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 Big Five personality framework, have been found to be more inclined to vote for progressive parties. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, a separate trait of the framework that represents a preference for order and tradition, correlates with conservative political attitudes. 

These insights cast doubt on the myth of the rational voter, discrediting the narrative of the citizen that meticulously evaluates different policy proposals and votes accordingly. Instead, they propose the integration of human psychology into the study of political decision-making. However, such effort also requires us to account for the history of homo sapiens, given that 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

It is widely argued that the concept of morality is inextricably linked to our political inclinations. In his book, The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the case that along with the evolution of large-scale human societies, our ancestors have developed a shared moral matrix that has enabled effective cooperation, the punishment of free-riders as well as the establishment of shared principles that serve as society’s foundational pillars. This matrix consists of six different domains that have shaped our tribal coexistence for millennia: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. The prevalence and importance attached to each dimension vary among individuals, communities and entire societies, explaining cultural differences between these groups. It also has significantly shaped political ideologies. 

Here, Haidt claims that the moral matrix of many Progressives focuses on three dominant foundations: Care, Liberty and Fairness. This resonates with the liberal view of society as outlined by English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued that individuals would respect each other’s rights and unite voluntarily to help the needy or promote the common good. In this tradition, the contemporary political Left focuses on issues of social justice, emphasizing compassion for the poor and equal rights for minorities. The morality of conservatives, on the other hand, relies on different domains. According to Haidt, their matrix embraces the loyalty, authority and sanctity foundations, resulting in a different set of values and a distinct understanding of how society should be structured. Following the writings of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, many conservatives believe that the main role of society results from 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 (as liberal thought proclaims), the conservative vision focuses on the hierarchically structured family, which should serve as a model for other institutions. This requires the adherence to strict norms and values, as well as duty and loyalty to one’s in-group rather than concerns for an out-group. 

These diverging moral matrices and our different perceptions of how society should be structured are fundamental in understanding political divisions and partisanship. 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 rational and consensus-seeking discourse. 

Us vs. Them

Through our interest and engagement with politics, we start to consider ourselves as part of a political tribe. Whether we are conscious of it or not, this becomes an integral part of our identities. It also results in sympathy for those that share our views and opinions and hostility towards those we disagree with. This is underlined by empirical evidence suggesting that we are much more likely to marry and even just befriend someone that votes for the same party. 

However, one could argue that our personalities are determined by more than our political views. Cultural, religious or geographical elements all contribute to the consortium of different identities that define us. Yet, 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 usurped and amplified these other elements. Partisan views have merged with our cultural and geographic identities, giving rise to “mega-identities”, which Klein considers a powerful force in contemporary politics. Instead of addressing voters from all walks of life, political parties now cater to these identity consortiums 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 a broad variety 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 so-called “Big Tents”, but developed into relatively homogenous groups with a declining willingness to cooperate. This, in turn, accelerated the growing ideological divide. 

As a result of all these developments, 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 hostile reactions to members of other political tribes. 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 separate between in-group and out-group, making decisions solely based on an ‘Us vs. Them’ dichotomy. According to Jonathan Haidt, these developments constitute the systemic shift towards groups 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 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)