UCI Podcast: The new American political sectarianism
Peter Ditto discusses how everyone can remain level-headed in these tense times
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The nature of political partisanship has metastasized in recent years, and the consequences are on full display this election season. According to Pete Ditto, a UCI professor of psychological science and expert on political partisanship, what used to be disagreements about the best way to solve common problems have morphed into a conflict that more closely resembles religious sectarianism. As voters head to the polls, Ditto joins the UCI Podcast to discuss why the two sides are so far apart and how everyone can remain level-headed in these tense times.
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AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST
It may seem hard to fathom in today’s hyper-partisan era, but there was a time when people from both political parties agreed on the fundamental nature of the problems facing society. They disagreed merely on how to solve them. These days, as each side believes their own set of facts, such common values seem far away. How did we as a society arrive at this state of extreme polarization and how can we begin to move our country past it?
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski. And you’re listening to the UCI Podcast.
Today, I’m speaking with Pete Ditto, who is a professor of psychological science here at UCI and an expert on political partisanship.
Professor Ditto, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Thanks for having me, Aaron.
So this election season feels like one of the most contentious ever, or at least in recent memory. And it seems like the sides really couldn’t be further apart. But what does the research say? Are we more polarized as a society today than we were in the past?
That’s always a tough call, Aaron, you know, we w we did have a civil war at one point. I mean, so the two things I would say is that: First, vigorous, passionate disagreement is the hallmark of democracy. So you can’t have just a unilateral position. We fight as part of our system of government. It’s gotten very contentious at various times across our history. But now there’s sort of two kinds of unique things about it, I think. One is kind of like a cleaving of the two sides where, in the past, if you looked at Congress, there was an overlap between Democrats and Republicans. There were liberal Republicans. There were conservative Democrats. And at other times there were at least moderates. Now what you look at is there’s almost no moderates in Congress, that the two parties have sort of pulled apart, where there’s almost no overlap between them. There’s a left and a right, that are really unique.
And that cleaving has gone all the way down as well. So some of this is technologically a product of modern times. So we look at different TV. We look at different media. So the right and the left watch different shows, read different things. They like different things. They like different movies. And we live separately. We’re able to sort geographically. So increasingly what you find is that liberals live near liberals, conservatives live near conservatives. You get many more landslide districts in elections. So everything’s sort of pulling apart. And the second part of that thing is as everything has cleaved and pulled apart, is we’ve started to really dislike each other. So that’s the other difference, is this kind of intense sort of not disagreement with the other side, but dislike of the other side, and perceiving of the other side as evil and immoral, rather than just sort of wrong or misguided in some stance. And so it’s really an intense time. The temperature is way up now compared to, certainly, the recent history.
Well, you and some colleagues recently published a review article in Science, kind of touching on some of these issues. And that article described today’s polarization as more akin to religious sectarianism. And that sounds like what you’re talking about. So what do you mean by that? How is our society more like religious sectarianism these days?
That paper’s really nice in the sense that it’s a group of sort of the top experts in political polarization trying to summarize the science of what causes it, what maybe are some of the solutions. And we’ve struggled a lot with what the call it, sort of an overarching level. And terms we’ve used before, I’ve used before in the literature: tribalism. That’s kind of political tribalism and which feels again — tribalism is sort of based on kinship and genetics and things like that. It captures sort of the intensity of it, but it isn’t quite right. And so what we finally settled on is this idea of sectarianism, right? So a sectarian battle. It’s a two offshoots of the American civic religion fighting for dominance over whose vision is the correct one of what America means. Is it that conservative right-wing version or is that left-wing version?
And, you know, and it’s, it’s moralized. I think that’s crucial. It’s akin to a religious fight, in the sense there’s a moral battle that’s undergoing or underlying all of this. And, but again, the way I described that sometimes is there’s a way of envisioning politics in which it’s a fight between two sides who have different policy ideas that one side might be right, and one side might be wrong. You both want to improve the economy, for example, but one has an idea about cutting taxes. The other one has ideas about investing in the government. And one side might be right or wrong, and at worse the other side is stupid. They’re dumb, we’re smart. It’s metastasized into this situation where it’s more that one side is good and one side is evil — that we don’t really have the same goals that, oh, the other side isn’t really trying to improve the economy. They’re really trying to control it. And so they’re evil, not good. And when you disagree, it’s sacrilege. It’s not just a disagreement. So we’ve gone from a sort of politics where the other side is dumb and we’re smart to the other side is evil and we’re good. And that’s really dangerous. And that has that flavor of that sort of sectarian battle, when these religious sides, with that fervor, that moral fervor that you get with religion. We thought that word really captured well the kind of the tone of what American politics is today.
So when you look at history, do you feel like you see instances where we’ve had this kind of similar sectarianism in the past here in the United States?
