Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to talk politics with people we disagree with. These conversations can swiftly become hostile beyond what would reasonably be expected for a mere difference of opinion. In a world undergoing tectonic cultural and technological shifts, one can only wonder how we can continue to make progress in the midst of this breakdown in civil discourse.
Enter political scientist Lilliana Mason to make sense of our growing cultural and political chasm, in her recent book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. At only 140 pages in length, Uncivil Agreement makes a well-informed and densely researched case that our divide is only loosely based on genuine policy disagreements and is rooted more in our divergent cultural identities, which have demographically coalesced over the past fifty years. In other words, the vicious cycle of polarization that has intensified in the wake of the Trump presidency— a process accelerated by partisan prejudice and divisive social sorting (gravitating towards people who look and think like ourselves)—has less to do with what we actually think about the world and more to do with how we feel about ourselves . It’s almost as though we Americans were living in two separate realities. As these realities move further apart, our priorities are shifting from moving the country forward to moving our political tribe forward at the expense of the country. Without a sense of national cohesion, shared identity and common purpose, the fabric of our society may come apart at the seams .
The book opens with and is premised on a social experiment conducted in the summer of 1954, in which twenty-two fifth grade boys were unknowingly split into two separate teams—the Eagles and the Rattlers—and sent to adjacent campsites at Robbers Cave State Park. Over the following weeks, the respective teams became acquainted with their teammates, and, upon learning about the existence of the other team, began reflexively concocting demeaning stereotypes about them — seeing them as outsiders and intruders. When the Eagles and the Rattlers first interacted with each other, in a game of baseball, insults were hurled. The relations between the teams became progressively more tumultuous until the experiment was finally put to a halt after the boys started acting violently towards each other. The results of the experiment were telling: “By the end of the second week, 22 highly similar boys who had met only two weeks before had formed two nearly warring tribes, with only the gentle nudge of isolation and competition to encourage them.”
This study is used throughout the book as a touchstone for our political moment, illustrative of the in-group bias that naturally develops, independent of reality. The warmth we share with our peers can steadily transmute into a chilliness towards outsiders. Just like the Rattlers and the Eagles, the electorate has been shuffled into two competing political tribes, each of which is more invested in winning out over the other than in devising effective policy. Democrats and Republicans are engaging with each other less often and we frequent separate social circles and media channels, which makes us susceptible to pigeonholing our presumed enemies and stoking the flames of discord. This phenomenon is evidenced by the growing taboo against marriage between opposing members of political parties and the fact that Democrats and Republicans are becoming less inclined to live near each other. Many people from both sides of the spectrum report finding it stressful to talk politics with someone from the other side. Even more telling, a nationally representative study found that 20% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats say the country would be better off if large swathes of the other party just flat out died. The chances of constructing a bipartisan coalition to tackle universal problems are not looking good.
To make matters worse, both Left and Right are becoming more demographically homogeneous. Our political, religious, racial and sexual identities are aligning to create two opposing mega-identities, which strengthens our tribal impulses still further. The Republican mega-identity is religious, rural, middle-class and white; the Democratic mega-identity is secular, urban, working-class, non-white and gay — all of which reinforces our differences and nullifies our similarities. It is easy to be glossy eyed about the golden age of liberalism, when it was normal to be a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat, but, in the absence of interactions that cut across political lines, and in the presence of accelerated social sorting, attempting to exercise political prudence has come to be regarded as a kind of treason. Optimism about the prospect of finding common ground is seen as vulgar naïveté.
Someone skeptical of Mason’s thesis might object to the notion that polarization is necessarily a bad thing. Periods of intense polarization — such as that which preceded the civil rights victories—can lead to beneficial societal changes. This would be a valid criticism, if the culture war were based on specific policy conflicts. But the political divide is only tangentially related to policy: it is more connected to the social polarization grounded in our divergent senses of identity.
In fact, political identities are unreliable predictors of policy preferences: we don’t need to have strong views on policy to strongly identify with one side of the political aisle. This is borne out by numerous surveys on contentious issues, such as climate change and immigration. According to a prominent Yale study, a full 70% of Americans believe climate change is a problem that should be met with some form of political action, and 85% support funding research into renewable energy. The consensus in support of legal immigration, among both Democrats and Republicans, has reached its highest level to date: 75%, according to Gallup. Given the partisan squabbles in the media over these policies, we might assume that such a consensus could not possibly exist. But it does.
This puts us in a precarious predicament. As this vicious cycle of polarization intensifies in the West, and, as partisan lines are increasingly drawn along identitarian lines, there is more impetus to deprecate our political opponents than to uncover tenable solutions to our most critical problems. It’s not obvious what the best way to approach immigration policy is, or what our response should be to climate change, or how to construct social safety nets that don’t incentivize destructive behavior. We need each other more than we know. The psychological temperaments that incline us more toward one political party than the other allow each side vital insights to which the other side is often blind. We should not want to live in a society in which one side reigns supreme, no matter how strongly we identify with one political party and despise the other. The center must hold.
No one is talking about bringing about a centrist utopia, in which everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya. Fierce political debates are healthy for a society, but only if they involve the issues on the ground rather than just our egos. What we need, according to Mason, is a revitalization of cross-cutting ties —ways to relate to people outside the realm of politics. We need to break free from our political tribes and expand our identities to encompass a wider variety of personalities. The political subgroup with the least partisan prejudice is that of people with numerous cross-cutting ties, who are exposed to a broad range of cultural identities. This attitude can be cultivated without necessarily changing our views on policy or rearranging our personal convictions. Such a shift does not require a profound leap of faith. A little more curiosity and intellectual humility could slow the march toward political tribalism. At this moment in history, we cannot afford to become just an amplified version of the Rattlers and the Eagles.