‘The Other Divide’ Questions Left-Right Polarization Narrative

The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics, by Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, Cambridge University Press, 250 pages, $28.99

With The Other DIVIDE, political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan have made a significant contribution to the polarization debate. Wait! What debate? Everyone knows that Americans are more polarized now than at any time since the Civil War. There is no debate. The science is settled.

Well, actually not—or at least not in political science, whatever the average political journalist might erroneously believe.

When the polarization narrative first became popular in the early 2000s, my collaborators and I wrote a short book showing that in terms of ideologies, issue positions, and partisanship, the American electorate was no more polarized than it was when it between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976. In fact, significantly fewer Americans were willing to claim affiliation with either of the major parties than had been the case in the supposedly pre-polarized era. (Political scientists still debate how to think about those independents.)

Yet contemporary politics indisputably seemed more contentious, gridlocked, uncivil, and polarized than it used to be. The explanation for this seeming contradiction soon became apparent: The parties had sorted. Several decades ago, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans roamed the halls of Congress, and cross-party voting coalitions were common. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans even competed for their parties’ presidential nominations. (In 1976, Carter was viewed as a respectable alternative to George Wallace.) Today, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are virtually extinct in Congress and many state legislatures, and they have no chance of winning their parties’ presidential nominations.

Accordingly, we have partisan polarization within an electorate that has not changed much. The middle still exists, but it is not welcome in either party. Debates continue over such matters as whether the sorting is top-down or bottom-up (the latter is a minority view, but one held by some serious scholars); how much the broaderelectorate has sorted compared to political elites (not nearly as much, many believe, but again some serious scholars disagree); and the size of the middle (there is considerable disagreement about this). There is more agreement about the composition of “the middle”: It is heterogeneous, comprising not just moderates but cross-pressured libertarians and populists, the alienated, and the apoliticals.

Some psychologically inclined scholars argued that the ideological differences between ordinary Democrats and Republicans did not seem sufficiently great to produce the level of acrimony that characterizes contemporary politics. They suggested that researchers were looking for partisan polarization in the wrong place; it was not cognitive but affective. In other words, partisans hated each other not so much because they disagreed about Afghanistan, taxation, or gay but because they belonged to different identity groups associated with the parties.

Affective polarization is a major growth industry in political science, and various debates continue here as well. Social identity theory posits that positive feelings about the in-group are stronger than negative feelings about the out-group, but empirical studies find just the opposite. How many partisans really hate members of the other party, as opposed to just making a show for the sake of cheerleading? (“The Yankees suck!”) Do partisans really loathe members of the other party, or just the caricatures they form from viewing the extreme cases selected by the media?

Krupnikov and Ryan come out of the psychologically oriented affective partisan camp, but with some important differences. Consider the oft-cited finding that far more partisan parents now than in the past do not want their child to marry someone of a different party. In earlier work, Krupnikov and Ryan reported that ordinary partisans don’t mind a child marrying someone outside their party if that person doesn’t talk a lot about politics; moreover, parents don’t want their child to marry someone in their own party who talks a lot about politics. The parents’ problem is not with partisanship differences as much as it’s just with talking politics.

In a sense, The Other Divide is a long, thoughtful, and persuasive extension of this finding. Rather than partisan and ideological differences, the authors focus on another divide: the one separating the people who have deep political involvement from the people who don’t.

This divide is not simply one of political interest. There are plenty of people who are interested in politics, care a lot about politics, and know a lot about politics. They vote and possibly make campaign contributions. But they do not spend hours watching cable news, posting on Facebook, tweeting and retweeting on Twitter, and looking for other people as obsessed with politics as themselves. Unlike the vast majority of us, Krupnikov and Ryan write, these people make politics “a central part of their lives.” Importantly, the deeply involved are unconditionally affectively polarized, whereas the less involved make distinctions between kinds of partisan adversaries.

Krupnikov and Ryan begin by constructing a psychological scale to capture the features of deep involvement. The deeply involved 1) spend a lot of time on politics at the expense of other activities; 2) attach great importance to keeping apprised of political events that most people would find of marginal interest and importance; and 3) feel a need to communicate their views and opinions to others.

The members of this small minority are both more positive about their own party and more negative about the opposition. Moreover, their affective polarization is less conditional: In contrast to most people, they would not like a child to someone from another party even if that person did not talk about marriage. Their issue priorities are different from those of the less involved, and they are more certain that their issue positions are “right.”

What factors are associated with deep involvement? For one, the deeply involved often recall lots of political discussion in their families while growing up. Interestingly, they also tend to have attended elite liberal arts colleges. (Although one wonders whether there are partisan or ideological differences underlying the latter finding, Krupnikov and Ryan do not separate deeply involved liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans.)

Notly, the deeply involved are much more likely to use social media. Precise figures here are hard to come by, inasmuch as many of the authors’ analyzes are based on internet samples that are not designed to be representative of the entire population. But only a fifth of the adult population is on Twitter, and the Pew Research Center reported that 97 percent of tweets about politics in 2019 were generated by the most active 10 percent of Twitter users. Doing the math, that comes to 2 percent of the adult population generating 97 percent of the political tweets.

The deeply involved view their social media activity as civic: They think they are helping inform their fellow citizens. In contrast, the less involved view the social media activity of the deeply involved as political: the deeply involved are expressing their opinions.

The chapter titled “The Voice of Which People?” may be the most interesting and important section of the book. It uses both existing studies and the authors’ own interviews to examine the relationship between political journalism and the deeply involved. Political, they note, live in “involvement bubbles”: they are deeply involved and marinate in social milieus inhabited by other deeply involved citizens. When they need an “exemplar” for a story, they naturally look to someone on social media, who almost by definition does not represent the general public. (In light of that, there is something rich about Twitter trying to censor misinformation.)

Americans who are not deeply involved should read this book to get a better understanding of the people responsible for the sorry state of contemporary politics. Political should read it to recognize their own malpractice.

This article originally appeared in print under the headline “America’s Biggest Political Division Isn’t Left vs. Right”.

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