Today I’m going to be discussing a topic that has become part of mainstream conversation recently, and in the last couple of years in political discourse, polarisation. This is a hugely important topic to be talking about, especially in today’s political climate. The reason why political polarisation is so necessary for us to talk about is because it threatens the longevity of democracy and the way we communicate with eachother. I have been planning on writing this post since I created this blog and I think with the recent US election, the idea of polarisation could not be more prevalent right now.
At university I focused a lot of my learning around political philosophy so naturally when the time came for me to pick a dissertation topic…I choose politics. My dissertation was about voter ignorance and the effects political polarisation has on our ability to communicate and engage in political discourse. I looked into an argument that critically evaluated the sustainability of democracy in our current political climate. I assessed how valid this argument was and explored ways to combat ignorance and to limit polarisation. Political philosophy was, and still is one of my favourite areas to read, write and talk about, so I hope you find todays article interesting and insightful!
What is polarisation and why does it happen?
Polarisation is when we intensify our beliefs and values because we are surrounded by likeminded people. When we communicate with like-minded people, we begin to hold our beliefs and political opinions in a higher regard. We become a more extreme version of ourselves.
In some cases, we have a strong reason to shift in intensity of our view, we may have been supplied with actual facts and information that gives us a reason to intensify our beliefs.
In other cases, we are merely surrounding ourselves with people who have the same opinion as our own, for obvious reasons this will increase our confidence. We place ourselves into an echo-chamber that is biased towards what we already believe. People are affirming our opinion instead of challenging it.
Another reason why our opinions can polarise is due to the internet and our social environment. Our environments are organised around our lifestyle, identity, and preferences. Politics has worked its way into our identity, because of this, we are more likely to socialise with people who share the same political beliefs as us, meaning we are constantly communicating with people who agree with us. We aren’t being challenged to revaluate our views; we are merely confirming what we already believe. A study I looked into for my dissertation even suggested that people who share the same political opinions are likely to shop at the same places, creating an even bigger divide between us and our opponents, even in the way we live out our daily lives.
As for online, this environment is personalised to what we support. Imagine you come across a tweet that has over 50k likes and is supporting your political belief. This will affirm to you that the belief is worth holding because other people agree with you. You will then hold the belief in a higher regard, making you more extreme. The internet has become a polarisation machine of other people online affirming their original beliefs. We know that our social media suggests certain content to us that we like, so when this comes to our political opinions, we are constantly suggested posts and tweets that are similar to our political values. We agree more and more, without being challenged, furthering our extremity. We live in our own personalised bubbles.
How does polarisation influence the way we communicate?
Effective argumentation and communication cannot exist in a society where its citizens are polarised. Polarisation leads to deep divides. If our opinion is challenged when we are polarised, we cannot effectively compromise or communicate with our opponent. We view these people as completely absurd. In my dissertation, I referenced a recent Pew study from the US, in that study people described their political opponents as ‘misguided, unintelligent, dishonest and immoral.” Even further than this ‘a threat to the nation’. We don’t even want to engage with our opponents. We view our opposition as almost dumb or naïve to have the opinions that they hold. For me personally, in what world would you want to remove access to healthcare or protection for the transgender community? To think that way appears oppressive and malignant to me, but to my opponents they are their ideologies. When we view someone in this way there is absolutely no way, we would want to productively communicate with them or compromise. This only furthers us into our group identity and bridges an even greater gap between those with opposing ideals.
These graphs above and below, show that overtime in the US polarisation had let to even further shifts in the divide between republicans and democrats in their ideology. The republican party becomes even more far-right and the democratic party becomes even more far-left. This is because the parties have adapted to the increase in polarisation; democrats are aiming to become way more progressive to keep up with Black Lives Matter, women’s reproductive rights, gender pay gaps, transgender rights, ending wealth inequality etc. Whilst republicans have become far more right leaning and conservative with immigration laws, white supremacy, lower taxes and actively working against progressive rights. As these two parties continue to shift apart it becomes even harder for them to communicate because their values and ideology could not be more different. The other party works directly against the other.
Something I found particularly interesting in my dissertation is that polarisation even affects the way people interpret information. We don’t even believe the facts that are given to us, we are so stubborn and stuck to our view, we will believe anything that supports our belief, even if it is baseless claims and we will reject everything that supports our opposition, even if it is hard evidence. We see this right now in America with people believing baseless claims of voter fraud, purely because it will protect their own views and discourage the opposing one. If we don’t even believe hard facts, then how are we supposed to reason with people?
Reasoned communication is something we cannot properly do when we are polarised. Reasons are not required for people to shift in extremity of their views; by merely agreeing with someone’s views they can hold their belief with more confidence. Consequently, we are left with a society of people who hold their political belief with a huge amount of confidence, yet cannot adequately provide reasons as to why, nor can they competently reason with other individuals to defend their unjustified views. All we end up having is an abundance of baseless claims and assumptions that cannot further a conversation or any productive political discourse. We have two radicalising sides of the political spectrum that are furthering away from one another, leading to growing resentment and division.
Where does this leave us and democracy?
If we can’t fix this it will only get worse, we will divide even further, which is the conclusion I made in my dissertation. Communication is everything and unfortunately, we are in a very toxic relationship with our democracy and our political discourse. If we can’t learn how to communicate with people who disagree with us and compromise, democracy will fail us.
Polarisation is becoming rapidly uncontrollable; it completely limits our democratic capacity and does create harsh political divides and these divides do undermine democracy. Whether or not we can reconcile is a whole other matter but as we continue to become more extreme and further leaning in our beliefs, communication will only get worse and so will the divide.
Democracy can only function when citizens reason and engage with each other and are open to criticism. In our political climate people are in no way open to criticism or opposing views. We can only hope that changes in administrations and governmental practices will allow us to heal and steer towards a place where we can communicate effectively and reason with eachother.
If we look at the US election, Biden’s win does bring hope that the US can steer towards a place where productive communication can happen, and everyone’s voices can be heard. But the election was tight, Trumpism has not gone away and the divide between democrats and republicans is a bitter one. There are still millions of people in the US who essentially hate democrats and vice versa, they both believe that the other party will destroy the country. These types of people cannot effectively communicate, and it has led to a sour division is America. Without healing that division, it will get violent and democracy won’t be able to support everyone anymore. The way we communicate must get better for the sake of democracy.
But how do you reconcile with someone who doesn’t even support your rights as a human being? Can we effectively communicate with people who have such different political opinions and values to our own? Have we already become too polarised? Politics is very personal; we all have our own political identity. I’ll be looking into this possibility of reconciliation in my next article, so be sure to return or follow to check that out!
I hope you enjoyed todays post and found it informative. Maybe you’ll walk away from this with slightly more of an open mind and a readiness to communicate with someone who challenges your own views. Unless they completely disagree with your basic human rights, in which case…we do not negotiate with terrorists, but I’ll save that for next time!