Americans are extremely polarized politically. Explanations for this state of affairs range from pronouncements that America’s experiment in democracy has already failed to merely pooh-poohing current differences as a passing phase because the next election will surely bring all Americans together to stand behind their President (although such views generally assume that it’s the “other party” who will give up their previously misguided beliefs).
None of them are right. An explanation for America’s polarization requires scientific inquiry instead. The social sciences, particularly social psychology, are trying to be helpful. Several schools of thought stand out.
Is tribalism to blame?
Tribalism or neotribalism is the concept that humans have evolved from identifying as individuals or members of a mass society to instead seeing themselves as members of tribes. Such tribes or groups then define themselves by contrasting their values with others who are not in their tribe. In a modern political context, it refers to the often mistakenly strong political solidarity typical of post-truth politics.
Extreme tribalism is increasingly rampant in American politics and social life in general, where fear of threats to the tribe have replaced concerns about truth or facts. For the first time in American history a former President has brazenly denied election results, without presenting any evidence at all, yet Mr. Trump tells his supporters that all efforts to stop his lies mean “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you”.
Decades of social science research show that humans’ need for collective belonging to their tribe shapes how they view facts, and how they vote, more than actual truth. When their tribe is threatened, as Mr. Trump baselessly says they are, they rise to their tribe’s defense even when a defense is unwarranted or morally and legally wrong. Humans tend to choose loyalty to their tribe over civility and reasoned debate because their own personal identity is tied up in their tribe’s prevailing over other tribes.
The result is a disaster for democracy. “Instead of going into the voting booth and asking, What do I want my elected representatives to do for me, they’re thinking, If my party loses, it’s not just that my policy preferences aren’t going to get done,” says Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. “It’s who I think I am, my place in the world, my religion, my race, the many parts of my identity are all wrapped up in that one vote.”
Former President Trump’s continuing popularity in his party can be explained by his repeated claims that the Republican tribe is threatened even more than he is by the many criminal charges against him. It doesn’t matter that those claims are wildly false. Tribalism has taken over reality.
But have American voters really abdicated responsible voting to just cheer for their tribe? The results of several other U.S. elections after the 2020 presidential election show that it’s not that simple. Tribalism may be pervasive but it alone does not define American politics and it does not explain the deep political divide.
Is decision making flawed?
Another approach looks at how American voters make decisions about who to elect and which political tribe to join. Social psychologist Irving Janis of Yale University first developed the concept of groupthink in the 1970s and 1980s. He explored extraordinarily foolish American political decisions when key decision-makers overlooked seemingly obvious evidence. Such decisions were made by people in groups who prioritized the group’s approval and cohesiveness over the task at hand.
Professor Janis took a scholarly approach to analyze and categorize such decision-making processes, far beyond any overly broad talk of “silos,” “echo chambers,” “bubbles” or “cults”. He outlined clear signs that groupthink was in play when a decision process was underway:
* Incomplete survey of alternatives
* Incomplete survey of objectives
* Failure to examine risks of each choice
* Failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives
* Poor information search
* Selective bias in processing information
* Failure to work out contingency plans
When any possible flaws in a decision appeared, decision makers easily fell into denial and resorted to lies to bolster bad choices.
Groupthink – and the importance of avoiding groupthink – has been expanded and employed to explain human behavior when decision-making results in modern-day political fiascos (and there’s hardly any need to elaborate how most of modern Washington politics is one fiasco after another).
But groupthink originally was about people in groups making specific decisions about a particular issue and what can go wrong during that task. It’s highly relevant to the broader question of America’s current political chasm, but it’s not enough to explain it.
Is social media the culprit?
Twenty-first century social science has focused on the relatively recent phenomenon of social media. The same pressures for conformity that underlie tribalism and groupthink can now overtake everything else through the ever-present smartphones that rule modern life.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of New York University has explored the central role that social media plays in dividing Americans from each other. He explains that initial predictions were that the internet combined with 24/7 wireless mobile access to information would exponentially increase people’s awareness of facts, as well as provide them access to enlightened opinions and alternative viewpoints.
However, rather than becoming an instrument for learning and expanding people’s world views, social media became a forum for performance – where people feel immense pressure to put on a show of how they belong to certain groups (whether they really want to or not). They strive to be “liked” so they must avoid revealing any doubts or differences about their chosen groups’ preformed ideologies, especially when they don’t really know or care about whatever that ideology may be. It’s crucial to fit in and little more.
The situation is exacerbated further by social media platform algorithms that automatically drive like-mindedness and foster distrust of others, because creating anger increases the number of hits. Confirmation bias thrives (seeing and searching for only what one already believes, whether or not it has any basis in reality). Social divisions are encouraged, so social media users justifiably fear the negative consequences of raising any dissent. Compromising and questioning are considered weaknesses.
These unfortunate aspects of social media are well documented but blaming social media for all of America’s ills simultaneously assumes that the USA has essentially become a giant high school pep rally of vapid teenagers glued to their phones trying desperately to be cool even though they secretly harbor ideas and dreams they don’t dare to express. That may describe many modern Americans, but it’s certainly not true of much of the U.S. population.
Can the hard sciences help?
At least so far, no one from the realm of hard science has come up with explanations any better than those offered by social scientists or anyone else in the humanities. Nothing in the air, water or radiation frequencies in the United States seems to explain the rapid disintegration of civil society. But an extraordinarily well-recognized scientist pointed out one key factor:
"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."
- Albert Einstein
Tom A. Lippo is a Finnish-speaking American lawyer. Educated at Yale, the University of Jyväskylä and Stanford Law School, he is the founder of FACT LAW, an international law firm established in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with offices in both Finland and the United States. Tom has been a lawyer in Washington, DC based on Capitol Hill for over 40 years.