Polarized USA

Diana Mutz’s 2006 book Hearing the Other Side paints a bleak picture of American politics.  Among twelve nations compared, US folks most perceive that the two people (besides their spouse) they most talk to are politically partisan, and agree with them.  (These two factors are strongly correlated across nations.  Hong Kong and Japan are at the other extreme.)  In fact, only 34% of people in the US talk regularly to someone who they think disagrees with them politically, and "only 23 percent of Americans could recall having a political conversation with someone who disagreed with them."

This is a problem because talking to people you disagree with tells you about reasons for positions on the other side.  People know more reasons for positions they favor than for positions they don’t favor.  Mutz shows that people who know more people who disagree with them know more reasons for positions on both sides, but people who know more people who agree with them know only more reasons for their side.

So who are these rare people who sustain our political dialogue, via sincere discussions with others who disagree?  Mutz says they are:

  • blacks more than whites,
  • with the least education,
  • with incomes under 40K,
  • belonging to the fewest social associations,
  • who vote and participate politically the least,
  • with the least political knowledge or interest, and
  • are political moderates more than strong partisans.

And who are the others with whom they talk and disagree?  Mutz says they are more acquaintances than friends, who they meet less often.  These others are more often co-workers, neighbors, and people they meet in voluntary associations, and less often those they meet in places of worship.   

So, real political debate is mostly done by poor uneducated moderate non-voters with little political knowledge and few social contacts, talking with people they hardly know and rarely talk to.  I suspect causation goes both ways here – not only are rich, educated, social, political folks more likely adopt the political opinions of their close associates (over distance others), but such folks also tend to avoid close association with those who disagree politically. 

This is of course bad news for US academics and professionals whose political views differ from their associates.  It seems I live in an unusually dark time and place politically.   

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  • Constant

    Online I see arguments with which I sharply disagree on a regular basis. And I answer them. And get answered back. Seems like debate to me.

  • Constant

    I’m not talking about hit and run comments, I’m talking about, for example, Usenet discussions with multiple participants, discussions that could go on for weeks.

  • James Blair

    It seems I live in an unusually dark time and place politically.

    Compared to the future?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Constant, you aren’t average.

    James, we can hope.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Writing from personal experience, though I’m not American, I’m one of the people who avoid close association with people who disagree with me politically. I debate people who disagree with me online, but I’d never call a deeply convinced socialist a “friend”, just like I would never call a fascist a “friend”, or a terrorist a “friend”, or a criminal a “friend”.

    The reason I’m drawing seemingly overreaching parallels between these categories of people is that all of them – socialists, fascists, terrorists, criminals – are a threat to the world that I live in, and so obviously I’d prefer that there’d be as few of them as we can get. Socialists in particular are as bad as any of the others because they believe in economic coercion, which definitely and very personally applies to me.

    So yes, I debate with them, I try to challenge their views, but they _are_ a threat to my existence, they _would_ like to make my life worse and increase my taxes and take away my opportunities and punish me for my hard work, and I obviously cannot do anything else than deeply resent that, and cannot call them “friends” for that. If anything, I’d like to take away _their_ political power to foist _their_ misguided concepts of “social justice” and “fairness” on me.

  • Biomed Tim

    “This issue is of particular interest to me, since economists have a 3:1 ratio, making us “right wing” relative to the rest of academia.”

    Do economists become less liberal over the course of their education, or is it a matter of self selection?

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Part of the reason why lower-status individuals may talk more with people who disagree with them politically could be because they are not threatened. “Progressive” (in reality regressive) policies that hurt the economy in the long run usually help these people in the short run (or at least purport to).

    It’s easy to get along with people who disagree with you on policy when the only people directly affected are unrelated third parties.

  • Michael Sullivan

    Personally, there are different areas of disagreement, some of which I am happy to engage and some not.

    I’ll argue with most libertarians or socialists until the cows come home, because I see our differences (and the differences between the two) as disagreements about facts, or how the world works, or about the relative importance of certain values we all share. There is a strain of authoritarians on right and left, however, that I can’t really have a productive conversation with. Some of my most important values are, for them, anti-values, and vice versa. These people really are in an important sense, my political enemies, not merely the honorable opposition.

