Book commentary: Why We're Polarised

Commentary on the book and its thesis, with a speculative model to explain what polarisation actually is

Our central problem, in political and economic circles, is often mentioned as increased polarisation. There's more written about this than can be reasonably linked to, but it seems part of accepted reality. Which is why when Ezra Klein wrote Why We’re Polarised it felt great. Finally a book length treatment that purports to answer the question.

I started writing this commentary out of a sense that the book read like a really good Vox article. In that it was adeptly argued, filled with data, a clear narrative, but still leaving me with the feeling that something was left a bit incomplete.

And while I ruminated on it, a fantastic review got written by Scott Alexander. So now I don't need to, and can instead just link to it.

But it too left a few of the fundamental questions I had from the book unasked and unsolved. For instance, consider both Scott's review and the actual book, and see if you can find a non-waffly answer to these questions:

  • What exactly is polarisation here? Far as I can tell there are 3 polarisations - 1) You could see it as the chart where opposing parties create a nice bimodal distribution with limited overlap in ideas, or 2) you could purely look at % of people with antagonistic views towards the other party, or 3) you could look at the level of pushback against the "mainstream" parties in the middle of said distribution.

  • How does "affective polarisation" amongst a populace change the political reality? For instance, if affective polarisation is going down in Germany, why are we seeing far right parties emerge stronger?

  • What are the things that actually make our "identities" link together and make us all polarised? Sure it makes sense that occasionally some issues can overpower others and make everyone a single-issue voter, and some of those issues can then correlate very highly with other issues. But why?

  • Leopold raises a great point that maybe the crazy political reactions we're seeing are because people were fed up with the lack of polarisation, the ruling parties becoming homogenous blobs, which is an ... interesting side effect.

    For a clear-eyed view on what a lack of polarisation looks like, the best example comes not from any of the political commentators but from the fertile imagination of Matt Groening.

  • If polarisation is such an annoying problem, we should be seeing more "third parties" pop up to solve them. But the third parties we're seeing are usually more polarising, like UKIP or FN. So why isn't there a more "moderate" third party that just comes and sweeps up all the votes?

Skipping back to the source, the core argument that Ezra's book portrays is as follows. Sometime in the Civil Rights Act era, the Southern Democrats joined the Republican Party, and the northern liberal Republicans joined the Democrats. This made the voters sort themselves both ideologically and geographically. Now, we look back half a century later, and the polarisation is still ongoing and increasing.

Ezra Klein's book explains the phenomenon of political polarisation very well, especially in the US, except where he says we're getting polarised because of our identification of political parties with our very identities.

But I'm not sure why that's any better as an explanation. That's kicking the can up the road. Why are we suddenly identifying with people from our parties so strongly as opposed to literally anything else? Football hooliganism is prevalent in the UK, because people identify with their football teams, It's practically a religion, but that doesn't seem to seep into everything else. And actual religion, traditionally a big part of one's identity and a rather large common point amongst people, doesn't seem to inspire the identity-wars as much as politics does.

Well, the argument could be that politics is the ultimate manifestation of our psychological profile could be true. But it needs to be said that the polarisation we see in politics, where there's a clear bifurcation of the value systems within parties, don't seem to be shared amongst many other social events, all of which a priori might seem like equally good candidates.

Also, while the argument in Ezra's book talks about why US got polarised due to special circumstances both historical and political, we also see polarised behaviour happening in the UK, France, Germany, India and many many other places.

These were all cases where something seemingly extreme happened because people were frustrated/ annoyed/ polarised by the existing systems and the lack of attention being paid to it, that they went far outside the extant political spectrum.

Applied Divinity Studies has a look at the worries about polarisation and emerges ... confused?

I end up feeling lukewarm about all of this. I’m not sure why polarization happened, how clear cut it is, or if it’s even bad. But I do know there’s a pressing need for progress, and many important human rights not yet enshrined in the constitution. Unless either party gains a 66% majority in both House and Senate simultaneously, our only hope is bipartisan agreement.

Whenever we see the only solution suggested to a problem being “we should come together to surmount that problem”, I remain skeptical.

So does Scott. There's a vague hand gesture at the idea that the polarisation happened because of a societal reaction to civil rights, but that's also a hand wave. Maybe it is, but then why is it happening in other places too?

Perhaps part of the answer is, as Mike put it in the comments of Scott's article in response to thinking of Brexit as a polarising event:

To be clear, I would classify Brexit as polarising (obviously!) but not along party-political lines, and not caused by a two party system or the Rise Of The Right or anything like that. The polarisation it revealed is often posited to in some ways actually transcend or have replaced the traditional left/right polarisation. I don't think that's quite true myself but it's a not uncommon take, at least in the British political press.

What this is suggesting is that the polarisation amongst people happen across some dimension, which could be triggered by an external cause. And then because the dimensions get interlinked, by unknown mechanisms, people end up becoming more polarised, led by that dimension.

The most frustrating part of this topic is that it feels like it's so close to comprehension. We use the term polarisation all the time, and mean clear things by it. But whenever you look deeper, just like one of Mandelbrot's blots, the topic becomes frustratingly imprecise.

Whether it's through media or something else, I see attempts at creating or exploiting polarisation as a type of Chekhov's Gun. If a strategy exists to successfully sway a large number of people, then it will get used. You might be able to forestall it for a while, or push back against it, but its almost impossible for there to be a vacuum that isn't filled.

An attempt at trying to actually answer the question

Let's start by trying to create a slightly abstracted model.

  • Say x1 = f(a, b, c, ...z), same for x2 all the way to xn as people, and a to z as 'positions' that the people hold in various topics of the day.

