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.

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

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.
Find and support your local public radio station.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/979369761/979374925" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization?

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

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

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Real quick, before we start the show, we want to check in with you about what you like about this show and what we could do better. We've got a short survey at npr.org/politicssurvey. That is npr.org/politicssurvey. It's all one word. It's all lowercase. We want to hear from our dedicated listeners and also our occasional listeners. So if you have a few minutes to take the survey, you're doing us a huge favor. And we really appreciate it. Thanks.



Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics. And today we're doing something a little different from usual. We talk all the time on this podcast about partisanship. Our regular listeners know how rare it is that we get to talk about Congress members crossing the aisle, at least in big ways, to pass bills. And our listeners also know that we do talk often about very bitter political and personal fights. So for this special episode, we're taking that topic on for our book club. It is a chance for our listeners to connect over books about politics. We read the books together. We discuss them in our podcast Facebook group. And then we bring the author on to grill them about (laughter) their books, to ask them to tell us about their research, what they write about, what they've found. Our pick this time is "Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity" by Lilliana Mason, who is here with us.

Hello, Lilliana.

LILLIANA MASON: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, of course. Thank you for joining us. Right. So Lilliana is associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. And there is much more to talk about here than we have time for. So we're just going to get right to it. I wanted to start really simply with you - basically, with how your book starts, with a story you tell about the Eagles and the Rattlers. This was an experiment done in 1954 where a social psychologist took two very similar - by design - groups of fifth-grade boys, split them up into two teams and then observed them. So let's start by talking about what happened and why it's relevant to us talking about polarization in politics.

MASON: Right. So the important thing is that when they started out, they put these boys into two different camps and didn't tell them about the other camp even though it was just a little ways down the road. So they had a week to kind of get to know each other within their own individual group. They named themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles. And they bonded as a group. And then after the first week, the experimenters told the boys that there was another camp of boys just down the road. And the boys immediately wanted to start a competition against that other team of boys. They immediately started calling them pigs and bums and dirty shirts, which is apparently an insult back then.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

MASON: And they engaged in these competitions for a week. And by Week 3, they were raiding each other's camps. They were throwing rocks at each other. They were getting into fistfights. It became so dangerous that the experimenters decided to separate them physically because they were worried about the safety of the boys. So just within three weeks, they had sort of started this war between these boys who, really, had very little differences between them.

KURTZLEBEN: It's such a wildly simple experiment with such a wildly simple result that, I guess - I, mean we barely even have to explain, I guess, like, how this applies to politics. We clearly have Democrat, Republican so heavily fighting each other these days. But one thing that I was curious about when I read that story was, OK, we do have these two teams right now that are angry at each other. And this story implies that it's just human nature. You see yourself in a group. You're angry at the out-group. You want to fight them or something to that effect. But why is it that Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative are - inspire that right now? - because, clearly, not every group membership does. Like, I live in D.C. I'm a D.C. resident. I have no particular animosity to people in Maryland or people in Virginia. So why does party do this to us?

MASON: Yeah. So that's a really - it's a really interesting question. And party doesn't always do that to us in exactly the way that it's happening right now. And I think one interesting way to think about it is to imagine that all the Rattlers were Catholic and all of the Eagles were Protestant, or all of the Rattlers were white and all of the Eagles were Black. You can imagine that those battles between them would have been much more intense than they even were, even though they're fighting over, essentially, a trophy that's exactly the same trophy, right? They're fighting over the exact same prize. But if we added in this additional social element, then we would have a much stronger battle over the same exact thing.


MASON: And so that's how I'm thinking about parties is that gradually, over the last 50 years, the parties have become much more socially distinct from each other. And that creates - sort of maps onto our party divide this racial, religious, cultural, geographic divide that makes every single battle more intense.

KURTZLEBEN: So one of the big points of your book is about this change in how we are sorted and how we have increasingly lost what you call crosscutting identities. And our parties have become very much internally alike. Tell me more about that. How did that happen? And how much has it changed?

