Bridging Our Political Divide: Uncivil Agreement by Lilliana Mason. Book Review.

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.

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13 comments

  1. “The consensus in support of LEGAL immigration, among both Democrats and Republicans, has reached its highest level to date… Given the partisan squabbles in the media over these policies, we might assume that such a consensus could not possibly exist. But it does.”

    As if the squabbles were primarily about legal immigration. Au contrare, it’s as obvious as can be, that Trump’s emphasis is vs. ILlegal immigration, and it is that position for which he is most HATED by the Dems.

    This clear straw-man approach by Kronen makes his whole pitch suspect.
    Likewise with his BS on “the Democratic mega-identity is secular, urban, WORKING-class, NON-white….”
    The Dem identity is clearly no longer WORKING-class. Au contrare, it is SALARIED (upper-middle) class, and emphatically NON-white.
    Without the white WORKING-class, Trump comes nowhere near to beating HRC.

    Same with Montoya’s spewing above, implying that the abortion issue is dominant on the Right.
    It’s so sad, to see today’s Left seem totally addicted to the straw-man.

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    1. You misunderstand: he means their identity is working-class, not necessarily that they are. Upper-class intellectuals identifying with the working class is as old the Left itself…

  2. It’s not a “both sides did it” thing. The Western Left regards the Right as The Other. It’s not that we have anything in common and at the end of the day we’re all Americans and good people who want good things. It’s if you’re on the Right then you’re a monster. The Left’s ingroup is the entire world less the Western Right. It’s why you see bizarre things like feminists allying with misogynist Muslims. The fact that there is no reciprocation does not matter.

    This essay does an outstanding job explaining what happened and why it’ll never get any better until the Left admits that disagreeing with them doesn’t make you a terrible person: I can tolerate anything but the outgroup.

    http://archive.is/QRJ6m

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    1. Of course it is. The American Right also regards the Left as the Antichrist, and will vote for absolutely anyone who promises them one more conservative justice on the Supreme Court. The end is saving “unborn babies”, and the end justifies the means.

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      1. Of course there are fundamentalist extremists on both sides, but on average I’d say that Heike is correct. My experience is that leftists are almost always intolerant but that rightists now virtually define themselves by the fact that they believe in FofS and in tolerance of other views. It is to the point where someone like Jordan Peterson is considered a de facto rightist simply on the evidence that he supports FofS.

        1. The Right is less doctrinaire and less bent on virtue signalling, but no less intolerant I would argue. Slogans like the “Flight 93 election” (equating Democrats with terrorists), and “love it or leave it” before that, aren’t exactly the epitome of tolerance. See also the stats given in the article: 20% of Republicans (and 15% of Democrats) want the other side to *die*. In general, I am skeptical of the idea that freedom of speech for speech you dislike could ever be embraced by more than a tiny minority. While I don’t doubt Peterson is sincere in his free speech absolutism, my experience is that his followers are overwhelmingly okay with suppressing left-wing speech. Round and round it goes…

      2. You just Otherized the Right in the exact way the essay says.

        They’re all monsters to you, not fellow Americans who want the best things for our country but disagree on the means.

  3. Great article, but I disagree that the “mega identity” of the Right is middle class and the Left is working class. I thought that many Trump voters are working class, while Dems are rather middle and upper class?

    1. The Dems felt the working class betrayed them. They felt entitled to their votes and did not bother to campaign for them. When these voters voted for Trump, the Democrats felt a great upwelling of disgust and contempt. The gulf between the working class and the Left is now huge and there is no reason why this will change anytime soon.

      1. @Heike: For me it started with Tony Blair in 1997. When he was elected Prime Minister many young people were so happy that Labour got in. We expected things to get better. It didn’t. It steadily got worse and then in the 2000s I experienced a vast expansion of PC and double-think in my sector. It was then that I realized that political correctness was a useful tool for the elites to enforce their will on the working classes. Anyone arguing against an unpopular policy could be labelled a racist, bigot or homophobe and be safely ignored.

        What we have now is a weird crossover between capitalism and communism. The oligarchs are taking over the strings of all sectors of society, monetizing them and putting enforcers (managers) in place to ensure that all profits rise up into their hands. Political correctness enforces ‘proper’ behavior. It’s a perfect tool because it creates a docile and anxious workforce, as well as an informer culture, like we see in the mobs on Twitter.

        The ironic thing about all this is that SJWs on the ‘Left’ thinks they’re anti-fascist without being aware that they’re using fascistic methods to silence and ruin their enemies.

        @Inigo Montoya: I speak from experience when I say I would rather consort with the most fervent Christian Evangelist than the most ardent Social Justice Warrior. Simply put, they are more fun to be around.

        “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” – CS Lewis

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