Lilliana Mason speaks on problems of worsening political polarization in U.S.

By Sarah Frazer ||Staff Writer

This past Wednesday, Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland, gave a talk on political polarization in the United States. Mason began working on a project about polarization in 2009, multiple years before Trump ran for president. According to Mason, political polarization is getting worse, as people increasingly see the opposing party as extreme and are less supportive of compromise.

The reason for this worsening polarization is that partisan affiliation is more and more becoming a part of people’s identities. Furthermore, Americans are becoming increasingly socially sorted, meaning that one’s political party is more likely to align with other identities they have, such as race, religion, education level, and region, among others. This social sorting is a huge problem and contributor to polarization since it decreases the connections and areas of commonality between citizens.

Mason presented data that suggests Americans are more likely to live near people they agree with, as there is an urban-rural divide in the electorate, and they are more likely to want to live near people they agree with. Mason argued that citizens have dehumanized the opposing party because people in each party have less in common. According to Mason, polarization was stifled in the past by cross-cutting identities, which means that people have identities that overlap with both parties. For instance, a voter may be black, which means they would be more likely to be a Democrat, and religious, meaning they would be more likely to be a Republican. However, the Democratic party is increasingly becoming more secular, and the Republican party increasingly whiter. 

Mason’s argument about the root of polarization conflicts with what is perhaps the dominant narrative about polarization: that voters simply disagree more on policy now than they used to. Mason disputed this claim, as she cited evidence that, from the 1980s to at least 2012, levels of policy extremity did not increase all that much. What did change she said, especially after 2008, was people’s feelings towards the opposing party. 

Mason concluded that something else is probably going on besides mere ideological disagreement. To be clear, Mason argued that it is possible for two types of polarization — issue-based and identity-based — to be independent of each other. 

Mason emphasized the lack of increase in ideological polarization. She pointed out that most Americans, including Republicans are operationally liberal, meaning they like social programs like social security. Thus, Mason contended that, if policy outcomes really are what is driving politics, then compromise should be very possible. 

However, compromise seems less and less possible; to understand why, Mason turned to theories about social identity and the way people treat out-groups. Mason explained that humans have an innate desire to win, which probably-not-coincidentally is a word Trump used frequently during the campaign. He claimed Americans would “get bored with winning.” But Mason said Trump also talked about Americans losing, which was an effective framing for his campaign. He tapped into a deep need humans have to win. 

Mason noted that, in US politics, every election is a competition between two parties, to which each of their voters feels socially attached. Now that the parties have become aligned with our social identities, she continued, the stakes of each election are higher since all of people’s identities are wrapped up in their parties if they are socially-sorted. 

Therefore, Mason argued, “Election[s are] no longer just about your party anymore;” it is about people’s sense of who they are. Perhaps the only benefit to people being more socially-sorted is that they are more likely to vote than those with cross-cutting identities.

According to Mason, when a society has highly aligned social groups, people tend to be less tolerant of out-groups and they tend to perceive out groups as much more different than them. As long as we have a lot of different divides in our society, we are less in danger of being divided by one, she explained. For this reason, stable democracies benefit from cross-cutting identities. 

Mason studied polarization in a number of ways. For instance, when she considered people’s emotionality, she found that for people whose identities became the most sorted, their anger increased the most. For people whose identities were less sorted, their anger increased the least. Mason argued that “sorting is creating more emotionally volatile reactions to politics” without really changing issue positions. The electorate is changing, Mason said, to make people more vulnerable to getting angry precisely because people with cross cutting identities are disappearing.

Two possible solutions for political polarization that Mason offered were: (1) The media tends to focus on the horse race when talking about law making, meaning, for example, who wins if a law is passed. Horse-race coverage emphasizes the idea that the two parties are in zero sum gain, which worsens polarization. (2) Mason argued that people should stop talking about politics with people with whom they disagree since such discussions do not help with polarization and possibly make it worse.

Senior Sarah Frazer is a Staff Writer. Her email is sfrazer@fandm.edu.

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