While your favorite explanation for the partisan divide might be that the folks who disagree with you are dumb-as-dirt, turns out our current political environment may be a nearly inevitable result of certain sociological and economic trends – stir in a helping of behavioral psychology and, tada, we’re attending town halls with fistfights and swastikas.
Rewind to the middle of last century (screen gets wavy, cue up appropriate piano riff and fade to black and white)… Generation Happy Days was pleasantly ensconced in the suburbs, becoming members of the PTA, joining bridge clubs and bowling leagues. We flipped on the evening news at night and turned the dial to a choice of three stations. (Yes, for the kiddos among us there was an actual dial and it was hard enough to turn that you needed a running start.) We grabbed our local paper off the door stoop every morning and on Sundays many of us trotted off to our neighborhood church, one of a handful of denominations that were close enough to be kissing cousins. (Forgive the absence of synagogues in my story; I’m painting with broad strokes.) While we were growing economically comfortable as a society, reverberations of the depression kept our basic gene pool constructively austere. In the lives we led, we spent plenty of time with people who didn’t see it our way politically – they were our friends, our neighbors, even our spouses. We were busy having a national conversation; very much in keeping with the founders’ vision of America – we had turned diversity into strength, a balance for excess and a creative force.
But soon enough, American prosperity brought into existence a highly mobile populace that had forgotten about the depression, was no longer primarily concerned with mere surviving and naturally turned their attention to the “pursuit of happiness” portion of the American dream. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with basic needs mostly met.) So naturally, we moved to cities with a center of gravity we liked and joined groups plum filled with people like – well – us. Old-fashioned neighborhood, and the diversity it brought, wasn’t quite as fun as the newfound made-to-fit.
While we were busy custom ordering our lives, there was an information explosion befitting our increased desire to “Have It Your Way.” Now we had choose-your-news sources that we could tune into to bathe in the warm waters of agreement and oh did we ever love the warm waters of agreement (and we told them we liked it in the ratings so they gave us more and more). Our mainline churches began breaking clean in half as people left to worship with the people they most agreed with. New churches representing every stripe of individualism sprung up all over the map.
Unbeknownst to us, we were busy sorting ourselves into tribes. Think Shia and Sunni. 100 years of social psychology experiments are amazingly consistent about what happens next, and it is not pretty: Likeminded groups consistently grow more extreme in the direction of the majority view. In them, the fascinating phenomenon of the “risky shift” plays out: A group of homogeneous people will make riskier choices as a group than any one individual makes inside that very same group. Likeminded groups are veritable breeding grounds for extremism.
Now here we sit in the United States of “Those People.“ We watch TV opinion news to experience what Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort” (required reading), calls the “righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.” We serve it up with a beer and munchies and the smug knowledge that everyone who isn’t on “our side” isn’t just wrong, they’re stupid and evil (and ugly to boot). It’s the mental equivalent of being a couch potato and leads directly to town halls run amuck.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.