Looking at the Election Through Polarized Lenses

What kind of pluralists do we want to be?
September 29 th 2016

Most of the time when we talk about the political challenge of pluralism, we are really talking about something else: polarization.

Pluralism assumes that deep diversity is a fact of public life. It envisions public squares filled with citizens whose attitudes, values, and even worldviews diverge in myriad ways. The goal of pluralism—its normative aspiration—is to build a common life out of that dizzying diversity. Politics, of course, is a key mechanism for achieving that goal. But the political response to the challenge of pluralism is most often to flatten diversity into just a few partisan attachments that are easier to manage and mobilize. And these attachments are most potent when they are polarized—that is, when they result in ever-deeper divisions that move people to the ideological extremes.

Polarization, then, can reveal just what kind of pluralists we really are.

What's more, we tend to like polarization, or at least we arrange our lives as if we do. Consider the role of religion in the US presidential election. Early on, Trump and Sanders, each in his own way, were hailed as mixing up and breaking down typical divisions in the electorate. But by the time of the summer conventions, the election has settled into familiar ruts of polarization. Most white evangelical voters, a reliable bloc in the Republican coalition over the last several decades, had gotten over their hesitations and moved decisively to Trump. Eight in ten evangelicals of the traditionalist sort—regular church attenders, strict on biblical authority—declared they would vote for the Republic nominee, almost precisely the same percentage as elections throughout the 2000s. Other demographics—mainliners, black Protestants, the unaffiliated—moved clearly in the Democratic direction. While Trump's support among some groups—Mormons and white Catholics, for example—was softer than previous GOP nominees, not even his roiling campaign could break the deep-seated loyalties of American voters.

And polarization isn't merely about voting or joining a party. We form some of our strongest associations with the politically like-minded, even to the point that partisan attachments shape our "non-political" choices of friends, lovers, neighbourhoods, and houses of worship. Political polarization shapes our basic experience of relationships by narrowing our exposure to diversity of all sorts.

Polarization, then, can reveal just what kind of pluralists we really are.

Partisanship as an Identity

Pundits frequently paint a grim picture of polarization in the United States. We are, in Doug Schoen's telling, Hopelessly Divided. In Charles Murray's version, we are Coming Apart. E.J. Dionne worries about Our Divided Political Heart. Bill Bishop frets over The Big Sort, the geographical "clustering of like-minded America [that] is tearing us apart." Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein survey the damage and declare It's Even Worse than It Looks. These are generally sophisticated analyses, but their arguments are often repackaged by lesser lights on cable news into a simple narrative of two ideological rivals in fateful combat.

Political science can introduce some clarifying precision into that media narrative. That isn't to say that political scientists agree on the nature and scope of polarization in the United States or other places around the globe. As far as debates within political science go, polarization is a rager. Yet we political scientists tend to agree on the basic terms of the debate, and even some of the conclusions.

It only appears that citizens are newly divided because their vote choices are channeled to a recently re-sorted set of political elites who are indeed polarized.

One view is widely accepted: Political elites—elected officials, high-level bureaucrats, and the like—across the country are deeply and evenly divided, perhaps in unprecedented ways. This elite polarization is largely the result of partisan re-sorting; nearly all progressives and conservatives have now found their ideological homes in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. This is a relatively new phenomenon in modern American politics. Just a few decades ago, the big tent of the GOP encompassed a sizable minority of centrists and liberals, many from New England, and a key bloc within the Democratic party was its host of Southern conservatives. Today those cross-cutting figures are very rare in either party. Without the mediating effects of mixed ideological company within the parties, their members are pulled further to ideological extremes (though whether the pull is "asymmetric"—say, greater extremism on the right than the left—is a matter of some dispute). In terms of governing, it has become intensely difficult to bridge the ideological chasm. Hence government shutdowns, stalled initiatives, and general legislative malaise. The re-sorting has proved remarkably durable. I doubt even the #NeverTrump movement will break it.

But what about the rank and file? Some political scientists argue that the mass population is just as deeply divided as political elites. One explanation is the connection between the two: Ordinary citizens may be taking political cues from those polarized elites (not only in politics but also in media). Other theories suggest deeper social psychological roots, including proclivities toward authoritarianism (e.g., Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler's Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics) or diverging moral perspectives (e.g., Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind).

But here is where the debate begins, because another school of thought rejects the popular polarization hypothesis—that we have moved to ideological extremes, which suggests change over time—and instead suggests that ordinary citizens have re-sorted. If I am very conservative, and move from one party to another because the party has shifted to fit my preexisting ideology, I haven't moved to a new extreme; I've simply moved to a better partisan fit. Stanford's Morris Fiorina and other proponents of this perspective provide a counternarrative of continuity. They note that we haven't seen increases in affiliations within the two major parties (though I'd note that the percentage of strong partisans has crept up since the 1970s), and in fact there's some evidence that the proportion of independents is rising compared to two decades ago. That doesn't sound like increased polarization. Fiorina also sees little growth at the ideological extremes, and notes that on many key issues opinion tends to cluster in the middle. It only appears that citizens are newly divided because their vote choices are channeled to a recently re-sorted set of political elites who are indeed polarized.

