What Causes Political Polarization?

Political polarization affects every level of our society.

Some effects include harmful exchanges on social media, extended families bickering politics at the dining table, and many more. However, the underlying causes are quite vague.

So, what causes political polarization? We asked experts to share their insights.

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA

Doug Noll

Lawyer | Mediator | Author | Speaker | Visionary

Beliefs are cognitive structures that allow us to make fast decisions without conscious thought. Each of us has many beliefs of varying strengths. Beliefs help us make sense of our world, provide simple explanations for the complex or unknown phenomenon, and guide our day-to-day decision-making.

People with strong beliefs often cannot tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, and anxiety. Their belief systems soothe them and protect them from dealing with the challenges of modernity.

This is why we see many white, under-educated men living in mostly rural areas holding strong beliefs. Higher education helps people learn discernment and critical thinking skills.

Related: The 17 Best Books on Critical Thinking

Political polarization occurs when beliefs become deeply entrenched

Neuroimaging studies show that when people hold deep beliefs and are confronted with true but contradictory facts, their brains release dopamine.

This has the effect of reinforcing beliefs against change, even when the beliefs are completely wrong. You could call this the physiological explanation of stubbornness.

People become more entrenched and stubborn when their beliefs are challenged by truth, not less.

Related: How to Deal With Stubborn People?

Political polarization occurs when out-of-integrity political leaders unconsciously play to this quirk in the brain

People who may be inclined to believe one way or the other can be induced to strengthen their beliefs by perceived “others” who are labeled as “enemies.”

Thus, “lock her up” and “fake news” work insidiously to strengthen wrong beliefs against truth in brains that are unable to deal with uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This explains why Trump supporters are unwavering in their support.

To have a calm conversation with the politically polarized, you must be able to read and reflect emotions. This is called affect labeling. When you have learned this skill, you may engage a politically polarized person with the following questions:

  • What in your life history and experience led you to have the beliefs you hold today?
  • How do your beliefs guide you in your everyday decision-making?
  • How do you deal with people who hold beliefs that are opposite of yours?
  • How should our society manage people with radically different beliefs and attitudes?

As your politically polarized person answers these questions, you simply reflect back their emotions, not their words, with a “you” statement. As this conversation unrolls, most people find that they have far more in common than differences. These conversations are an antidote to political polarization.

Dr. Louis Perron

Louis Perron

Political Scientist , Campaign Analysis| Consultant | TEDx Speaker

I see two main drivers of political polarization.

Political leaders draw the lines of their voting constituencies in a way that benefits them

The first is institutional, the so-called gerrymandering. The term refers to the concept of political leaders drawing the lines of their voting constituencies in a way that benefits them. For example, a Republican incumbent will try to draw the lines of the district in a way that makes it more solidly Republican.

This has been happening for a long time and in many countries. But it has arguably reached new levels in the USA with recent redistricting. During the 1990s, maybe more than a hundred house districts would be competitive. Today, much less than that are truly competitive in a non-wave election cycle.

This means that the dynamics of the races move to the primaries. Less and less incumbents have to worry about getting reelected in the general election. Their survival and the real fight increasingly happens during the primary.

If an incumbent compromises too much in Washington D.C. or doesn’t toe the party line, he or she might get a primary challenge. The result is polarization and fewer politicians who could be in both parties.

Gone are the days when there were Republican congressmen who were more liberal than certain Democrats, and vice versa.

Another big driver of political polarization is social media

Most people go online to like and forward what they already agree with. Emotions drive (online) activity. The Zeitgeist, therefore, is to express outrage and get scandalized about each and everything.

Scandals can now also develop and spread very fast. The media is adapting because online traffic and the number of clicks are crucial measures of success and sales arguments. As a result, people live in their own echo chambers.

A British client of mine recently told me that he doesn’t know anybody personally who voted for Brexit, yet the majority of the country did.

Academic literature says that political polarization is caused by social sorting and social media

Social sorting is when people make choices to live where they want to and socialize only with those who they agree with.

Liberals have moved to the cities and rural areas tend to become even more conservative as liberals move away. People who have moved more than 50 miles from where they were born are more likely to be liberal. Research has shown that people who are dating find potential mates less attractive if they are from a different political party.

Social media has also encouraged political polarization because it is another way for people to socialize with only those who agree with them. Facebook groups have developed that amplify already existing beliefs.

A friend of mine tried to train Facebook to show her posts from friends of hers that she disagreed with but wanted to see anyway, but was unable to do so. And the way newsfeeds are curated creates a feedback loop, again amplifying those beliefs.

The only way to undo this is for people to start to talk to each other again. But we don’t know how to talk to each other without yelling, which doesn’t work.

The decades-long violence in Northern Ireland was ended with the Good Friday Accord, which only happened after much negotiation to talk to each other. And now they are united against Brexit. So, it is possible to undo, but it takes work.

Political polarization is playing out in personal relationships, what I call fractured relationships. To end these and start to bring society together again, we need new tools. I’ve taken the social psychology literature on polarization and applied it to interpersonal relationships to create those tools.