    The political conversation in this country has shifted to the point where explicit authoritarianism on both “sides” has become acceptable. Even though I’m a bleeding heart progressive, I have far more in common politically with you or Constant than I do with most of the leading Democrats.

    That’s what scares me. Perhaps one of these things is a symptom of the other.

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    I suspect that opinionated people are trying to protect their investment. It’s probably the usual sunk-cost fallacy: they’ve spent so much time being liberal or conservative that it feels like a huge risk to consider the other side’s arguments.

  • William Newman

    Robin: Yes, but. On the mostly-plus side, almost everything related to publishing information (most extremely the Internet, but many other kinds of publishing and libraries too) has fallen through the floor in price. The times may be dark indeed if _Arming America_ won glowing reviews from journals of record and high awards from scholarly organizations — I don’t know enough history to be sure, but I could easily believe that that would only have happened in times of war hysteria 100 or 200 years ago. But the process by which _Arming America_ was exploded is new too. Looking at the impact of other technologies which dropped cost by a few orders of magnitude (printing press, railroad…) I expect that the technology will win somehow and is likely winning as we speak.

    I expect it was possible for people in various niches to look around in 1670ish Western Europe and reasonably conclude it was a dark time for knowledge. It might even have been the natural conclusion for anyone lumping political-ammunition work with truth-seeking work, or distinguishing the two but worrying that the proportion of political-ammunition work seemed to be scarily high. Maybe the proportion of political-ammunition was unusually high, it wouldn’t surprise me; but I think in hindsight we can say the truth-seeking work was winning.

    As is probably clear from the foregoing, sometimes I think it’s hard to go too far in distinguishing political-ammo expressed “beliefs” from actual belief. (“There is no paranoia in the assumption of insincerity” or something.) In various ways they seem to behave completely differently. E.g., you’ve written extensively about the phenomenon of people erring on the side of illogical disagreement in their expressed beliefs, and obviously it’s big and real. But it seems to me that when it comes to actual beliefs that people actually act on, the tendency is pretty consistently the opposite: when basing their own life decisions on the evidence of other people’s costly actions as opposed to their cheap talk, people err on the side of being lemmings, not stubborn posturers. Better publishing tech might not do anything to stop the spread of stubborn posturing, and may even allow it to flourish in new ways. But I think better publishing is definitely good for the spread of truth in the information that people actually believe and act on. Furthermore, though hysteria can be very dramatic, I rather think that truth tends to overhaul hysteria, and that our new tech helps: if better publishing tech (or whatever) may’ve allowed the hysteria level to be 91% higher, that’s dismaying, but I can accept that if we also have an environment where truth can grow exponentially by 9.1% faster per year.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I hate all those pinko authoritarian socialists. If I want to kidnap small children and then rape and murder them, that’s my business, not the government’s! Keep your nanny-state laws out of *my* basement. (The logical conclusion of libertarian ideology.)

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Well, I agree that the lowering of the cost of the media is a good thing, and I do think that there are a lot of interesting discussions and debates across sometimes sharp ideological lines on various venues in cyberspace, including here sometimes. I, for one, enjoy going to locations dominated by people I disagree with and attempting to engage them in a serious way.

    Oh, and just to be slightly unserious, to denis bider: Is it really true that someone who wants to raise your taxes is at least as bad as someone who wants to torture you, kill you, or blow up your house and family?

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Oh, I meant to add the negative of the lowering of the cost of media, and its subsequent fragmentation. The obvious upshot of the proliferation of the media is that it is much easier for people to just spend all their time reading or listening to the media that agrees with them and feeds their biases, thus worsening this more general problem of polarization.

  • Laura

    If people who discuss opposing views are more likely to be informed as to what the arguments are for both their own and the opposition’s sides, then how can they simultaneously be the least politically informed? Unless the “arguments” for both their and their opponent’s point of view are fallacious or irrelevant, in which case we can hardly consider what they talk about as a political discussion.

