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Reviews | Meet the people working to make us hate ourselves less

In an email, Willer explained what was going on:

One of the main findings of this new study is that we found some overlap between interventions that reduced affective polarization and interventions that reduced a specific antidemocratic attitude: support for undemocratic candidates. Specifically, we found that several of the most effective interventions for reducing American supporters’ aversion to rival supporters also made them more likely to say they would not vote for a candidate in their party who engaged in one of many anti-democratic actions. , such as not recognizing the results of a lost election or removing polling stations from areas that benefit the rival party.

Voelkel and his co-authors found two interventions to be most effective.

The first is known as the “Braley intervention” for Alia Braley, political scientist at Berkeley and lead author of “The Subversion Dilemma: Why Voters Who Cherish Democracy Participate in Democratic Backsliding.” In Braley’s intervention, participants are “asked what people on the other side think about actions that undermine the functioning of democracy (for example, using violence to block laws , reducing the number of polling stations to help the other party, or not accepting the election results in the event of a defeat). They are then given “the correct answer” and “the answers make it clear that the other side does not support actions that undermine democracy.”

The second “best performing intervention” was to give participants “a video showing vivid images of societal instability and violence in the wake of democratic collapse in several countries, before concluding with footage of the attack on the US Capitol on January 6”.

“To our knowledge,” Willer wrote in his email, “this is the first evidence that the same stimuli could both reduce affective polarization and improve some aspect of Americans’ democratic attitudes, and it suggests that both of these factors may be causally linked, more so than previous work – including ours – would suggest.

Kalla disputed the conclusions Willer drew from the mega study:

The most successful interventions in the mega-study aimed at reducing anti-democratic views were those that directly targeted these anti-democratic views. For example, the successful intervention by Braley et al. was able to reduce anti-democratic views by correcting misperceptions about the other side’s willingness to overthrow democracy.

This intervention, Kalla continued,

was not an affective polarization. What this suggests is that for practitioners interested in reducing anti-democratic attitudes, they should use interventions that speak directly to and target these anti-democratic views. As shown by our work and Voelkel et al. replicas, the indirect attempt to reduce antidemocratic viewpoints through the causal pathway of affective polarization does not seem to be an effective strategy.

I sent Kalla’s review to Willer, who replied:

I agree with Josh’s point that the most effective interventions to reduce support for undemocratic practices and candidates were interventions quite clearly designed with the primary purpose of targeting democratic attitudes. And while we find relationships here that suggest there is a way to reduce support for undemocratic candidates by reducing affective polarization, the broader point that most interventions that reduce affective polarization do not affect attitudes antidemocratic attitudes remains valid, and our evidence continues to contradict the widespread popular assumption that affective polarization and antidemocratic attitudes are closely linked. We continue to find evidence in this new study against this idea.

One scholar, Herbert P. Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, has argued that too much of the debate on affective polarization and democratic backsliding has been limited to the analysis of competing psychological pressures, when in fact the scope is much wider. “The United States,” Kitschelt wrote in an email,

has experienced a “black swan” confluence, interaction and mutual reinforcement of general factors that affect all advanced knowledge societies with specific historical and institutional factors unique to the United States that have created a toxic concoction threatening American democracy more than any other Western society. Taken together, these conditions have created the scenario in which affective polarization develops.

Like most developed countries, the United States is undergoing three disruptive transformations compounded by three additional historical factors specific to the United States, Kitschelt suggests. These transformations, he writes, are:

  • “The post-industrial change in occupational structure expanding higher education and the educational dividend in terms of income and status, as well as a transformation of gender and family relations, dismantling the paternalistic family and improving women’s bargaining power, making less educated people – and especially men – the most likely socio-economic and cultural losers from the process.

  • “The expansion of education is accompanied by a secularization of society which has undermined the ideological foundations of paternalism, but has created fierce resistance in some quarters.”

  • “Socio-cultural and economic divides are further correlated with residential patterns in which the growing share of the better-educated, younger, secular, and more gender-egalitarian population lives in metropolitan and suburban areas, while the declining, less educated, older, more religious and more A paternalistic part of the population lives on the outskirts or in the countryside.

According to him, the three factors specific to this country are:

  • “The legacy of slavery and racial oppression in the United States in which – following WEB DuBois – the white lower class of less skilled workers derived “quasi-wage” satisfaction from the racist subordination of the minority, the satisfaction of enjoying a higher rank in society than African Americans.

  • “The dynamism of ‘born-again’ evangelical Christianity, sharply separated from the moderate and cerebral old European Protestantism. The former attracts disproportionate support among less educated people and strictly segregates churches by race, thereby converting white evangelical churches into platforms of white racism. They have become political transmission belts for right-wing populism in the United States, with 80% of those white people who consider themselves “born again” voting for Trump’s presidential candidacy.

  • “The institutional peculiarities of the American electoral system which tends to divide populations into two rival parties, the first-past-the-post electoral system for the American legislature and the directly elected presidency. While popular wisdom claims it bridges divisions, under conditions where economic, social and cultural divisions reinforce each other, it is likely to have the opposite effect. The most important additional result of this system is the over-representation of the countryside (i.e. the areas where the social, economic and cultural losers of the knowledge society tend to be) in the legislative process and presidential/electoral college elections. »

Kitschelt argues that to understand affective polarization it is necessary to go “beyond the myopic, US-centric narrow field of view of American political psychologists”. The incentives “for politicians to initiate this polarization and fan divisions, including fanning the flames of affective polarization, can only be understood in the context of these underlying socio-economic and cultural legacies and processes.”

Kitschelt is not alone in this view. He pointed to a 2020 book, “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” by Noam Gidron, James Adams, and Will Horne, political scientists at Harvard, University of California-Davis, and Georgia State University, in which they argue that

Americans’ aversion to partisan opponents grew faster than in most other Western audiences. We show that affective polarization is most intense when unemployment and inequality are high, when political elites clash over cultural issues such as immigration and national identity, and in countries with majoritarian electoral institutions.

Writing just before the 2020 election, Gidron, Adams and Horne point out that the

The issue of cultural disagreements seems very relevant in light of the ongoing nationwide protests for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement which has sparked a broader cultural debate on issues related to race, police funding and to broader questions about interpretations of American history. In a July 4 speech at Mount Rushmore, President Trump clearly defined these types of “culture war” debates as a defining political and social divide in America, saying that “our nation is witnessing a ruthless campaign to undo our history, defame our hero, erase our values ​​and indoctrinate our children.

The study of affective polarization sheds light on how vicious American politics has become and how that viciousness has empowered Trump and the Republicans who followed his lead, while hurting Democrats whose political and legislative initiatives were hampered. as much as they succeeded.

Richard Pildes, professor of constitutional law at NYU, addressed this point when he delivered the following remarks from his 2021 paper “Political Fragmentation in Democracies of the West” at a legal symposium in New York:

There is no doubt that the past few decades have seen a dramatic decline in the effectiveness of government, whether measured by the number of important bills Congress is able to enact, the proportion of all problems that people identify as the most important that Congress manages to resolve, or the number of bills passed that update old policies adopted decades earlier. Social scientists are now writing books with titles like Can America Govern Itself? Longitudinal data confirm the evidence that the more polarized Congress is, the less significant legislation it enacts; in the ten most polarized congressional terms, just over 10.6 major pieces of legislation were enacted, while in the least polarized ten terms, that number increases by 60%, to about 16 major pieces of legislation per term. The inability of democratic governments to address the issues that matter most to their people poses serious risks.

What are the chances of reversing this trend?


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