Group dynamics and limited choices.
Via WaPo is a piece that describes the foundations of our current political climate, Science is revealing why American politics are so intensely polarized. Basically, it is a combination of evolutionary biology, individual human psychology, group dynamics, and political science.
One theme emerges in much of the research: Our politics tend be more emotional now. Policy preferences are increasingly likely to be entangled with a visceral dislike of the opposition. The newly embraced academic term for this is “affective polarization.”
“It’s feelings based,” said Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.” “It’s polarization that’s based on our feelings for each other, not based on extremely divergent policy preferences.”
The tendency to form tightly knit groups has roots in evolution, according to experts in political psychology. Humans evolved in a challenging world of limited resources in which survival required cooperation — and identifying the rivals, the competitors for those resources.
“The evolution of cooperation required out-group hatred, which is really sad,” said Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist and author of “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.”
As I have attempted to describe here on multiple occasions, the attachments are in many ways more like those we see for sports teams. They are based in identity (my side or my team–indeed, often just my laundry, i.e., specific symbols) as much as other factors. It is why changing sides is difficult and why the default behavior is often rationalization about how good your team is or, leaning heavily into notions about how bad the other team is.
The following will sound familiar to OTB readers:
There are two major parties, and their contests are viewed as zero-sum outcomes. Win or lose. The presidency is the ultimate example: There are no consolation prizes for the loser.
So, if you take human beings who behave as per above and give them a two-team contest, you are going to ramp up the tribalism, pure and simple. The choices are: stick with my team, defect from my team/join the other team, or not play the game at all. Since those who choose not to play are passive, the observed game (campaigning, rallies, TV appearance, and voting) is between those two teams, which reinforces the contest. This is not to say they abstainers aren’t insignificant, because they very much are since they shape the final version of the electorate, but simply to note they are more invisible than those who take the field.
As I have repeatedly underscored, proportional representation is not the same kind of zero-sum game and multi-party parliamentarism can provide consolation prizes in terms of cabinet seats in coalitions (although yes, the parties in the minority lose out). This creates a greater diffusion of these strong sentiments based on identity. I am not arguing that they are going away, nor am I asserting that multi-party parliamentary democracies are paradises that cannot have serious problems.
But, as I have repeatedly noted as an example, the far-right in Germany (the AfD) is contained within its own boundaries while in the US the MAGA faction of the GOP has taken over the party, and is threatening, again, to take over the government. This is simply an illustration that structure matters. The mixed-member proportional representation system used in Germany produces a multi-party system for legislative elections, while our system (primaries + single-seat districts + a too-small House) produces a two-party system. Germany’s multipartism is amplified by parliamentarianism and the US’s bipartism is amplified by presidentialism.*
Setting aside my comparative forays that attempt to illustrate there are different ways to do these things,** the evidence is pretty strong that human psychology and group dynamics coupled with a rigid set of two choices is going to produce the kinds of politics we are currently seeing.
“In this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of ‘us versus them’ and ‘winning versus losing’ is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party.”
Binary choices definitionally ramp up the intensity.
And so the piece notes what I continuously note, and already emphasized above.
Here’s where psychology gives way to political science. The American political system may cultivate “out-group” hatred, as academics put it. One of the scarce resources in this country is political power at the highest levels of government. The country has no parliamentary system in which multiple parties form governing coalitions.
Add to this fact the redistricting that ensures there are fewer truly competitive congressional races. The two parties have inexorably moved further apart ideologically, and leaders are more likely to be punished — “primaried” — if they reach across the aisle. And because many more districts are now deeply red or blue, rather than a mix of constituencies, House members have fewer reasons to adopt moderate positions.
Institutional structures matter. And to the point of the article, such structures need to be designed and deployed in accordance with an understanding of human behavior. The structure of incentives in a system matters greatly for the outcomes we have to then live with.
A recent paper published in the journal Science argued that the three core ingredients of political sectarianism are “othering, aversion, and moralization.” Trump has mastered that recipe. He activates emotional responses in his followers by telling them that they are threatened.
“I would give it to Trump: He figured out he could cash in on polarization,” Iyengar said.
Trump, he said, began running for president in 2015 when the country was already divided and he leveraged those divisions. He used inflammatory and racist language that violated political norms, called the media the “enemy of the people,” and promoted a vision of America besieged.
