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Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

Polarization—is it us or is it them?

An illustration of James Campbell and Jacob Neiheisel's faces in the foam of two cups of coffee

James Campbell, left, and Jacob Neiheisel. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

Over the past few election cycles, we’ve seen conservative politicians moving further to the right and progressives moving further to the left, making simple governance seemingly impossible. We asked Jacob Neiheisel, assistant professor of American politics, and James Campbell, UB Distinguished Professor of American Politics (and author of the forthcoming “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America”), why this polarization is taking place and whether there’s anything that can be done about it.

“A big problem now is that people are only talking with people who share their views, so everybody thinks their views are more popular than they really are.”
James Campbell
UB Distinguished Professor of American Politics

James Campbell: I think the principal reason is that the public is polarized. There are a lot of misconceptions about polarization. A lot of political science research had suggested that it was a top-down phenomenon—that the leaders are leading it, and the public is just being dragged along. I think the reverse is actually the case.

Jacob Neiheisel: I agree. In the abstract, everyone wants to get along. If you do a survey asking whether people would like to see the parties get along better, of course they would. But then you ask them what they want their representatives to do, and you see them punishing representatives who aren’t as extreme as they want them to be.

JC: For the immediate future, at least, I think we’re going to be a divided nation. Consensus is based in public opinion—in people’s ideas about what they want the course of government to be. That battle has to be fought out, and it won’t happen overnight. But we can make the debate more civil. A big problem now is that people are only talking with people who share their views, so everybody thinks their views are more popular than they really are.

JN: Technology’s feeding that too. Our news is calculated to appeal to whatever an algorithm believes our preferences to be, so it’s pretty easy to get in these bubbles and be surrounded by our own opinion. Then we don’t know what to do when we find dissent. Some of the research in social psychology has suggested that illiberalism—the inability to extend rights to others, be they minority groups or the other side of the political aisle—is on the rise. It’s not necessarily polarization that’s rising, but the inability to get along, to see others as having rights as well.

JC: We have to develop new rules of engagement for political discussion. That’s a tough thing to do, and it doesn’t happen unless universities, the media and everyone else who helps shape how people deal with each other are on board. But one thing that is sometimes missed in this is that, because we are so polarized, elections are actually decided less on ideological matters than they are on performance. The liberals offset the conservatives, and the middle is looking at issues like: Is the party in control keeping the country safe? Is the economy robust? Ironically, those basic performance issues are elevated because of polarization.

JN: Right. The inability to communicate creates immovable ends. Change comes from the middle, where there are persuadable voters who can be convinced to move in one direction or another.

JC: In recent history, the problem is that those performance issues for a short time gave a lot of power to the Democrats. They used it, in part, to enact some very liberal legislation that upset the conservatives. I think that’s built up a huge amount of frustration on the right.

JN: It’s Newtonian in some ways. The shift to the left helped create the religious right. Even though the latter are the ones who seem really fired up now, their perception is that they’ve been on the losing end for three decades. I think in the future we might see more unilateral action from the executive, no matter who’s occupying it, to get around what is perceived as gridlock in Congress.

JC: It’s a natural response. You can’t make any headway with Congress, so you push your own presidential powers. But it’s not a good, democratic way to run a government. It reflects the one real downside of polarization, which is that compromise has become a dirty word.

JN: In one of my favorite experiments that I’ve seen in recent years, researchers gave voters a description of a legislator’s voting record one year when he was fairly in line with the party and one year when there was some skipping across the aisle. The evaluations of that same legislator were much lower among the base when he was seen as having a bipartisan record.

JC: That’s the real problem: How to convince the public to be more accepting of compromise. I think it begins with leaders talking to the public as though they were reasonable adults, and somehow getting the public to be patient and listen.

JN: For the longest time, legislators have not felt the need to explain themselves to the electorate. They thought it was wasted effort because so few people paid attention to politics. Well, now people are paying attention, and they need to know the rules of the game. They can’t have an in-depth and passionate understanding of one particular issue and expect that to translate into results.

How do you take your coffee?

James: With a hazelnut coffee creamer and Splenda.

Jacob: I don’t take coffee anymore, but when I was a coffee drinker it was black.