Podcast Launch: The Roots of Polarization
Issue 68: Part 1 of our podcast with interviews featuring Dr. Hahrie Han, Alison Taylor, Uriel Epshtein & Joshua Fryday
Several months ago, we hosted a small conference with a group of experts on the issue of political polarization in the United States and beyond. These interviews were conducted by award winning journalist Richard Sergay, who later produced the two-part Power of Us Podcast!
In the first 30-minute segment, we feature interviews with Alison Taylor, Executive Director at Ethical Systems who shares her business perspective; Dr. Hahrie Han, Professor of Political Science and the Director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University who talks about collective action and civic engagement; Uriel Epshtein, Executive Director of the Renew Democracy Initiative who highlights the decline of third spaces; and Josh Fryday, Chief Service Officer for the State of California with California Volunteers who shares his observations in how political leaders leverage polarization for their agendas.
This week, we are releasing the first episode: The Roots of Polarization here on Substack, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. (You can listen now by clicking the “play” button below, or follow the links to save and download the podcasts on Spotify and Apple).
In this newsletter, we preview the episode by sharing a snippet about how each podcast guest (including Jay and Dominic) understands polarization and its roots. Dominic describes how polarization often involves the collapse of identities into a single dimension:
Dominic: “One of my favorite definitions or ways of thinking about it is that polarization occurs in a society when all the richness and multiplicity of people's identities, which are often quite various, start collapsing into a single dimension. So if you think about who is a person and what are their set of identities, it could include their religious identity, their political beliefs, their occupational identities, their hobbies, their ethnicity, their gender. It could include many, many things.
As things polarize, it's like all those identities begin to collapse into a single dimension where the most important thing is where you fall politically. And you begin to be able to predict, where does someone live, what kind of occupation do they have, what kind of church, if any, do they go to, and so on, simply by knowing their political affiliation and all that richness begins to be lost.”
Jay adds that the modern way we think about polarization is different from its past forms, and mentions that social media plays different roles in different political contexts:
Jay: “But what's different about the polarization we're facing now is it's not driven by in-group love. It's not as if people have greater pride in their political party than they did 40 years ago. What's new is that they really despise the other party, so it's driven more by out-group hate than in group love. And what that means is that people are willing to vote for political candidates that they might not like simply because they despise or fear the other party.
In places that don't have healthy democracies, it seems like social media is giving people a voice who deserve it and need it, to mobilize against autocracies.
But what also seems to be happening at the same time is healthy democracies like the United States seem to be paying a price with social media. So social media is amplifying extreme voices, divisive language, and fostering greater conflict.”
Dr. Hahrie Han, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University frames polarization in terms of social dynamics — how individuals view those who are different from them.
Hahrie: “Polarization is not any one thing. So at one level, polarization is just the distance between the political parties. And we can see that in Congress, that the views of the average Republican and the views of the average Democrat have become increasingly further apart.
I think in the mass public though, where you have a lot of people for whom politics is "a mere sideshow" in the circus of life, polarization isn't necessarily about how far apart they are in particular policy decisions, but instead how people perceive those who are different from them. And I think one of the things that has become more, of greater concern in recent years is that people tend to think of people who are not like them in increasingly negative, in some cases, dehumanized, terms.”
Uriel Epshtein, Executive Director at The Renew Democracy Initiative views polarization from a community perspective, he adds that the decline of third spaces and general loneliness also exacerbate political polarization:
Uriel: “Humans are meaning-making creatures. We need meaning for it to feel good about ourselves, to feel comfortable. And historically, there were any number of places we could find that, we could find that in our synagogue, our mosque, our church. We could find that in our PTA group. We could find that in various civic organizations.
What we're seeing is all of those places are one by one becoming less prominent, becoming less prevalent, they're disappearing. And as a result, politics are becoming that tribal identity. They are taking the place of religion, civic societies, friendships even. There's so many studies now about how loneliness is this paralyzing problem in the general public. And I think people are turning to more and more radical political solutions to try to fill that hole.”
Joshua Fryday, Chief Service Officer for the State of California says that he has observed political leaders taking advantage of the isolation and chaos in a changing society:
Josh: “We live in a society right now that is changing rapidly and people are looking for explanations of why it's changing and why they may feel like they're being left behind. And it's often - and we see political leaders exploit this - the easiest explanation is often the most divisive explanation that political leaders point to. So I think it's certainly a leadership issue, but it's also, we live in a very disconnected society.
People feel isolated from each other. They don't know their neighbors, they're not involved in social organizations anymore to the extent that they were decades or generations ago. And because we are literally, physically isolated from each other and politically isolated from each other, it makes it easy to prey on people with these, I think, simple and often divisive explanations that our leaders are giving.”
Meanwhile, Alison Taylor, Executive Director at Ethnical Systems reminds us that businesses also feel pressure to adopt a political identity for their advantage and many are exploiting polarization for economic advantage:
Alison: “Businesses have become more polarized. There's very, very interesting data showing that C-suites have become either more Republican or more Democrat quite dramatically in the last decade. You have a lot more businesses really trying to stoke the culture wars and stoke polarization for brand advantage.
I think that business is becoming a vehicle for our political frustrations. That pressure is not going away, and we have started to look to our employers to represent our values, to provide us even with a democratic voice on what they're standing up on, and to really be a source of meaning and identity in our lives in a way that was not the case even a decade ago.”
What these individuals have in common is that they view polarization and its roots from many different lenses and identity several factors that have led to the peak of polarization as we know and experience it today.
To listen to the rest of the podcast, scroll up to the media player or save our show on Spotify and Apple podcasts and to be notified of the next episode!
In the next episode, we will feature additional guests who will discuss specific remedies to polarization.
News and Updates
Jay is a co-author on a brand new scientific paper with Dr. Steve Rathje about using incentives to encourage people to identify correct vs. false information. They have a new intervention that encourages people to believe and share accurate news from the other party and dramatically reduces polarization in beliefs. Watch a summary of the study in video from on TikTok!
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If you are like our newsletter, we encourage you to check out our award-winning book “The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony”. You can learn more about the book or order it from the links on our website (here). We keep the newsletter free, but are extremely grateful if you have a chance to pick up the book of buy it for a friend who wants to learn more about group psychology.
Catch up on the last one…
Last week’s newsletter was an interview with researcher and professor Sander van der Linden on his new book about misinformation called FOOLPROOF. His book and interview discusses social media, interventions, and we recommend playing his fake news game as well!