MASON: Right. So - you know, in this period after, let's say, the Civil Rights Act, when people were kind of deciding which party to be in, moving around, we had a lot of people who were, you know, they 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 on the other - in the other party as, you know, basically, well-intentioned human beings who had families and lives.

And maybe you disagreed about politics. But they still sort of have the country's best interests at heart. And you can get along with them. Gradually, over time, as the parties became more sordid, 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 our - 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Why is it, though, that that increased sorting has led to more partisan animosity? What is the link between white evangelicals being Republican, agnostics being Democratic? What's the link between that and people being angry at each other?

MASON: Right. So there is a psychological story to tell, which is the sort of social psychology of group identities. And what social psychologists have found is that, you know, 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...


MASON: ...Also, legislation being framed as either a win or a loss for one of the two parties. And so 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.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we're going to take a quick break. Now, as a reminder, I get a lot of these questions from our Facebook group. And Lilliana was in there answering questions. You can join that group at n.pr/politicsgroup. OK. We'll be right back.


KURTZLEBEN: And we're back. And, Lilliana, 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?

MASON: I mean, no (laughter). I was actually really concerned about things getting very dangerous around the 2020 election because the Trump presidency, it, you know, really leaned into the divides between Democrats and Republicans and the racial divide and the - and, you know, sort of the even 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 - you know, that's what dog whistles were for, right? We were implicitly talking about race when we weren't - but we weren't explicitly talking about race. 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, really, you know, 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 is still - you know, which is 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.

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

MASON: Yeah. No. I mean, I think that we're at this point where the - because our party - 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Wow. So if that's a new development, do we know what caused it? I mean, you just mentioned the Obama administration. Was it having a non-white president? Did that play into this?

MASON: Yeah. It had a - it did have an effect. And I think it really - you know, what Tesler's work says is, you know, it clarified, for people who especially were low-information voters, people who really did not pay attention to politics or the news at all, for those people, simply seeing the face of the president taught them something about what it means to be a Democrat and allowed them to connect their partisanship to their own race in a way that they hadn't necessarily done before, right? Maybe they were a union family. Or maybe their parents had been Democrats. And they just didn't really think about it. But that presidency clarified for basically everyone what the Democratic Party looked like.

KURTZLEBEN: Questions that our listeners often have - they had this in the Facebook group, they've asked us this at podcast shows before - is, all right, how do we fix it? And, I mean, let's start at the micro level, the person-to-person level. Is it that - what? - we all need more crosscutting identities? We need to just talk to more people that are different from us? And as one person doing that, does that make much of a difference?

MASON: Yeah. So - I mean, I think 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.


MASON: Right? It's - 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, you know, 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, right? We - that's what would be inevitably the response. I can't imagine...


MASON: ...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, right? 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?

KURTZLEBEN: In research for preparing for today, I ran across an opinion that you put out there - I think it was in 2019 - where you said, mandatory national service could be a way to sort of turn down the temperature. And I wanted to ask about that and also just what other systemic, non-individual level sort of policy, structural-level things do you think could be done to - yes, to get us to turn the temperature down?

MASON: Right. So the national service idea came from this report that, actually, a bunch of social scientists did during the Korean War, during which the armed forces were desegregated. But it was done almost randomly. It was just in whatever places they needed more people. And so they could compare segregated battalions to desegregated battalions and look at the racial attitudes of the soldiers in those battalions. And what they found was that there was much higher racial tolerance in the desegregated battalions. And that's sort of the idea of national service, right? Like, place people into contact with each other, doing a job that is exactly the same. They have the same goal, right? The same outcome is what everyone is working towards. There's no hierarchical difference between different social groups. And they're just working together. And ultimately, we do know that that does reduce intolerance, to have people just working side by side for the same goal and not talking about politics at all, right? Just do the same job.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, Lilliana, this has been such a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

MASON: It's my absolute pleasure.

KURTZLEBEN: So listeners, if you want to follow along as we consider and decide upon our next book club book, please go to our Facebook group n.pr/politicsgroup. And we will be announcing that relatively soon. Until then, I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.