    I think denis’s post reveals why many people don’t talk to people they politically disagree with. If someone believes his political position is not only right but righteous, then it is easy to conclude that people who don’t agree are morally bad people for not sharing those values that led to position X, and therefor not worth having as friends. In my experience, you cannot know someone’s values based on their political position, as you do not know by what means of reasoning they arrived at their position. I suppose one could argue that anyone of any *intelligence* with the same values would arrive at conclusion X, but even this is highly arrogant. I know very intelligent socialists and libertarians, each of which value human happiness, and each of which would probably conclude the other was “stupid” in some very specific way. But one instance of bias/irrationality is no reason to dismiss someone as a a generally intelligent, thoughtful person.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Byrne: “I suspect that opinionated people are trying to protect their investment. It’s probably the usual sunk-cost fallacy: they’ve spent so much time being liberal or conservative that it feels like a huge risk to consider the other side’s arguments.”

    Not so for me. Coming from a socialist country and starting out from a fairly neutral standpoint, I started out carefully exploring both sides. [And by “both sides”, I mean economic liberalism and economic socialism: as for social liberty, I take that for granted and don’t even think it worth discussing; that’s how obvious I think it is.]

    After a few years of careful deliberation and willingness to accept anyone’s arguments, I realized that the libertarian side does have arguments, and the socialist side doesn’t have any. Its attempts at persuasion are generally manipulative and based on naive humanitarianist biases – trying to evoke groundless compassion.

    So, no, I think your argument is false at least in my case.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Anonymous: “Yeah, I hate all those pinko authoritarian socialists. If I want to kidnap small children and then rape and murder them, that’s my business, not the government’s! Keep your nanny-state laws out of *my* basement. (The logical conclusion of libertarian ideology.)”

    As logical as a straw-man argument.

  • Constant

    Robin, I may be an oddball but your summary of the paper appears to completely ignore the online world, which is surely where it’s at these days. Also, from your summary it’s not clear whether the impact of these discussions among poor undereducated moderates was taken into account. People who engage the other side “sustain our political dialogue” in part by communicating their findings to other people on their own side. Which may mean that our actual “political dialogue” is sustained, not by poor undereducated moderates after all, but by others who may be outnumbered but who make up for that by communicating more with their own side in addition to the other side.

  • Anonymous

    Really? Straw man implies that it’s something you don’t actually believe. So you admit, then, that sometimes it’s okay for the government to infringe on someone’s “liberty” to stop them from doing really bad things? Because if you do, guess what, you’re a little bit socialist.

  • Constant

    Anonymous, libertarians (and, for that matter, most people) do not define socialism the way you do. If you define socialism as the belief that it’s okay to stop people from doing bad things, then you are simply not speaking the same language. We could easily take this further: let’s define socialism as being nice to other people. So now, if you called your mom on Mother’s day, guess what, you’re a little bit socialist.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Barkley Rosser: “Oh, and just to be slightly unserious, to denis bider: Is it really true that someone who wants to raise your taxes is at least as bad as someone who wants to torture you, kill you, or blow up your house and family?”

    You are overwhelmingly underestimating the damage that the socialists are doing. For me personally, the costs I’m paying due to socialists vastly exceed the costs I’m paying due to criminals or terrorists. This is even more true for society at large.

    I estimate very conservatively that, due to endemic socialism, developed countries are losing 5-10 percentage points of annual GDP growth. Looking forward, this translates to a massive economic retardation for ourselves in 10 years and even more so for our children in 20. Instead of our kids having a much bigger and much brighter world, they are going to end up in a situation sharing most of the blights with ours.

    Looking back, we ourselves are being deprived of an enormous amount of what could have been if this economic retardation had not been taking place ever since after World War I. The way it had all started was with communism in Russia, national socialism in Germany, fascism in Italy, and Hoover and Roosevelt in the United States. Socialism won a long time ago, guys. It’s now so endemic it is all but taken for granted everywhere. Countries just compete on who’s going to be yet _more_ socialist and retard growth even further.

