Study Resistance To Widened Political Polarization

Tyler Cowen today:

Consider how an economy might work if buying decisions were made on a consistently ideological basis. Imagine a “right-wing” supermarket chain and a “left-wing” alternative. … The history of Northern Ireland shows a great many retailers, from funeral parlors to bars, that served either a largely Protestant or a largely Catholic clientele. Maybe people felt better about these exclusive commercial affiliations, but it didn’t do the economy any favors to stifle competition, and it may have helped drive political polarization too.

Two days ago an economics professor mentioned to me that he was taking a class on how to mix drinks in part because that is a relatively unpoliticized sphere of life. While there are different drink philosophies, so far none have obtained strong political connotations. It seemed to him, and to me, that in many areas of life substantial fractions of people actively resist allowing different standard views there to collect political connotations.

Of course in a rising tide of polarization, more and more spheres of life may drown in political floods. Once major divisions within an area are seen as political, outside political allies may be drawn into a bitter fight, which one political side may win, enabling it to take over that area of life. But it is worth noticing that some social processes actively resist such widened polarization. (Or more precisely “pillarisation“.)

We would do well to study such processes. To identify which areas of life are now fighting how hard to resist being caught up in political polarization. Then to theorize on what causes this extra willingness to resist. Such theories may help resisting areas to better coordinate to resist polarization. Yes, many political groups are now organizing to infect more areas with political polarization. But there seems room for more coordination against such widened polarization. If only we understood at least the basics of what is going on here.

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  • Xiaur

    It seems like video games communities like clans or guilds resist it well. They look for people who are active, social and helpful, but I have never seen any guild or clan discriminating based on real-world political views. On the contrary, those clans often seem to have social political debates between clan members using their communication tools for in-game coordination like discord. And despite political differences and sometimes heated disputes they go play together in game and do not mind the political differences.

    One potential reason that comes to my mind is that the players have a common overarching goal or purpose which is to overcome the most difficult game’s challenges and any political differences are less important to players than efficient coordination on achieving those goals. However, if this is the main reason for resistance then it offers little to transfer to other domains since the “infection” is perpetrated by people for whom the main driver is the political view or affiliation.

  • William Parker

    Do you think the arts might be such an anti-polarizing force? I know Dr. Hanson has some things to say about this in Elephant in the Brain. But consider the effect that Woodstock and artists like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix had toward bringing together different people.

    In my own experience, I am in a major choir with a group of friends, some who have radically different political opinions, and we can talk much more openly in such a group with the shared experience of producing great music together and being inspired. It seems like one of the few thing that does this transcending politics, religion, and even language.

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  • blink

    I would like to think that the arts might be anti-polarizing, but I fear this is counter-historical and unlikely to have changed. Music in particular has such strong associational overtones that one’s iPod playlist may betray one’s gender, ethnicity, age, and politics. My only prediction would be that the areas at most risk are luxury markets and those with highly differentiated products. Clothing manufacturers and car companies, for example, would be more susceptible to polarization than, say, supermarkets, brands of cleaner, or power utilities.

    Most important to understand, though, is what is driving the increased polarization. Presumably traditional signals of group affiliation no longer suffice — have some become lost costly, more malleable, or easier to fake? Alternatively, has something driven up the benefits of affiliation?

  • William Parker

    I think that’s definitely true for shallow popular music of the time. But I’m not so sure about the music that persists through historical eras. For instance, there were black stars at the Metropolitan Opera, completely welcomed, before it was a political diversity thing, just because the voices were so incredible. (Leontyne Price, Jesseye Norman, Kathleen Battle, etc.)

    (Noted, there is perhaps no better example of Dr. Hanson’s signaling thesis than the dedication to be a world class opera singer.)

    Currently I see Jazz too as a genre that doesn’t particularly care about background or points of view for anyone who wants to invest heavily in the style and nuances. My hunch is that Hip Hop will take on more of this character over time as well.

  • Luke Lusardi

    Humor, music, and the arts in general. A shared history of overcoming obstacles with diverse groups (the world wars, ending slavery, scientific/medical advances). There is plenty of subject matter but not enough public voices willing to say these things. Public personalities seem geared to appeal to the widest possible audience but a “hold together” message is going to cause some defensiveness and might even alienate your existing base. I think we need a wider social norm change where negative behavior in the technology age is punished. Maybe not so much with banning but simply reliable feedback from other users that this is not to be tolerated.

    Also, vote. When politicians are publicly punished for incompetence by losing office people notice and public norms shift.