“We’re evolutionarily predisposed to pay attention to conflict, because we might be in danger. We don’t turn our head really quickly to look at a beautiful flower. We turn our heads quickly to look at something that may be dangerous,” Mason said.
That’s a part of human nature anyone can exploit.
“There are politicians who are good at this,” Mason said. “Trump is the best.”
So, a combination of human psychology, group dynamics, and institutional structures get us to where we are, and it is not an especially comforting recipe.
Allow me to be more explicit than I sometimes am. I am not arguing that a more representative system that provides pathways for more parties would guarantee better governance and policy. I am arguing that such systems increase the odds for better governance and policy.
There is no perfect system of government. After all, government requires people and, in case the reader hasn’t noticed, people are imperfect. The challenge about government in general is who is going to be imbued with power, how long they will have it, and what will they be allowed to do with it. This is a core problem going back to the ancients (as I described in broad brush-stroke here over half a decade ago). Rather obviously, the easiest theoretical solution is a perfect, all-wise king. So said both Plato and Aristotle and at a core level is part of the human impulse for a strong man.*** At a bare minimum, single-person rule is more efficient than the mess that is democratic governance.
But while I recognize (see, for example, another trip down memory lane, especially here, but also here) that democracy has numerous flaws and complexities, I argue in favor of it because, again, I think it increases the probability of good governance (and I think that human history, and contemporary politics, bears that out).
Let me note, too, that a core assumption that guides my thinking is the inherent equality of human beings. Definitionally if all humans are of equal worth in a general sense, then any system of government ought to take that fact into serious consideration. Liberal representative democracy (which includes protections for core rights) is the best system for doing so. Further, it seems logical to me to assert that given the inherent equality of human beings, there is inherent value to the system being adequately representative (I will leave the definition of “adequate” aside given the already significant length of this post, but I will assert that two choices are almost certainly inadequate).
Two parting thoughts.
First, yes, democracy can fall into tyranny if there is a majority sentiment to do away with democracy. This is an inherent, paradoxical flaw to this system. However, I would note a couple of things. One, the probability of such an outcome is small (note the ongoing theme of probability here). Two, if your society is really at the stage where an overwhelming majority wants authoritarianism, your problems are far bigger than the inadequacy of democracy itself to protect you. Third, as bad as it might well be for a majority to do away with democracy, it is far more pernicious if a minority of the population can do so.
Second, reform is hard. But the only way I know to forward change is to expand understanding. Further, I would note that somebody in the 1700s (indeed, many somebodies) wrote to others about the need to do away with monarchy and adopt popular government. They were told: change is hard. There were people in the 1800s (indeed, many people) who wrote that chattel slavery should be abolished. They were told: change is hard. Ditto female suffrage. Ditto ending Jim Crow and Apartheid. Ditto. Ditto. Ditto.
For that matter, when I as an undergraduate it was asserting by many very smart people that Latin America was doomed to centralized authoritarianism. And yet, the region has been largely democratic (warts and all) for many decades now.
As such, if change is needed, at some point that change starts with conversation.
To try and bring this around to what started me writing: there are known aspects of human behavior that can either be channeled in destructive or productive ways. The institutional design of a system creates those channels and we should be mindful of that fact.
*This paragraph attempts to summarize a lot of variables. Obviously, this a a complex discussion. I will underscore that the system used to elect the first (or sole) legislative chamber tends to be the system that most directly influences the structure of the overall party system, not the process of electing the chief executive.
**Which is always the point. I want readers, and eventually the mass public, to understand that there are options and that there are empirically proven outcomes from those options. I am not claiming that those systems would work identically in the US as they do in a given example. But I am claiming that there are clear consequences from specific institutional choices (or, consequences from not making new choices, as the case may be).
***And, by the way, is core to Evangelical theology, as they believe that God is truly sovereign in the universe (and being omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving) makes Him well suited for the job. Many also believe the Jesus will reign as King over a thousand-year kingdom in the Earth as part of one version of the end times. I bring this up not as a reason to start an anti-religious rant in the comments section (no, really, that is not the goal) but to illustrate the persistence of this notion even in modern polities. It has just shifted, for many people, into the metaphysical realm.