I’m not a historian, but yeah, you see that kind of flaring up. It’s easy for any kind of conflict, any kind of competition, to turn into morality. Think about sports. Sports is the great analogy. Those aren’t meaningful; you’re just put onto different teams. (But) ask a Yankee fan how they feel about the Red Sox, or vice versa. So even competition of any kind tips into this moral flavor. And then in history, the Civil War might be a good example, where the two sides had these different moral visions for what they thought the country should be. And that’s a much hotter and more emotional, more this tendency for it to turn into this kind of negative partisanship where the other side is demonized. They’re trying to do something different, they’re evil. And that’s sort of the challenge of American democracy, is how do you take passionate disagreement and keep it from boiling over into some kind of sectarian war?
Well, at the beginning of the conversation, you mentioned how the two sides essentially have their own sources of information — one side listens to one news outlet and the other listens to a different news outlet. So how does that really play into this polarization? Both, how does it drive the polarization, and then how does it affect someone as they’re making decisions on their political beliefs?
One of the central problems that I’ve been interested in my research is this “fact gap” between liberals or conservatives, that it’s not just that we have different opinions about things, but we believe in different sets of facts now. Now climate change would be the classic example. One side believes that there’s human-caused climate change. The other side doesn’t. COVID-19 is another great example. This is sort of the classic moral story about what happens when things get politicized. So this information comes in, one side believes that it is less serious and that masks aren’t effective. The other side believes it’s more serious and masks are effective. And so you get these gaps. Well, why is it that we have different sets of facts?
Well, there’s two crucial things going on. One is that we have different sets of information coming in. So if I’m a liberal, I’m watching MSNBC and The New York Times and The Washington Post and PBS. And if I’m a conservative, I’m watching Fox News, reading The Wall Street Journal and other blogs and things like that. So I’m getting a different story. One side is telling me: COVID is serious, COVID is serious. Here’s the things that work. The other side says it’s not very serious, everybody’s exaggerating it. So if you have different information, you’re going to have different facts, right?
The second part of it, and the part that I’ve been really interested in in my career is how that even if you get the same information, you process it differently. And the basic phenomenon I talk about a lot is what I call motivated skepticism. Skepticism is a good thing. But people deploy it selectively. And what they tend to do is they tend to accept information that sort of supports their side, their political views, very easily, very uncritically. They accept those as true. Things that come in on the other side, that challenge their views, you tend to go, “Wait a minute. Is that really true? Let me fact check that, let me go to PolitiFact and do all that.” That’s why people, they get some kind of juicy detail, a political detail that just fits just exactly what they want, and, and they share it immediately on Facebook without checking it. And somebody goes, “Oh, you should fact check that.” People fact check things they don’t want to believe. They don’t fact check things they believe. And so they end up processing this information differently. We keep taking in, accepting all the information that says our side is right and we’re good, and rejecting all the information that says the other side is good and right and believing all the things about how bad they are. And then you end up, through this different information and the same and these processing biases, ending up with these completely different factual worlds that we live in. And that’s really problematic.
And that just makes it even more impossible to have a productive conversation because there’s not even a common sense of truth that is a common ground.
It makes it really hard to compromise, to negotiate, to actually get legislation passed, if you just can’t agree on ground-level facts. I mean think about, let’s have a talk with your friend who doesn’t believe in global warming. Okay. “So, okay, friend. So let’s talk about why the temperature has been going up over the last 20 years.” “No, it hasn’t.” “No, no, it has really gone up.” “No, it hasn’t.” “No, no, really, all the says that it’s gone up.” “No it hasn’t.” Right. And that’s just a caricature, but you don’t get anywhere. You can’t. And then what it does is it makes you angry. There’s nothing that makes you angrier than somebody that just seems to refuse to believe what you fundamentally believe is true. And then if they just won’t accept it, well, they’re either stupid or they’re evil. And that fact gap, if you just can’t agree on some basic things, it really drives, it fuels, it’s both fueled by the conflict and it fuels it. And that’s kind of the problem, really, ultimately, with where we are now, is the whole thing is really self-escalating. It’s just tit for tat and that the stakes just get raised. Everybody gets more and more angry. It’s just like the kids fighting in the back seat of the station wagon. And it’s like, he hit me, he hit me first, he hit me harder. And that just doesn’t stop. Somebody has to go back there.
Well the only question then is who goes back there? Who’s the parent in the room in that analogy?
I mean, that’s exactly the problem. People crave an umpire. They’re looking. One side says this is true. The other side says that exactly the opposite is true. And people want somebody to say what’s true. And tell me who’s the neutral arbiter in this? It’s really hard to find, and particularly when you politicize. The umpires are getting politicized — the CDC, the World Health Organization, the FBI. Whose view is the objective one? And people just don’t know what to do. And so all you end up with is this sort of intractable conflict.
So in your research what have you found about who is more biased in processing this information. Are conservatives or liberals more biased? And is that a question that psychological scientists agree on?