Related: How to Recognize and Repair the Political Divide

Kyle Wierks

Kyle Wierks

Former Political Strategist and Deputy Campaign Manager

Our political leaders win by sowing division, not by bringing people together

Democratic political systems face an interesting conundrum: once people decide how to vote, they do not typically change their minds. This, then, creates, for politicians, three types of people: those who will probably vote for you, those who probably won’t, and those who haven’t decided yet.

For most of democracy’s history, the third group, the undecideds, have been the largest group of voters, and so politicians spent their time crafting policies that would attract the largest number of people.

In the past two decades, however, the political strategy has shifted; instead of focusing on convincing the undecided voters, the preferred strategy is to focus instead on “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV). In other words, she who gets more people to the polls on Election Day wins.

This is important. It means that politicians in Western democracies are concerned less with appealing to the wider masses than they are with ensuring that the people who have already decided to vote for them show up on Election Day.

And how do you convince a group of homogenous voters to show up on Election Day? Convince them that there is an enemy that is plotting to destroy their way of life and the only way to stop them is to vote.

Politicians love something called “wedge issues” – these are political issues where most people are on one side or the other and rarely in the middle (examples include abortion, gun rights, legalization of marijuana, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.).

Political strategists will use these wedge issues to drive a wedge between voters, forcing them to take one side or the other. The point of this practice is not to convince anyone of anything, but instead to identify and rally the voters who agree with your position.

After that, all you need to do is to convince those voters to show up on Election Day (and maybe convince the people on the other side that they don’t actually need to vote at all).

Political polarization, or partisanship as it is also called, is a direct result of political strategies designed to win elections without having to appeal to the masses.

There are entire political machines designed to drive people apart in order to use those divisions to win more votes. Our political leaders win by sowing division, not by bringing people together.

Those political machines operate most obviously for politicians and political parties, but they are not the only ones who profit from wedging between voters. Media outlets, retail organizations, non-profits, online advertisers, internet giants, and other major industries can all profit in one way or another by capitalizing on clear polarization between demographics.

By the way, this whole system is only in place because it works. So the next time that you are about to click a sensational headline about an issue that makes your blood boil, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

“Who is going to profit from you going down this rabbit hole? 9 times out of 10, it won’t be you.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is political polarization?

Political polarization refers to the increasing ideological divide between political groups or individuals. It can occur at the local, national, or global level and affects various aspects of society, including political, economic, and social issues.

Political polarization is characterized by a shift toward more extreme political views as people become less willing to compromise or consider alternative viewpoints.

This can lead to a breakdown in communication and cooperation between political parties or individuals, making it harder to find common ground and reach consensus on important issues.

What are the consequences of political polarization?

The consequences of political polarization can be far-reaching and damaging, affecting not only political institutions but society as a whole.

One major consequence is the breakdown of political dialog and cooperation, making it difficult for governments to address critical issues such as healthcare, education, and environmental policies.

Political polarization can also lead to a loss of trust in institutions such as government, the media, and academia, as people increasingly view them as biased or untrustworthy.

In extreme cases, political polarization can lead to social unrest, violence, or even civil wars, as we have seen in several countries worldwide in recent years.

Can political polarization be beneficial?

Although political polarization is generally viewed as a negative phenomenon, some argue that it can have certain benefits.

For example, polarization can lead to increased voter turnout because people are more invested in political issues and motivated to vote. Polarization can also lead to greater clarity and differentiation among political parties, making it easier for voters to make informed choices.

Finally, it’s argued that political polarization can spur political innovation and change as new ideas and movements emerge in response to existing political structures.

However, these potential benefits must be weighed against the negative consequences of political polarization, including the erosion of democratic norms and the breakdown of political dialog and cooperation.

How can we address Political Polarization?

Addressing political polarization is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires a combination of individual, societal, and political actions.

On an individual level, we can work to broaden our exposure to diverse perspectives by seeking out alternative sources of information, engaging in respectful dialog with people who hold different views, and being open to changing our minds based on new evidence.

We can advocate for civility and dialog at the societal level by supporting institutions and initiatives that encourage cross-partisan cooperation, such as media outlets that promote balanced reporting and platforms that facilitate civil political discourse.

Finally, at the political level, we can work to reform political institutions such as electoral systems and campaign finance laws that contribute to political polarization and limit the influence of interest groups and partisan elites.

Working together at all levels can create a more inclusive and democratic society that values diversity, cooperation, and compromise.

What is the role of education in reducing political polarization?

Education can play an important role in reducing political polarization by promoting critical thinking, media literacy, and civic engagement.

By providing people with the skills and knowledge necessary to critically evaluate information and engage in constructive dialog, education can help to promote a more informed and engaged citizenry.

Education can also help reduce social division and promote empathy and understanding among different groups by exposing people to diverse perspectives and experiences.

Finally, education can help address the underlying factors contributing to political polarization, such as economic inequality and social exclusion, by giving people the tools and resources they need to address these issues.

How can the media help reduce political polarization?

The media plays an important role in shaping public opinion and influencing political discourse. The media can strive for balanced and objective reporting and avoid sensationalism and partisan bias to reduce political polarization.

This can help to promote a more nuanced understanding of political issues and reduce the influence of extremist voices. The media can also provide a platform for civil political discourse and promote respectful and constructive dialog between different political groups.

Finally, the media can help promote diverse perspectives highlighting the voices of people from different backgrounds and communities, which can help to break down stereotypes and reduce social division.

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