    The terrorists would like to spread an even more deficient world view than socialists – as opposed to socialists, who are perpetuating the status quo and preventing progress, the terrorists would literally like to take the world back to the stone age. But I personally, and our developed societies at large, have experienced _much_ less damage from the terrorists than from the socialists. The most the terrorists have done is blow up two buildings and cause a few billion in damage.

    Socialists are causing trillions upon trillions of economic retardation every year. And they take that money by force out of your pocket to an extent vastly exceeding that of any terrorist or criminal or rapist.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Anonymous, there are some people who consider themselves anarcho-capitalists who think there should be absolutely no government or socialism (except in a voluntary form, like a kibbutz or commune), and none of them would agree on your example. Kidnapping is a violation of consent or the non-aggression principle. Dispute resolution organizations/private defense agencies would be expected to go after the kidnapper.

    denis bider, I think you should reconsider. Even if socialism is horrible, it’s not harmful to talk to them. I would say the same for fascists and terrorists (though if someone is likely to go and commit a crime you should probably alert the authorities). I discuss this in the beginning of this post and the very end of this one.

    I agree with others hear that it would be a big mistake to overlook online conversation. I do admit that even there I read mostly people who think like me, and I didn’t think much of it before it was pointed out.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Laura: “In my experience, you cannot know someone’s values based on their political position, as you do not know by what means of reasoning they arrived at their position.”

    In my experience – and I’ve probably done a fair share of inquiring and debating – people who are more simpathetic to libertarian views are more likely to have arrived at their positions by being open to evidence and fact; whereas people more simpathetic to socialist views are more likely to have arrived at their positions through ignorance or putting their emotion (compassion, etc) in front of reason. I have found this to be very consistent across people I have talked to.

    I’m not saying that socialists aren’t intelligent. Intelligence is hard property to measure anyway, and is difficult to measure through conversation. Intelligence is how fast people can learn; conversation shows just what they’ve learned, not how fast they were able to do it.

    However, I do find that people who support socialism tend to be either (a) ignorant and uninterested in macroscopic problems; or (b) much even worse, they _are_ informed and _are_ interested in macroscopic problems, but they allow their emotions to seriously cloud their judgement, and thus arrive at irrational (socialist) views.

    It is usually possible to have a rational debate with a socialist to about the same extent as it is possible to have a rational debate with a religious person. They are dreamers, and they wish to believe what they want to believe. They use rationalizations to convince themselves of being reasonable. But the true cause of what they believe has nothing to do with evidence and reason, and everything to do with a dream that they fancy – they believe because they want to believe. 🙁

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    TGGP: “Even if socialism is horrible, it’s not harmful to talk to them.”

    I do talk to them. I just prefer to do it in situations, e.g. online, where talking frankly about deeply held political convictions does not risk harming a relationship. If I have to deal with someone regularly, I’d rather not find out that their political convictions are “evil”. I’d also rather that they’re ignorant of my potential deep disagreements with them.

    If I know a person to be a convinced socialist, that doesn’t mean I will avoid them, but it is hard for me to respect them as a person well enough to want to have more of their company. It seems somewhat reasonable to expect the same from them.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Everyone, this was not a generic invitation to argue about politics. The topic here is who talks to who about politics and what that means.

  • Constant

    Robin – we’re just trying to provide data. 🙂

  • Constant

    BTW, people have been pointing out and talking about the “echo chamber” phenomenon for quite a while.

  • J Thomas

    Denis, your scope is too narrow. Anything that reduces the rate of increase of world GDP is the problem about “deprived of an enormous amount of what could have been”.

    WWI itself was a tremendous retardation. Consider the many many people who died, who would otherwise have had long lifetimes working. A giant waste. And then the Depression. A whole lot of blighted lives, sacrificed to the Business Cycle. Can we blame that on communists? I don’t think so. We had lots of bad depressions before that, and each of them resulted in lots of lost production.