  • The function f() multiplies each position with a coefficient from -1 to +1 and creates an array.

  • Initially let them be randomly distributed.

Then political parties and politicians try to sway your vote by arguing for various mixes of (a, b, c, ..) so that they can both credibly differentiate from the others and maximise the votes they get.

If they succeed, we have clear choices in front of us. If they don't we have Jack Johnsons and John Jacksons. Most importantly, even if they succeed, they will still need to work with the other side and compromise to get anything done.

The outcome is better sorting of the populace in terms of their belief vectors, but in the presence of multiple parties, especially ones that change their policies over time, the sorting won't be perfect.

Second change is a one-to-many relationship that comes media attention. It helps everyone know what the general consensus is on positions (a, b, c, ..z). So some folks start updating their own positions towards either extreme, naturally sorting their positions and picking teams.

Here the outcome is not just even better sorting, but also the beginning of an inability to compromise easily, because the strategy of showcasing any compromise as belief abandonment can be deployed. While that won't be an instantaneously successful strategy, it's still credible enough that it will get used.

In other words, there's a credible opposition strategy which is focused on coalescing those whose belief systems are more attuned to yours. Newt Gingrich either discovered or invented it depending on whom you ask, and it has been pretty darn successful.

If you're one of these more sorted parties, with the power of new communication mediums, your strategies become:

  • Horse trade until you get a large enough fraction of what you want, then run on your success

  • Try to convince a large enough proportion of the population that your collection of ideas are the right ones

  • Or fight the other team tooth and nail, because you show your loyalty to your base by doing so

Fighting tooth and nail is a great strategy amongst the three. It shows resolve, which people love, and it shows that you’re part of their team. Both of the other strategies involve you compromising, which intrinsically waters down your collection of ideas. If you’re willing to compromise, clearly your ideas weren’t the best anyway.

The problem of course is that fighting tooth and nail is not an easy strategy to come back from. There's no easy off-ramp to later compromise on some things.

While before, complaining wouldn't get you much, now since messages spread so much faster to all corners of the world, the complaint can become the issue. It can go viral, it can reach your entire audience. There's a reason strongmen appeal exists. Loyalty is a powerful force.

Then comes new issue z, which originally wasn't an issue (coefficient=0), but now is. z now moves from being a 0 on everyone's scale to now be bimodally distributed (an example is Brexit).

If z, or any other position like (a, b, c, ..), becomes bimodally distributed, and it's public enough that enough people now know it's bimodally distributed, people will start sorting "for" and "against" it. And within each of those camps the positions start becoming similar. The 'a's update towards becoming similar to other 'a's and so on.

Group polarisation of course plays a part here.

Group polarization strengthens of the opinions of each person in the group. In social psychology, group polarization refers to the tendency for groups to make decisions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its members.

We can't resist taking cues on how to behave or what to believe from others, especially if they seem like us. The social comparison that now happens at mass scale creates a clear informational influence on the beliefs that the polity holds.

Maybe that's why as cultural and social change happened at breakneck speed (explored in part II here) the negative reactions to it coalesced around certain pre-existing coalitions.

That is the argument for the overall polarisation that we see. Admittedly it's an observational argument and not a deductive one.

But that's where things continue to get more confusing. If you read this far it would seem that some aspects of polarisation and belief sorting is inevitable and can only be jumbled up if we shake the etch a sketch from the outside. However, if you look at Germany's example, after reaching this point historically, everyone decided to argue for their small differences so the public doesn't even have strong choices to choose from. In the US there is more choice, though still less stark than what people would like. In the UK, a new party got created to give voice to a choice people wanted, but that nobody else was offering.

So the next step very well might be that new issue comes up and preexisting polarisations get dissolved, or they sort into existing camps. That part's harder to predict. Just like it's harder to predict if Republicans will go full Romney or full Margaret Greene.

But what this means is that we end up with a dichotomy.

  1. We want good polarisation, when we all align behind a topic. Social examples on gay marriage or immigration are natural examples here. We want people to become polarised and converge on these issues.

  2. We don't want bad polarisation, where the differences in opinions makes us hate each other, creates an inability to compromise on anything, and puts us in gridlock.

The difference between those two positions is not as wide as we imagine. Whether it's climate change deniers on one side or SJWs on the other, there's credible cases of skepticism run amok or topic alignment run awry (not saying they're equivalent).

When you're writing a book about Why We're Polarised, it makes sense to try and answer the question of what polarisation actually is. Otherwise you end up arguing in circles about why it's sometimes good and sometimes bad with the boundary between the two conditions being annoyingly flimsy.

At the moment it's a stand-in for intransigent positions in politics and culture. And while that's definitely a part of it, I feel like we're setting ourselves for even more confusion by not acknowledging how this is a double edged sword.

Intransigence caused by true belief is understandable. Intransigence caused by true, but abhorrent, belief is worth the effort to change, but also understandable. Intransigence caused because that's a good strategy in the short term is understandable, but needs to get squashed. It's the latter that's our issue, and it's worth calling it what it is, a strategy employed in a global game of Risk, with clear long term downsides but short term upsides, asymmetrically used by one party perhaps, but still understandable as a strategy.

The undercurrent that doesn't get explored enough is why there are so many people who are so angry in the world who are willing to tear down the existing system rather than play within its confines and try to win.

The price we pay for increasingly choosing where we get our views and opinions is that we get to sort ourselves into buckets. And familiar is soothing. We feel the force pulling us into its embrace. But it's at least worth trying to figure out if the mass updating of certain beliefs that's going on is at least partially responsible for the seeming polarisation, and address that core issue at the object level, rather than debate at the meta level without defining the subject.