Speaker 2 (12:54):
Yeah, it’s a really tricky issue and it really depends on what you mean by biased and what you mean by liberal and conservative. All kinds of things make it difficult as a matter of science. So I’ve done a lot of work on this as well, just because it’s a question that a lot of people disagree on. So in social psychology there’s a long history going all the way back to the 1950s and this, this project called the authoritarian personality. There’s sort of a modern version of that in social psychology as well, where a lot of people really have pointed to different personality differences between the two sides. And there’s good evidence for that, that conservatism is about staying where you are, holding things off. Liberalism is about going forward, opening up to experience. Those kinds of differences seem to exist. And the question is, does that make conservatives more biased?
There’s another whole set of literature that suggests that they’re really relatively equal. They’re biased in different directions. It’s harder to see liberal biases. Most researchers are liberal. So we actually did a study, over a decade, it took about six or seven years to do this, that we published last year, where we did a meta analysis, where we tried to find every study we could on political bias, that had a particular kind of a definition of bias. And the general idea is that you’re more likely to accept exactly the same piece of information if it supports your political beliefs and reject that if it doesn’t. And so you’ve got to measure that and we compared every study. They’re all experimental studies that we could find, right.
And we compared whether liberals or conservatives were more biased about that. And what we found is that both sides were biased. The fundamental biases for accepting information that you want to believe — it flatters your side more than the other — compared to exactly the same information on the other side. And what we’ve found is that both sides do that. And they do it to almost the identical degree. This is this really fundamental group bias that we have. We like our side. We’re nicer to our side. We kind of are harsher on the other side. So what I think they show is that both sides have this tendency to favor our own side. And everybody’s vulnerable to that.
I think historical forces can move those things up and down. Sometimes they can make one side more biased than the other, if their worldview is threatened. And you might see that now going on on the conservative side, where their worldview is really being threatened. The multiculturalism, it seems like their demographic hold, their advantage in the country, is sort of dwindling. And that makes them sort of more intense, that may make them more biased. I certainly think there’s good evidence that the Trump administration’s views about most things diverge more from where science would say the right answer is than the liberal side. I mean, liberals, shouldn’t walk around thinking, “I’m so rational.” All of us do it too. And science has this problem. Scientists tend to accept information that supports theories more than others. Everybody’s vulnerable to this.
So if both sides are roughly equally biased, maybe different amounts at different times in history, and even scientists can be biased too sometimes, is it reasonable to say that this is basically a trait of human nature? We, as humans, are built this way to favor our own side more than the other side?
That’s a great question. So I think it helps to put American democracy in its full perspective. Humans are group animals. Our evolutionary niche is small group living and the people who cooperated the best and made the best functioning groups did the best evolutionarily. So we’re built to be groupy. So that’s what I mean, that natural tendency, and you see it all the time, it’s just rife in politics. So when your president golfs it’s okay. But when the other side’s president golfs, it’s a national tragedy. We all pick exactly the same thing and if our side does it, we give them a break, the other side does it, we don’t. We like our own group, we’re connected like that. At the drop of a hat, sort of psychologically, we form groups and we exclude other people.
Speaker 2 (17:20):
So this is what you get when you split people up into groups, is there’s always this tendency for them to kind of cleave off in this kind of sectarian way, and start fighting. Now, what that means is that that could be an electoral strategy — split people. And it’s a great electoral strategy because it goes with the grain of human nature. It’s really easy to split people up and make them hate each other. It’s way more difficult to get people, to look at people who are unlike them, and say, “Oh yeah, you’re part of me.” That couple of million years of evolutionary history: You know what? We split up into groups and we try to kill each other. And if you want to get people that don’t look like you, don’t think like you, don’t believe the same things as you do, about the nature of the world and everything else — that’s hard. That’s an uphill battle. That’s the battle that most American presidents have been trying to fight — to get people together. But the other strategy is so much easier because it takes advantage of our groupy nature. And that’s what we have to fight against, is somehow define this superordinate group as Americans, as the United States and not each of our Americans sects.
This struggle to overcome sectarianism and overcome partisanship will continue after Election Day after Nov. 3. It’s a long-term project. So what can we do right now, in these few days, and these few weeks, to lower the partisan temperature just a little bit and get through this really tense time?
I think everybody, first of all, needs to be patient. This is a really treacherous time we’re coming into where because of the pandemic, the election returns are going to come in slowly. There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty in that period. And yes, it’s not going to stop. So that’s the kind of the nature of this. Whatever side wins, the other side is going to be mad. And now, because everything’s moralized, it’s not, oh, we lost, but we were cheated. And so I think if everybody’s patient, if you look at your neighbors and try to think of them as those people who helped you when your kids needed help, who, you know borrowed — I don’t know if anybody borrows a carton of milk anymore — but that kind of thing, right? If you think of it more broadly, maybe that’ll calm everybody down. I think it’s, again, a really treacherous time in American politics. And it sounds really cliche, but we’re going to have to look at people as Americans, and not as Republicans and Democrats or Trump’s supporters or Biden supporters.
Well, Professor Ditto, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.