Notes on Political Polarization


bell curve polarized
Figure 1: Polarized vs. Natural Ideology Distribution

I spent a good amount of time this summer attempting to answer the following question: What causes societies with normal/expected ideology distributions — represented by the green curve shown in Figure 1 — to become polarized enough to fit the blue curve over time? While I don’t yet have a model that’s prepared to test this question, what I have developed to this point is something of a working theory to go about untangling this issue. In this post, I will summarize the general theory, in addition to providing an example of its application in analyzing polarization in the United States.

Tribal Software Theory

The theory is basically this: During the process of opinion formation, one of two potential “software” programs are in use by the opinion former: critical thinking, which is reason-driven, or tribalistic thinking, which is driven primarily by emotion. This notion of the existence of two differing thought processes derives from a similar theory proposed by Daniel Kahneman in his magnum opus, Thinking Fast and Slow. Needless to say, it seems to me that both systems are innate to human beings, and which of them is running at a given moment depends primarily on environmental factors.

Additionally, Tribal Software Theory borrows from (and attempts to make measurable) a phenomenon described in Jungian Psychology, first proposed by Dr. Thomas Singer, called The Archetypical Defenses of the Group Spirit, which posits the following:

“The tribal spirit of the clan or of the nation often lies dormant or in the background, but when it is threatened, the defenses mobilized to protect it are ferocious and impersonal. The mobilization of such potent, archaic defenses is fueled by raw collective emotion and rather simplistic, formulaic ideas and/or beliefs. One can think of the more virulent cultural complexes as being fed by a vast underground pool of the collective emotional life. Archetypal defenses of the group spirit are animated by the release of these heightened emotions of groups in distress…. Once a certain level of emotional intensity is achieved in the psyche of the group, archetypal defenses of the group spirit come to the forefront and begin to determine and even dictate how the group will think, feel, react, and behave.” (Singer, 2016. pp. 22)

Tribal Software Theory attempts to explain the psychological mechanism behind this phenomenon, and posits that this tribalistic “software” becomes activated when the nature of resource availability in a shared environment is perceived as being zero-sum. I.e., resources are limited, therefore the attainment of resources by others poses a threat to myself and those I care about.

Conversely, the critical-thinking software manifests itself only when our environments are not viewed in these terms, and therefore can be quickly overridden by the tribalistic software should those circumstances change.

Finally, once an individual starts thinking with the tribalistic software, the direction of their opinion formation as it relates to the ideological/political spectrum will be determined by a combination of their in-group allegiances, out-group prejudices, and Big 5 Personality trait profile.

Using this framework, my hypothesis is thus: In a society with a healthy social fabric, high levels of social solidarity, and perhaps most important, relative financial prosperity, the nature of resource procurement is not viewed in zero-sum terms by the majority of its members. As a result, the “critical thinking” software has a chance to manifest itself in the minds of the society’s members, while the tribal software deactivates, becoming dormant in large segments of society. It is in these environments that the objective assessment of reality as observed becomes the basis of opinion formation.

Conversely, when a society’s resources begin to be viewed in terms of a zero-sum game, the tribalistic software activates, and our evolutionary inclination towards an in-group/out-group framework takes over. The result of this is that the emotional attachment of individual members to desired outcomes which would promote wellbeing for themselves and for their in-group members — or simply punish out-group members — becomes, in addition to the Big 5 traits, the basis of opinion formation.

Ideology polarization
Figure 2: Evolution of political ideology distribution in America

Pictured above is the American electorate’s ideological bell-curve transformation between 1994 and 2017. Compare the distributions in the picture above to the curves displayed at the top of this post in Figure 1. In both 1994 and 2004, the ideological spread closely tracked the normal or “expected” distribution as conveyed in Figure 1. As of 2017, that distribution has assumed the shape of a worryingly polarized society.

In applying this theory to an analysis of polarization in America, then, it would predict the following: Some significant event or combination of events capable of activating our tribalistic softwares probably occurred between the years 2004 and 2017. Additionally, and in keeping with the theory, such event or events would likely have done this by shifting the perceptions of a large segment of society in the direction of viewing the nature of resource attainment as a zero-sum game, where perviously they hadn’t.

We are left with the question of whether an event profound enough to achieve this occurred within that timeframe, and I would argue that, indeed, one did: The subprime mortgage crisis and resulting financial collapse and recession of 2007-2009. And while determining if there is, in fact, any causation to this apparent relationship demands the type of study for which I lack the interest and ability to conduct, I would note two damning facts : 1) that political polarization exploded in the decade immediately following the subprime mortgage crisis, and 2) that polarization had been virtually unchanged throughout the decade immediately prior to it.

I would conclude by encouraging any political/social scientist with the resources and know-how to develop a testable version of this theory, and/or expand upon and improve it to their liking. Below is a condensed version of the theory as it currently exists.

In general, ideological polarization in human societies follows this pattern:

  1. Society with economic situation of perceived abundance is unpolarized.
  2. Event occurs which changes the perception of the society from being one of abundance to being one of limited resources, i.e. zero-sum.
  3. Perception of resource attainment within society as being zero-sum results in the activation of previously dormant tribal allegiances (race/gender/sex/ethnicity etc).
  4. Emotional attachments to desired outcomes for oneself and one’s fellow in-group members becomes prioritized over critical thinking during information processing; emotions become the basis of opinion formation.
  5. The ideological center of the society collapses as the tribal software activates within many of its members. Former moderates gravitate to one or another ideological pole based on a combination of their tribal allegiances and Big 5 trait profile.
  6. Those left within 1 standard deviation of the ideological center are generally members of the society that 1) don’t have strong tribal allegiances, 2) don’t view the society’s resources as being zero-sum, or 3) otherwise manage to reject the tribal mindset in favor of critical thinking as the basis of opinion formation

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