in Political Polarization

Evolutionary Origins

One of the main arguments of the emerging field of political psychology is that our voting decisions are often not the result of careful evaluation and deliberation processes, but instead considered to be strongly linked to our psychological makeup. For instance, people that are open to new experiences, one of the main traits in the widely recognized Big-5 personality framework, have been found to be more inclined to vote for progressive parties. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, another trait of the framework that represents a preference for order and tradition, is frequently linked to conservatism. 

These insights cast doubt on the myth of the rational voter. But the attempt to integrate human psychology into the study of political decision-making also requires considering the history of homo sapiens, as our minds and thought processes consist of cognitive patterns that have been shaped by millennia of evolutionary forces. Therefore, any discussion of societal polarization and group-thinking needs to consider innate human tendencies that have developed to ensure our survival during the pre-agricultural era. Accordingly, we will start this article series with a discussion of how evolutionary history, particularly the development of morality, shapes contemporary politics. Further, we investigate how the recent political phenomenon of identity politics might offer an explanation as to why societies have grown so divided.

The Moral Foundations of Political Thought

Various scholars argue that the concept of morality is inextricably linked to our political inclinations. For instance, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the case that along with the development of large-scale societies, humans have developed a shared moral matrix that has enabled us to cooperate effectively, punish free-riders and establish shared principles that serve as society’s foundational pillars. This matrix consists of six different foundations that make up the domains of our morality and have shaped our tribal coexistence for millennia: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Moreover, Haidt states that the prevalence of these modules and the domains that individuals and societies value can explain variations in culture and political identities. 

With respect to political ideology, he claims that the moral matrix of many Progressives rests firmly on a three-foundation morality, relying predominantly on the Care, Liberty and Fairness foundations. This resonates with the liberal view of society, as proposed by English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued that diverse individuals would respect each other’s rights and unite voluntarily to help those in need or promote the common good. Similarly, today’s political left-wing displays the strong tendency to support social justice and emphasize compassion for the poor as well as equal rights for minorities. Conversely, Haidt proposes that the conservative matrix relies on all six foundations, but particularly embraces the loyalty, authority and sanctity foundations, which results in different values and a contrary perception of society. Based upon the writings of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, many conservatives view society as the result of the need to suppress each other’s selfishness, punish free-riders and maintain close bonds to one’s kin. Instead of the portrayal of the individual as a core unit, the conservative vision focuses on the hierarchically structured family, which should serve as a model for other institutions. This perception of society requires the adherence to strict norms and values, as well as duty and loyalty to one’s in-group as opposed to concerns for an out-group. 

In the words of Haidt, our moral matrices “bind and blind” – they bind people together and foster group cohesion while at the same time blinding them to the existence of other matrices. Thus, at the heart of many current debates, be it immigration or abortion rights, we find a differing moral truth underlying the arguments from opposing political factions. This can substantially impede society’s ability to a rational and consensus-seeking discourse. 

Us vs. Them

Our interest and engagement with politics have become an integral part of our identities. Accordingly, most view themselves as part of a political tribe, which results in sympathy for those that share our views and opinions and hostility towards those that disagree with us. For example, one study suggests that we are much more likely to marry and even just be friends with someone that votes for the same party. 

One could argue that our personalities are determined by more than just our political views. Cultural, religious or geographical elements all contribute to the consortium of different identities that define us. However, as the American journalist and writer Ezra Klein argues, what has occurred in recent years and significantly contributed to societal polarization is that our political identities have come to encompass and amplify these other elements. Partisan views have merged with our cultural and geographic identities, giving rise to what Klein calls mega-identities, which have become a powerful force in political decision-making. Political parties that used to address voters from all walks of life, so-called “Big Tents”, now predominantly cater to these mega-identities and end up addressing a much more homogenous group of supporters. Take the example of the US, where this phenomenon is particularly prevalent. In the 1960s, the Democratic Party represented a wide-ranging coalition of liberals, organized labor, immigrants, African Americans and white conservatives in the South. Similarly, the GOP appealed to different groups of voters, ranging from liberals in the Northeast to conservatives in the West. However, following the Civil Rights Movement, many of the Southern Democrats abandoned the party which jumpstarted a process of realignment across political lines. For the first time in a century, the two main parties were no longer Big Tents, but developed into relatively homogenous groups with a declining willingness to cooperate. In turn, this accelerated a growing ideological divide. 

What is more, membership with a particular political group or ideology has taken the form of a signalling mechanism about who we are and what we value. This results in a hostile reaction to members of other political tribes, as soon as we realize that they do not share our political inclinations and our view of society. Instead of aiming to find consensus and make compromises as democracy has been designed to, we revert to a state of tribalism in which we distinguish between in-group and out-group, and make decisions solely based on an ‘Us vs. Them’ dichotomy. Thinking back of Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist that laid out the notion of different moral matrices within society, these developments constitute the systemic shift towards factions that distinguish themselves based on differing moral perceptions of societal issues. Unfortunately, this leaves us ever more bound to those mega-identities we relate to, and blind us to the views of our tribal adversaries.

Moving forward, we discuss how populism, a particular style of politics, actively draws on this division and uses societal polarization to further its agenda. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

  • Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind
  • Arnold Kling – The Three Languages of Politics
  • Phillip Hübl – Die aufgeregte Gesellschaft (German)