinion. AJS; American journal of sociology114(2), 408–446. 

Frank Newport, Jeffrey M. Jones, & Lydia Saad (6/7/04). “Ronald Reagan From the People’s Perspective: A Gallup Poll Review.” Gallup. 

R.J. Reinhart (12/1/18). “George HW Bush Retrospective.” Gallup.

Presidential Approval Ratings — Bill Clinton. Gallup Historical Trends.

Presidential Approval Ratings — George W. Bush. Gallup Historical Trends.

Presidential Approval Ratings — Barack Obama. Gallup Historical Data & Trends.

Yair Ghitza & Andrew Gelman (7/7/14). “The Great Society, Reagan’s Revolution, and Generations of Presidential Voting.” Working Paper.

Presidential Approval Ratings — Donald Trump. Gallup.

Andrew Gelman & Yotam Margalit (2019). “The Political Significance of Social Penumbras.” arXiv preprint. 

The Hidden Tribes of America 

Shanto Iyengar, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra, Sean J. Westwood (2019). “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States.” Annual Review of Political Science 22:1, 129-146.

Craig W. Blatz, Brett Mercier (2017). “False Polarization and False Moderation: Political Opponents Overestimate the Extremity of Each Other’s Ideologies but Underestimate Each Other’s Certainty.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 9:5, 521-529. 

India Opzoomer (9/24/20). “America Speaks: What do they think about cross-party marriages?” YouGov.