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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