What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization? : The NPR Politics Podcast NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben interviews Lilliana Mason, associate professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, about her book Uncivil Agreement.

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What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization?

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What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization?

What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization?

What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/979369761/979374925" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Supporters gather outside Trump National Golf Club as then-President Donald Trump departs following a round of golf on Dec. 13, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia. Al Drago/Getty Images hide caption

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Al Drago/Getty Images

Supporters gather outside Trump National Golf Club as then-President Donald Trump departs following a round of golf on Dec. 13, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia.

Al Drago/Getty Images

From one point of view, the violence on Jan. 6 was an explosive, terrifying sign that polarization and partisan rancor have gone from causing gridlock to killing people.

But from another, it wasn't that surprising — rather, it was logical culmination of the openly divisive and racialized politics of the Trump era, on top of decades-long growth in partisan anger.

In our most recent NPR Politics Podcast book club installment we talked with Lilliana Mason, associate professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, about her book on America's political animosity, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.

She explained the complex forces at work in that anger — from human nature to racialized politics to who we see at the grocery store — and why growing polarization may in fact be a sign of progress.

The conversation is edited for clarity and length.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN: One of the big points of your book is about how we have increasingly lost what you call "crosscutting identities" — that our political parties have become very much internally alike. (For example, the identities of being white evangelical, non-college-educated and in a rural area all overlap in huge ways and are heavily associated with Republicans, while being urban, college-educated and non-religious are now heavily Democratic identities.) How did that happen? And how much has it changed?

LILLIANA MASON: In this period after the Civil Rights Act, when people were deciding which party to be in, we had a lot of people who might be Democrats or Republicans. But they might run into people who were in the other party in the grocery store or at church or in their bowling leagues or, you know, neighborhood clubs. And so it was a lot easier to humanize and understand people in the other party as, you know, basically, well-intentioned human beings.

Gradually, over time, as the parties became more sorted, what happened was that those connections to people in the other party started to disappear. And those are called crosscutting identities. And so as we lose the number of crosscutting identities between the parties, it becomes easier for Democrats and Republicans to think of each other as enemies rather than as just people they disagree with.

Why is it, though, that that increased sorting has led to more partisan animosity?

What social psychologists have found is that our own self-esteem is linked to the status of the groups that we belong to. When our group is in competition for status with another group, we start paying attention and becoming more active. We become more emotionally responsive to winning and losing, and we become more biased against the other group. Now American partisan politics is arranged so that we have regular competitions for status. Those are elections, and they happen at least every two years. We often hear also legislation being framed as either a win or a loss for one of the two parties.

If our party was not connected to these other identities, and our party lost, we would feel sad. But we would still have the rest of all of these other identities keeping us feeling like we're still OK as individuals. But if all of these other really important identities are linked to the status of our party, then all of a sudden, when the party loses, it feels like all of those other groups also lose. And that is a devastating psychological feeling.

Your book came out well before the 2020 election. So once you watched that election, how did you see your research manifest in it? And did it surprise you at all?

I mean, no. [laughter] I was actually really concerned about things getting very dangerous around the 2020 election because the Trump presidency really leaned into the divides between Democrats and Republicans and the racial divide and even the religious divide in the U.S.

And Trump's presidency, in particular, took something that had been sort of an implicit racial connection between party and racial conflicts that - that's what dog whistles were for, right? We were implicitly talking about race when we weren't.

And Trump's presidency just took it all out into the open and made racial conflict a really explicit part of his partisanship. And America, as a country, has never really dealt very well with our legacy of racial violence and prejudice.

And so when we map our racial divide onto our partisan divide, it actually creates a huge risk of violence, partisan violence, because we can effectively use the parties as proxies for our racial conflict, which still can be seen as quite violent. So I was actually concerned. And I'm working on a new book project right now looking at partisan violence in American politics. And I've been working on this since 2017 and collecting data this whole time. Also, where levels of approval of violence in the American electorate are, you know, 20% of Americans are willing to say it's at least a little bit justified to engage in violence against people in the other party.

Perhaps we're in a worse place than a lot of us realized. Do you think that's fair?

I think that we're at this point where our partisanship has really become so racialized. And there's good research out there that shows that when you make people think about party, they immediately also think about race. And when you make them think about race, they immediately think about party. So these two concepts are really strongly linked in people's minds. And in fact, even - we're seeing what political scientist Michael Tesler calls a racial spillover effect, where issue positions, policies that are not racialized have become racialized. So you can predict people's opinion on health care or gun control based on their level of racial resentment, which was not the case prior to the Obama administration, really.

A big question people have about polarization and partisan animosity is, how do we fix it?

The first way to think about it that I've been thinking about it is maybe it's not a problem we need to solve.

If we were to just hypothetically imagine that the United States has a reckoning with our legacy of racial violence and an entire political party that's supporting new policies that actually create a true multiracial democracy, if that ever were to happen, what would we imagine would be the next thing? I would imagine that we would see a huge backlash from the forces of white supremacy. I can't imagine any way we would have this reckoning without that response.

And so that may be where we are right now, right? This might actually be the bumpy part of the road on the way to a full, multiracial democracy that we're going to have to drive over in order to get there. There's no way to drive a smooth path from here to a fully representative, multiracial democracy. It's just not going to be smooth. So the best-case scenario is that we're in that rough part of the road right now. And the question is, you know, are the wheels going to stay on the car to get us to the smooth part later.



Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group to participate in our next book club discussion.

Connect:
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Podcast here.
Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org
Listen to our playlist The NPR Politics Daily Workout.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.
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