The Roots of Polarization?

So this is another of my occasional highly idiosyncratic posts, like previous ones on Progressive Rock, that is difficult to categorize and present.  I’ve been talking lately with one of my moderate liberal friends, David Ropeik.  He doesn’t like it when I call him a liberal because he is not a partisan, but I don’t mean it as a pejorative, insult or provocation.  He would surely seem a liberal to most readers of this site, but if more liberals were like him, the world would be a better place.  I like David very much personally and I often find him very sensible.  In fact, I posted a video conversation with him here about 18 months ago on risk assessment, about which he is very sound.

Lately David has been giving a lot of thought—perhaps too much thought in some ways—about a favorite subject of everyone these days: political polarization in America. He has written a long blog post at about the historic roots of polarization.  I think he’s been too ambitious and complicated here, and I can quarrel with some of his narrative.  However, I am quite keen on two of the frameworks he mentions—the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, which is based on the very useful analytical framework of the late Aaron Wildavsky (one of my academic heroes), and Jonathan Haidt’s social science work, which I’ve also mentioned favorably here before.

Some aspects of this have been on my mind because I’ve lately been trying to get my head around phenomenology, which I’ve always found baffling and largely incomprehensible, though I have a suspicion some of it may bear on this question of polarization and what David calls our “tribal instincts.”  David’s whole post is worth a read if you have the leisure, but here’s one snippet to give the flavor, along with a BigThink video of him below discoursing about the background of related issues.  Now go easy Powerliners!  David is a pal and I want to keep him a pal!

Research on the theory of Cultural Cognition has found that our views on issues of the day are in fact only reflections of deeper worldviews about the basic way we prefer society to operate. We adopt views on various issues based not just on the facts but so our views align with those of the groups with which we most closely identify. This helps us feel safe, since as social animals we depend on our group, our tribe, literally for our safety and survival. Agreeing with the group maintains us as a protected member in good standing. And if everyone in our group agrees, that social unity increases our group’s influence in the competition with other tribes for setting society’s rules. The more powerful and successful our group is, the safer we feel.

Cultural Cognition identifies four basic groups;

  • Individualists, who prefer a society that maximizes individual freedom and choice and control. (They prefer less government, i.e. “socialism”.)
  • Communitarians, who prefer a ‘we’re all in it together’ society that sacrifices some personal liberty in the name of the greater common good. (They prefer a more active role for government.)
  • Hierarchists, who prefer a traditional and unchanging society operating by fixed and commonly accepted hierarchies of social and economic class. (They prefer less government butting in and making things fair.)
  • Egalitarians, who prefer a more flexible society, unconstrained by traditional fixed hierarchies. (They prefer more government, as an engine of social and economic equity.)

The influence of these underlying worldviews on how we feel about individual issues is profound. Cultural Cognition research has found that these basic group identities are more accurate predictors of our positions on many of the contentious issues of the day than political affiliation, education, religion, or any of the more common demographic identifiers.


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