    _But I personally, and our developed societies at large, have experienced _much_ less damage from the terrorists than from the socialists. The most the terrorists have done is blow up two buildings and cause a few billion in damage._

    But the terrorists drove us crazy, so that we’re wasting lots and lots of money on DHS, and on occupying iraq and afghanistan, and so on. Without the terrorists we probably wouldn’t have been crazy enough to go along with those things. When you consider how fast another 1% of GDP increase increases at compound interest … Don’t these wars plus DHS amount to 5% of GDP or more? That could all be put into increasing GDP if we had the will to do that. Or into wealth for citizens including you personally.

  • Constant

    Denis’s experience, and his approach to dealing with acquaintances and friends, and his openness to online discussion with the opposition, resembles mine, and he appears not to be an American. This suggests that the situation, the intellectual environment, that gives rise to this approach is not specifically American. This may, in turn, mean that we should not accept the differing “perceptions” at face value, in a between-country comparison.

  • Anonymous

    “You are overwhelmingly underestimating the damage that the socialists are doing… due to endemic socialism, developed countries are losing 5-10 percentage points of annual GDP growth.” Nice, if only it were true. All the real-world evidence goes against what you’re saying. In the 1950s, the income tax rate for the highest bracket in the US was over 90%! If there was any truth at all in the libertarian claims, taxing the rich like that would have at least caused another Great Depression. But it didn’t.

    What’s the richest country in the world? Surely it’s some place with a nice impotent government, like Iraq? Nope, it’s semi-socialist Norway; the fact that their government is around half of the economy obviously hasn’t hurt them too much. They have oil, but so do Russia and Mexico – both currently much more libertarian countries, and both a good deal poorer.

    The truth is that taxes have some effect but utterly minuscule compared to what libertarians say. There is a heck of a lot that government can do with taxes that will be worth it. Were it not for government “coercion” we probably still wouldn’t have things like roads or electricity or running water now. (All three are natural monopolies.) If you want to live without a government go head for Somalia, it must be a real paradise if libertarian propaganda is right.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    J. Thomas: “And then the Depression. A whole lot of blighted lives, sacrificed to the Business Cycle. Can we blame that on communists? I don’t think so.”

    Certainly so. The depression wouldn’t now have a capital D if Hoover hadn’t bungled it with what retrospectively are horribly misconceived measures. He introduced the Smoot-Hawley tarrifs, which “raised U.S. tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods to record levels, and, in the opinion of most economists, worsened the Great Depression. Many countries retaliated, and American exports and imports plunged by more than half.”

    Then followed Roosevelt, whose planned economy socialist programmes and war on business failed to heal the economy until after World War II.

    The depression was as bad in 1937 as it was in 1930. That wasn’t the work of the business cycle. That was entirely the work of politicians who were copying planned economy ideas taken directly from Italy, Germany and Russia where the same kinds of things were happening at the time.

    The fact that, even today, the depression _still_ gets blamed on the “business cycle” and that Roosevelt is hailed as a “hero” who cured it is downright preposterous. By and large, I think you have ignorant teachers and newsmakers, most of them infected with socialist biases, to thank for that.

    J. Thomas: “But the terrorists drove us crazy,”

    What? They reached into the average Americans’ minds and drove everyone crazy? 🙂

    No, I think the predisposition was pretty much already there. 🙂

    You don’t blame others for your own overreactions. The terrorists killed 3,000 people and demolished a few buildings. That’s what they did. Everything else, all of the other damage done, which vastly exceeds the damage done by the terrorists themselves – that was all of your own doing.

    But as Robin Hanson says, his post was not a generic invitation to talk about politics, and following up to what Constant said about data points, I think I’ve already provided enough of those for my part. I’ll be butting out of the political discussion from now.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Anonymous: “The truth is that taxes have some effect but utterly minuscule compared to what libertarians say. There is a heck of a lot that government can do with taxes that will be worth it. Were it not for government “coercion” we probably still wouldn’t have things like roads or electricity or running water now. (All three are natural monopolies.)”

    Ugh. This is so stupid. I have the urge to answer that, but the author _has_ expressed his desire that we should stop this discussion. So I won’t. But I have to say that this is terribly ignorant, and just leave it at that.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    I just unpublished three generic politics comments.

