Emerging Ideological Divisions in the West

Reading Time: 6 minutes
American states colored by democratic and republican preferences (Image Credit: Nature Education)

In 2014, the Pew Research Centre found that American democrats and republicans are farther apart on the political spectrum than ever before. Since 2014, divisions have only heightened. Nowadays, 92% of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat and 94% vice versa. The notion of compromise has diminished, illustrated by the shrinking of the purple region in the graph.

Political polarization in the American public over time (Image Credit: Pew Research Center)

Furthermore, hostilities towards the opposite party have only increased that partisan antipathy has become deeper and more extensive than any point in the past two decades. This can be seen with the observation of the rise of the many protest movements that the US is seeing. These include BLM and Antifa on the left and QAnon and other far-right armed militias such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Increasingly, people of both sides of the political spectrum are finding the other side intolerable. This is shown by the number of rallies and counter-rallies and the constant pressure by media and the public of “don’t give in to the other side” shown in the increasingly frequent government shutdowns which occur when both sides won’t yield to the other. Research done by Pew suggests that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans viewed the other as a ‘threat to the Nation’s Well-Being’. The storming of the Capitol building only serves to emphasize this point.

Similar results have been seen in Turkey, with 85% stating that supporters of the most distant party pose a ‘threat to the country’, 80% claiming that the supporters of the other political party as ‘arrogant’ and 90% claiming that their own party is ‘honorable’

A further, more subtle, observation in conversation among Americans is that all political standpoints can be condensed into “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat”. This is second nature to Americans but is hardly true in the UK. Researchers Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer uses this as their definition of severe, or pernicious polarization: where politically active and educated citizens have become far more divided. Western countries such as Poland and Turkey have all faced a similar version of polarization: with Turkey being Islamist (Pro-Erdogan) and secularist (Anti-Erdogan).

Social media is one of the key reasons why political polarization has increased over the years. This is because social media lets people join echo chambers (social network homophily), sometimes unknowingly, where their political ideology is constantly reinforced by others of a similar predisposition and creates a lack of human contact, which can cause situations where exposure to other ideology can sometimes backfire.  

Echo chambers are often also cited as a key source of so-called group polarization. It is easy to see that they exist: after all, social media companies openly admit that the algorithms they use try to predict the posts or ideas that you will respond most positively to. These of course include posts that share the same ideological inclination as you. The effects of this was studied in 1999 by University of Chicago; they found that deliberation within a group of people who support a certain side of a debate, will become even more supportive sometimes even to the extremes after talking to others of the same mindset. They found that two principal mechanisms underlie this change –influences on the behavior of the individual (peer pressure) and the limited argument pools (lack of a challenge to ideas proposed). Peer pressure is especially present online where individuals feel a need to conform to the group (and such groups are especially large online). The rise of cancel culture and the possibility of negative comments furthers this effect. A lack of challenge directly ties into this as those who don’t conform are shunned from the group.

The second factor in social media is less obvious. It stresses the importance that face-to-face contact, debate and conversation has on receptiveness to foreign ideas. One research article by Sociology and Political Science researchers in Duke University investigated this factor: where they tried to negate the effect of echo chambers by providing a monetary incentive to American citizens who would follow a Twitter bot of a different ideology from their own. The results are shown in the graph below. Democrats on the whole become more liberal and republicans became more conservative. The article’s authors explain this effect by noticing that when we are online, there is no two-sided debate, nor is there any ‘realization of their humanity’. Thus, ‘people who are exposed to messages that conflict with their own attitudes are prone to counterargue them using motivated reasoning’; people are actually more able to convince themselves that the other side is wrong. Regarding humanity, it also becomes easy to characterise the opposite side as irrational or uneducated once they have proven that they are incorrect.

This contrasts significantly with research done on physical intergroup contact, or interpersonal contact, where people met up with others and were more receptive to ideas of the opposite ideology. In conclusion, it is the very nature of communication via internet: the presence of a lack of physical contact and a one-sided debate in someone’s mind that is a key factor in the separation of ideological standards.

Study on increase of polarization among democrats and republicans (Image Credit: NCBI)

Furthermore, social media has also allowed for politicians to express their views more often than they would have been able to in previous generations. This is especially true for Twitter, where there is dynamic discussion and retweets for public virtual conversations. Yet this brings along with it an increase in personal attacks such as name-calling and derogative terminology which do not promote the spread of ideas and thus causing those within a certain ideology to become shut off from the other group, and rightly so. For example, Trump referred to Clinton as ‘Crooked Hillary’ while Clinton rebuts with ‘Delete your account’. Nevertheless, the rise in polarization in other non-Western countries with a much smaller influence of social media such as Bangladesh or Kenya cannot be explained via this means. Thus, there must be further factors to consider.

Politicians benefit from polarization (and they aren’t stupid enough not to use it). There appears to be a positive correlation between polarization and populism in many countries, whereby the rise of populism leads to polarization in some countries and vice versa in others. This is not very surprising, since populism relies on the alienation of a group of the public, typically the ‘elite’ or those previously in power and emphasizing an ‘us vs them’ narrative in the country. The intentional creation of a sense of ideological identity (key for group polarization) lets politicians appeal to feelings of nationalism to increase voter turnout (people tend to express their hatred for others) and retain their voter base by making party loyalists. We can see this in the example of Turkey. Erdogan and his AKP party relied on populism in order to sustain power, by pitting the Islamists against the secularists and later also siding with the ultranationalists against the Kurds after realization that helping the Kurds only helped the opposition party (switched sides halfway). Not only did he gain voters, Erdogan was able to decry the desperate undemocratic moves of the previous secularist government (in response to polarization) to further remove fundamental rights and restrict civil freedoms and guarantee re-election. Poland has faced a similar crisis due to the Law and Justice party reinvigorating old divisions and opening up new battlefields to keep their voters voting for their party.

When politicians see these tactics working in other countries, they employ similar tactics in their own, which explains both the rise in populism and polarization.

So, is it possible to fix this? It turns out that once polarization starts, it is often hard to stop and happens very quickly. Robert Talisse from Vanderbilt University addressed this point about inter-party animosity (the second point of the people divided from above). He says that the primary reason ‘fixing’ polarization is hard is because today people identify themselves based on their political ideologies. Just as your religious orientation or your ethnicity makes up a significant part of who you are, polarization causes you to regard your political leanings in the same way. And in the system of pernicious polarization, ‘us vs them’, this effect only exacerbates. When people treat ideology as identity, a friendly conversation or a debate would feel like a targeted attack on their identity, from a polarized perspective, similar to racism or sexism. This can further animosity and treat others as hostile and irrational. This is especially the case in Poland, where supporters of the governing party are ‘patriots’. They have an ethnic and religious view of Poland’s national identity and so view the opposing party as a threat to their national heritage. Hence, there seems to be a great trend towards more polarization in the future and little hope for reversion.

Written by Abraham Yeung

Share this:

You may also like...