An important takeaway of the debate, however, is that whether we're recently polarized or not, large swaths of the electorate are indeed deeply divided. And the most revealing area of recent research raises new concerns by changing how we might think about that division. We generally talk about polarization as if the key gaps were ideological or issue-based. Citizens are conservatives or liberals; they are pro-life or pro-choice; they support free trade or they hate it. But what if the divides run even deeper, to our basic self-understandings? What if partisanship has a similar effect as race, gender, and other markers of social identity?

The idea of partisanship-as-identity suggests that we do not rationally weigh our ideological convictions and issue preferences and then choose parties and candidates. It's the reverse: We start with a set of emotional attachments to political groups that become a prism through which we understand political choices. It works a little like loyalties to professional sports teams. Fans are generally devoted to teams they didn't choose through an intentional cognitive process (my loyalty to the Green Bay Packers notwithstanding; but I digress); their attachments are typically the result of processes that are arbitrary from the fans' point of view, most notably their place of birth or the commitments of their families. (By "arbitrary," I simply mean that they did not choose where or to whom they were born.)

We need to get our civic culture right.

Political scientist Shanto Iyengar and his research team at Stanford's Political Communication Lab describe partisanship-as-identity as "affective" polarization. In their experiments they wanted to know what kind of implicit attitudes citizens had about members of political groups. The idea is that, just as we encounter race, gender, or religion, partisanship is reinforced by our basic assumptions about groups, assumptions that we rarely articulate and might not even realize we have. What they discovered surprised them (and social psychologist Haidt, among others). Partisans saw the other side as not merely wrong, but untrustworthy, morally suspect, and an existential threat to the body politic. Even more surprising was the off-the-charts finding that partisanship breeds even more extreme evaluations of the opposition than highly charged social divides over race. It seems there is nothing more tribal and divisive than our partisan attachments.

It would be a small comfort if partisanship were limited to the political sphere. We get angry with the political opposition, get some catharsis in the voting booth, and then get along when the election is over. But affective polarization doesn't work that way. We tend to use partisan attachments to make an entire range of choices well beyond conventional politics. Housing choices and media consumption are increasingly correlated with partisan leanings. Partisan intermarriage is quite rare. It may even affect where and with whom we worship. But is that a great surprise? The so-called God gap in American politics is not merely a description of how religion shapes our choices of candidates and parties; the direction of influence can go the other way, that is, to how political identity shapes our lived experience of faith.

But here is one more disturbing kicker for anyone who wishes to do something about polarization, especially in light of the current election. When we have conflicts over most markers of identity—race and gender, for example—there are usually social sanctions on extremism. Society pushes the worst racists and misogynists to the margins; it also polices language—the "n-word," for example—and norms about how we engage each other across lines of racial or gender differences. Unlike race and gender, however, we simply lack language and social norms that temper conflict and rhetoric across lines of political difference; indeed, public vitriol against the other side is treated as acceptable and even welcomed. It's an old story in American politics to demean and debase the political opposition. Jefferson and Adams came out swinging in 1800. But we are heading into an uncertain era of intensifying division, reinforced by new opportunities to organize our lives so that we rarely have any meaningful interaction with people who don't share our commitments. The rhetoric of the current election strikes me as a clanging alarm bell of polarization, twenty-first-century-style.

I began this piece by wondering whether what we know about polarization reveals anything about what kind of pluralists we are or should be. At the very least, polarization raises questions about our political response to diversity. For many Christian thinkers and activists the political debate about pluralism over the past four decades has focused largely on important matters about how statecraft and civil society can shape a healthy republic. That emphasis is institutional and organizational and policy-focused. But the political challenge of pluralism—of coming to agreement about how to live in both unity and diversity—is not merely a macro-theoretical problem. If we are polarized right down to our basic identity, and if we lack the social norms and boundaries to talk about and reconcile those deep differences, then getting our structures and policies right misses a step. We need to get our civic culture right.

I suspect there was a recognition of that point when some evangelical elites with conservative bona fides vociferously rejected a Trump candidacy during the nomination process in spring 2016. Their never-Trump stance is baffling only if we confuse the religious tradition of evangelicalism with the Christian Right as a political movement. The culture warriors of the Christian Right did indeed focus almost exclusively on advancing a policy agenda as a means to cultural renewal. But a few evangelical leaders in 2016 perceived that Trump threatens something even more basic to the policy-making process itself: those civic norms—trust, reciprocity, a reasonable tolerance—that form political identities and foster collective decision-making in any healthy democracy.

None of this is to say that thinking about institutional and policy reform is irrelevant to our current political moment. Religious freedom and other legal structures are profoundly important to building common life out of diversity, the goal of pluralism. Those structures, for example, protect a space for civil society to thrive, and civil society is, as it's sometimes said, a "seedbed" for the indispensable norms of civic life. But carving out a space for civil society is necessary yet insufficient. To switch metaphors: If civil society provides the seedbed for what makes good citizens, we need to give more attention to its cultivation.


Dr. Kevin R. den Dulk (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin at Madison) is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science and the Executive Director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. His work focuses especially on how religion works through civil society to foster democratic citizenship, both in the United States and abroad. He has co-authored or co-edited several books, including Religion and Politics in America (Westview), A Disappearing God Gap? (Oxford), Christianity in Chinese Public Life (Palgrave), and Mediating Religion and Government (Palgrave). His latest book (with J. Christopher Soper and Stephen Monsma), The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Six Democracies (3rd ed.), was recently published by Rowman and Littlefield.