  • hrh

    Interesting statistics. It certainly is my experience that political opinions that many would describe as “bitter” are increasing in income, (marginally) decreasing in family size, and highest among whites. I’ve noticed that there is quite a geographic differential in political beliefs, both from where I’ve lived and from the 2000/2004 election results by county

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Presidential_04/2004_County_Results_Final.html

    you can see that people who disagree with each other politically are already fiarly well separate from each other.

    Even within urban areas that are quite diverse, the basic social institutions that people associate with are different. People who volunteer or belong to a church tend to do so with organizations that fit within their set of political beliefs. I would speculate that the place where people are most likely to encounter, on a long term basis, someone with whom they disagree politically would be the workplace, where the rules of polite society frown upon talking about politics.

    Somewhat relatedly, I think that this situation leads to vacuity in our political rhetoric. People with very narrow views or little knowledge about ideas that they disagree with can simply mention an opposing idea without negative comment, or simply suggest reading a book or engaging with an idea with which they disagree and pass for being very broad-minded, centrist, or moderate. But I think that outside such a polarized society, it would take much more than an occasional passing comment to convince people of such a quality or disposition.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Robin,

    In the U.S., professionals tend to support the Democrats and business owners tend to support the Republicans. Perhaps we need to make all the professionals deal with business regulations and send all the business owners to college. More seriously, your comment about mixing of views is consistent with the findings of Robert Putnam (“bowling alone”) about upper-income Americans having more “horizontal” associations that are geographically diverse but within their social class, and fewer “vertical” associations that are local but of all social classes. The challenge, as you suggest, is that being with people like us is comfortable, so to the extent people can afford to move out to the suburbs and hang out with similarly-inclined folks, maybe they’ll do so.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    I find it slightly ironic that this topic, which started out with the assertion that educated moneyed folk don’t debate politics with people who disagree with them, devolved into a generic and heated political discussion so fast that Robin decided to snip a few posts. Judging by the general lack of spelling errors in comments here, I’d say that we’re educated, and having internet access and the time to spend on sites like these, we probably don’t lack the money either. I’d say that’s one data point that goes directly against the assertion made in Robin’s article. 😉

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    hrh: “I’ve noticed that there is quite a geographic differential in political beliefs, both from where I’ve lived and from the 2000/2004 election results by county … you can see that people who disagree with each other politically are already fiarly well separate from each other.”

    I’ve heard it argued persuasively that such maps are misleading because they display a binary red-or-blue picture, with fairly poor resolution, of what is in fact a relatively shaded area.

    Just because a county is red or blue doesn’t mean it doesn’t have say 40% of minority voters.

  • Doug S.

    It’s not surprising that counties tend to be purple; the ideal gerrymandered districts would be ones that are either won by the smallest possible margin (and always by the same party) or by 100% of the vote.

  • douglas

    Robin, I lived in San Francisco for a number of years. I was registered as a Republican (the only one in my precint) and my friends knew that I voted Libertarian.
    I didn’t know a lot of people who agreed with me politically. (understatement)
    I’d be at some gathering and politics would come up and the people had no problem talking about politics because there was a general agreement. Someone would ask what I thought– trouble.
    My friend would say, “oh he’s OK, his business partner is gay,” or, “he lives with an African-American,” or, “he hires homeless people,” or some other unexpected but true statement.
    As soon as I was viewed as an individual with ideas (as opposed to an idea masquerading as an individual) then conversation could occur.
    My experience would indicate that people talk to other people about politics if there is agreement, and they tend to view those that don’t agree with them as a “foolish mass”- not as individuals. (red states and blue states being a manifestation of this)
    Nobody wants to talk to a foolish mass.

  • J Thomas

    “I’d say that’s one data point that goes directly against the assertion made in Robin’s article. ;)”

    But at least in this one little blog he can make it so. 😉

  • themusicgod1

    I gather that even as of 2007 that this polarization was happening, and a cause of a fair amount of problems but I question the good taste in vieweing moderate, lower-class, black america, which based on this post seems to be actually the glue holding America together, as “bad news”. This seems to be a hidden feature of your country, not a bug; a potential cause of hope, not dispair.