This Is What Made Covid the ‘Almost Ideal Polarizing Crisis’

Why did the national emergency brought about by the Covid pandemic not only fail to unite the country, but instead provoke the exact opposite development, further polarization?

I posed this question to Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton. McCarty emailed me back:

McCarty went on:

Polarization has become a force that feeds on itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates, finding sustenance on both the left and right. A series of recent analyses reveal the destructive power of polarization across the American political system.

The United States continues to stand out among nations experiencing the detrimental effects of polarization, according to “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?” a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report written by Jennifer McCoy of Georgia State and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment:

McCoy and Press studied 52 countries “where democracies reached pernicious levels of polarization.” Of those, “twenty-six — fully half of the cases — experienced a downgrading of their democratic rating.” Quite strikingly, the two continue, “the United States is the only advanced Western democracy to have faced such intense polarization for such an extended period. The United States is in uncharted and very dangerous territory.”

McCoy and Press analyzed the international pattern of polarization and again the United States stands out, with by far the highest current level of polarization compared with other countries and regions, as the accompanying graphic shows.

In their report, McCoy and Press make the case that there are “a number of features that make the United States both especially susceptible to polarization and especially impervious to efforts to reduce it.”

The authors point to a number of causes, including “the durability of identity politics in a racially and ethnically diverse democracy.” As the authors note,

An additional cause, the authors write, is that

Along the same lines, McCoy and Press write that the United States has “a unique combination of a majoritarian electoral system with strong minoritarian institutions.”

“The Senate is highly disproportionate in its representation,” they add, “with two senators per state regardless of population, from Wyoming’s 580,000 to California’s 39,500,000 persons,” which, in turn, “translates to disproportionality in the Electoral College — whose indirect election of the president is again exceptional among presidential democracies.”

And finally, there is the three-decade-old trend of partisan sorting, in which

Two related studies — “Inequality, Identity and Partisanship: How redistribution can stem the tide of mass polarization,” by Alexander J. Stewart, Joshua B. Plotkin and McCarty, and “Polarization under rising inequality and economic decline” by Stewart, McCarty and Joanna Bryson — argue that aggressive redistribution policies designed to lessen inequality must be initiated before polarization becomes further entrenched. The fear is that polarization now runs so deep in the United States that we can’t do the things that would help us be less polarized.

“The success of redistribution at stemming the tide of polarization in our model is striking,” Stewart, Plotkin and McCarty write, “and it suggests a possible path for preventing such attitudes from taking hold in future.”

In a reflection of the staying power of polarization, the authors observe that “once polarization sets in, it typically remains stable under individual-level evolutionary dynamics, even when the economic environment improves or inequality is reversed.”

In response to my emailed inquiries, Stewart explained that

In other words, a deeply polarized electorate is highly unlikely to support redistribution that would benefit their adversaries as well as themselves.

In addition, Stewart wrote, polarization can arise independently from conditions of increasing inequality:

In “Polarization under rising inequality and economic decline,” Stewart, McCarty and Bryson argue that economic scarcity acts as a strong disincentive to cooperative relations between disparate racial and ethnic groups, in large part because such cooperation may produce more benefits but at higher risk:

In times of prosperity, people are more willing to risk failure, they write, but that willingness disappears when populations are

At the same time, the spread of polarization goes far beyond politics, permeating the culture and economic structure of the broader society.

Alexander Ruch, Ari Decter-Frain and Raghav Batra studied the political and ideological profiles of purchasers of consumer goods in their paper, “Millions of Co-purchases and Reviews Reveal the Spread of Polarization and Lifestyle Politics across Online Markets.” Using “data from Amazon, 82.5 million reviews of 9.5 million products and category metadata from 1996-2014,” the authors determined which “product categories are most politically relevant, aligned, and polarized.”

They write:

Analyzing these “pervasive lifestyle politics,” Ruch, Decter-Frain, and Batra find that “cultural products are four times more polarized than any other segment.”

They also found lesser but still significant polarization in consumer interests in other categories:

Further evidence of the entrenchment of political divisiveness in the United States emerges in the study of such related subjects as “social dominance orientation,” authoritarianism, and ideological and cognitive rigidity.

In a series of papers, Mark Brandt, Jarrett Crawford and other political psychologists dispute the argument that only “conservatism is associated with prejudice” and that “the types of dispositional characteristics associated with conservatism (e.g. low cognitive ability, low openness) explain this relationship.”

Instead, Crawford and Brandt argue in “Ideological (A)symmetries in prejudice and intergroup bias,” “when researchers use a more heterogeneous array of targets, people across the political spectrum express prejudice against groups with dissimilar values and beliefs.”

Earlier research has correctly found greater levels of prejudice among conservatives, they write, but these studies have focused on prejudice toward “liberal-associated” groups: minorities, the poor, gay people and other marginalized constituencies. Crawford and Brandt contend that when the targets of prejudice are expanded to include “conservative-associated groups such as Christian fundamentalists, military personnel and ‘rich people,’ ” similar levels of prejudice emerge.

“Low Openness to experience is associated with prejudice against groups seen as socially unconventional (e.g. atheists, gay men and lesbians), whereas high Openness is either associated with prejudice against groups seen as socially conventional (e.g. military personnel, Evangelical Christians),” they write. “Whereas high disgust sensitivity is associated with prejudice against groups that threaten traditional sexual morality, low disgust sensitivity is associated with prejudice against groups that uphold traditional sexual morality.”

Finally, “people high in cognitive ability are prejudiced against more conservative and conventional groups” while “people low in cognitive ability are prejudiced against more liberal and unconventional groups.”

In “The role of cognitive rigidity in political ideologies,” Leor Zmigrod writes that the “rigidity-of-the-right hypotheses” should be expanded in recognition of the fact that “cognitive rigidity is linked to ideological extremism, partisanship, and dogmatism across political and nonpolitical ideologies.”

Broadly speaking, Zmigrod wrote in an email, “extreme right-wing partisans are characterized by specific psychological traits including cognitive rigidity and impulsivity. This is also true of extreme left-wing partisans.”

In a separate paper, “Individual-Level Cognitive and Personality Predictors of Ideological Worldviews: The Psychological Profiles of Political, Nationalistic, Dogmatic, Religious and Extreme Believers,” Zmigrod wrote:

While the processes Zmigrod describes characterize the extremes, the electorate as a whole is moving farther and farther apart into two mutually loathing camps.

In “The Ideological Nationalization of Partisan Subconstituencies in the American States,” Devin Caughey, James Dunham and Christopher Warshaw challenge “the reigning consensus that polarization in Congress has proceeded much more rapidly and extensively than polarization in the mass public.”

Instead, Caughey and his co-authors show

Caughey, Dunham and Warshaw describe the growing partisan salience of racial and social issues since the 1950s:

In the late 1950s, they continue,

The three authors argue that there are a number of consequences of “the ideological nationalization of the United States party system.” For one, “it has limited the two parties’ abilities to tailor their positions to local conditions. Moreover, it has led to greater geographic concentration of the parties’ respective support coalitions.”

The result, they note,

As a result of these trends, Warshaw wrote me in an email,

In the long term, Warshaw continued,

Looking over the contemporary political landscape, there appear to be no major or effective movements to counter polarization. As the McCoy-Press report shows, only 16 of the 52 countries that reached levels of pernicious polarization succeeded in achieving depolarization and in “a significant number of instances later repolarized to pernicious levels. The progress toward depolarization in seven of 16 episodes was later undone.”

That does not suggest a favorable prognosis for the United States.

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