Notes on Political Polarization

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  • #4681

    Barry Peelen
    bell curve polarized
    Figure 1: Polarized vs. Natural Ideology Distribution

    I spent a good amount of time this summer attempting to answer the following question: What causes societies with normal/expected ideology distributions — represented by the green curve shown in Figure 1 — to become polarized enough to fit the blue curve over time? While I don’t yet have a model that’s prepared to test this question, what I have developed to this point is something of a working theory to go about untangling this issue. In this post, I will summarize the general theory, in addition to providing an example of its application in analyzing polarization in the United States.

    Tribal Software Theory

    The theory is basically this: During the process of opinion formation, one of two potential “software” programs are in use by the opinion former: critical thinking, which is reason-driven, or tribalistic thinking, which is driven primarily by emotion. This notion of the existence of two differing thought processes derives from a similar theory proposed by Daniel Kahneman in his magnum opus, Thinking Fast and Slow. Needless to say, it seems to me that both systems are innate to human beings, and which of them is running at a given moment depends primarily on environmental factors.

    For instance, the “tribalistic” software becomes activated when the nature of resource availability in a shared environment is perceived as being zero-sum. I.e., resources are limited, therefore the attainment of resources by others poses a threat to myself and those I care about.

    Conversely, the “critical thinking” software manifests itself only when our environments are not viewed in these terms, and therefore can be quickly overridden by the tribalistic software should those circumstances change.

    Finally, once an individual starts thinking with the tribalistic software, the direction of their opinion formation as it relates to the ideological/political spectrum will be determined by a combination of their in-group allegiances, out-group prejudices, and Big 5 Personality trait profile.

    Using this framework, my hypothesis is thus: In a society with a healthy social fabric, high levels of social solidarity, and perhaps most important, relative financial prosperity, the nature of resource procurement is not viewed in zero-sum terms by the majority of its members. As a result, the “critical thinking” software has a chance to manifest itself in the minds of the society’s members, while the tribal software deactivates, becoming dormant in large segments of society. It is in these environments that the objective assessment of reality as observed becomes the basis of opinion formation.

    Conversely, when a society’s resources begin to be viewed in terms of a zero-sum game, the tribalistic software activates, and our evolutionary inclination towards an in-group/out-group framework takes over. The result of this is that the emotional attachment of individual members to desired outcomes which would promote wellbeing for themselves and for their in-group members — or simply punish out-group members — becomes, in addition to the Big 5 traits, the basis of opinion formation.

    Ideology polarization
    Figure 2: Evolution of political ideology distribution in America

    Pictured above is the American electorate’s ideological bell-curve transformation between 1994 and 2017. Compare the distributions in the picture above to the curves displayed at the top of this post in Figure 1. In both 1994 and 2004, the ideological spread closely tracked the normal or “expected” distribution as conveyed in Figure 1. As of 2017, that distribution has assumed the shape of a worryingly polarized society.

    In applying this theory to an analysis of polarization in America, then, it would predict the following: Some significant event or combination of events capable of activating our tribalistic softwares probably occurred between the years 2004 and 2017. Additionally, and in keeping with the theory, such event or events would likely have done this by shifting the perceptions of a large segment of society in the direction of viewing the nature of resource attainment as a zero-sum game, where perviously they hadn’t.

    We are left with the question of whether an event profound enough to achieve this occurred within that timeframe, and I would argue that, indeed, one did: The subprime mortgage crisis and resulting financial collapse and recession of 2007-2009. And while determining if there is, in fact, any causation to this apparent relationship demands the type of study for which I lack the interest and ability to conduct, I would note two damning facts : 1) that political polarization exploded in the decade immediately following the subprime mortgage crisis, and 2) that polarization had been virtually unchanged throughout the decade immediately prior to it.

    I would conclude by encouraging any political/social scientist with the resources and know-how to develop a testable version of this theory, and/or expand upon and improve it to their liking. Below is a condensed version of the theory as it currently exists.

    In general, ideological polarization in human societies follows this pattern:

    1. Society with economic situation of perceived abundance is unpolarized.
    2. Event occurs which changes the perception of the society from being one of abundance to being one of limited resources, i.e. zero-sum.
    3. Perception of resource attainment within society as being zero-sum results in the activation of previously dormant tribal allegiances (race/gender/sex/ethnicity etc).
    4. Emotional attachments to desired outcomes for oneself and one’s fellow in-group members becomes prioritized over critical thinking during information processing; emotions become the basis of opinion formation.
    5. The ideological center of the society collapses as the tribal software activates within many of its members. Former moderates gravitate to one or another ideological pole based on a combination of their tribal allegiances and Big 5 trait profile.
    6. Those left within 1 standard deviation of the ideological center are generally members of the society that 1) don’t have strong connections to their would-be tribal allegiances, 2) don’t view the society’s resources as being zero-sum, 3) have a Big 5 trait profile composition that is not conducive to high levels of political engagement (high scores in trait introversion, agreeableness, potentially openness(?), or 4) otherwise manage to reject the tribal mindset in favor of critical thinking as the basis of opinion formation
  • #4684

    Chris Ladd

    I think there’s something to this. An earlier Forbes piece alluded to this idea in comparing Trump with former DC Mayor Marion Barry, However, a couple of things give me pause. First, I’m increasingly skeptical of our old assumptions that rational thought has much if any role in individual political choice. We leave that for another time. More to the point, I don’t think that the financial crisis changed political alignments much. The event I think transformed our political environment is the Flight of the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party, which had just about completed in the mid-90’s.

    It took them some time to find their feet and start to wield real power, not really completing the takeover of the GOP until the GW Bush administration. But once they did, they began a scorched-earth campaign that isn’t over yet, and probably won’t be defeated without significant violence.

    No one seems remotely conscious that this even happened, which I find baffling. But then again, the people who perform the bulk of our serious research, study and writing in this country don’t come from the South and seem barely aware that it exists.

  • #4709


    Can it be that both the flight of the Dixiecrats to the Republican party AND the financial crisis are drivers? I appreciate that the flight of the Dixiecrats is the prime mover here…but they did more than just move to the Republican Party, they took it over completely.

    What about Pennsylvania, Ohio as well as Michigan, Wisconsin and almost Minnesota?

    Private assets not just of banks but of the very wealthy were protected by TARP while everyone else without assets or assets less than 500k were left to sink or swim. We made the private debt and obligations of banks and the wealthy public while leaving farms and small homeowners to the vagaries of the market place. I think the anger from that event is a trigger for states that didn’t experience much in the way of dixiecrat flight. Can it be that the financial crisis was a player while not the prime mover?

  • #4718


    Thank you for posting this. Would like to hear as many ideas as possible on how polarization came to be. While it only takes one person to have a stupid argument the graph shows that’s not what happened.
    What about Operation REDMAP as a factor? Districts that discourage compromise send out combative and rigid politicians and then the poison moves downward.

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