On March 21, the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress hosted American University Government Professor David C. Barker, author (with Morgan Marietta) of One Nation, Two Realities (2019), and University of Maryland Government Professor Lilliana Mason, author of Uncivil Agreement (2018), two nationally recognized experts on political polarization. In conversation with Kluge Center Director John Haskell, they laid out their understandings of the roots and manifestations of political polarization, and where it might be headed in the future.
Barker talked about factual polarization, in which people “just don’t believe the same things,” and operate in completely separate worlds of facts from one another. He said he was also interested in the degree to which partisans are willing to work with each other, regardless of disagreements, as a mitigating factor. Even if people differ strongly in what they believe, he said, if lawmakers and the public accept the need to “strike deals, negotiate, bargain, make compromises in order to get stuff done,” then polarization will not be such a decisive factor.
Mason said that she aimed to question what, exactly, polarization is. While a traditional model says that polarization means people disagreeing with each other and holding differing political opinions, new work, she said, has shown a new way of understanding the topic.
Polarization can occur even without strongly differing political ideologies to drive it, Mason said. Affective polarization occurs when people dislike each other due to group identities and conflicts between them. Mason said this variety of polarization is best understood through psychological theories of inter-group conflict.
She highlighted the situation where most Americans are “operationally liberal,” supporting policies overall that lean to the left. At the same time, she said, many of the same people would describe themselves as conservatives. If the conservative identity takes precedence over the liberal policy preferences, people may become polarized from others who actually want the same policies that they do. This hints at “a lot of room in the middle,” Mason said, for cooperation on policies, which doesn’t happen right now because there is little incentive to work together, and more emphasis placed on the conflict between groups and political identities.
Watch the event here:
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