Uncivil Agreement | Lilliana Mason

Summary of: Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity
By: Lilliana Mason


Do you ever wonder why American politics are rife with contention and divisiveness? Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity unravels this mystery by exploring the deep-rooted cultural and social factors that have resulted in the growing polarization of American society. Author Lilliana Mason delves into studies that show a significant shift towards aligning with either Republican or Democratic parties on the basis of social identities, rather than policies. The book prompts readers to rethink the nature of political affiliations and the roles they play in shaping our understanding of the world and one another.

The Robber’s Cave Experiment and Social Polarization

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted the Robber’s Cave Experiment which showed that group membership can lead to intense preference for the ingroup and distortion of reality towards the outgroup. The experiment proved that while group membership protects individuals, it can cause reactivity and distortions. Since the Civil Rights movement, social identities have caused Americans to align with either the Republican or Democratic party. This has led to more homogenous parties and decreased openness to cooperation and compromise with the other party. Group attachments favoring the ingroup are embedded in brain chemistry, causing people to rationalize their biases based on feelings rather than objective truth. Social polarization magnifies ingroup and outgroup differences, making it difficult to correct erroneous beliefs about the adversary. This has a negative impact on governance. Multiple identities playing for the same team can lead to a deep social and cultural divide, which can be detrimental to society.

The Power of Social Identity in American Politics

Recent research shows that political polarization in America is less about policy disagreements and more about social identity. Republicans and Democrats now hate each other not just for their ideologies but for who they are as people. The “folk theory” of democracy suggests that people choose parties that align with their social identity and adjust their positions accordingly, rather than choosing a party based on their individual beliefs. This separation of ideological affiliation from policy preferences has deepened the divide between the two parties. It has become more important to have a shared identity within a political party than to have shared values or beliefs. The election of Donald Trump, according to the research, is a result of this deepening divide along partisan lines.

Partisanship and the Importance of Social Identity

In a healthy society, cross-cutting cleavages between social identity and political party are essential to reduce conflict and improve communication. However, lack of civic engagement in the 1960s and 1970s led people to congregate only with like-minded groups, reinforcing the connection between social identity and party identity. The Civil Rights movement intensified conservatism within the Republican party and liberalism within the Democratic party. This trend continued into the 1990s when race emerged as the strongest indicator of party affiliation. Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies. Media also became more partisan, and cultural differences intensified, leading to a feeling of social ties to one’s political party. By 2000, Republicans were twice as likely to feel socially connected to their ideological group compared to Democrats. As a result, cooperation and compromise required by democracy grow less attainable as partisan isolation and conflict increase.

The Rise of Partisan Voting

Partisan voting has been on the rise for decades, with only a small portion of the electorate evaluating policy and voting accordingly. The two major parties increasingly reinforce a sense of winning at all costs, even if it comes at the expense of the nation. This psychological need to feel superior to the outgroup and believe that their group is right has resulted in more competition, fewer compromises and could lead to a “frightful despotism.” Political affiliation is now closely tied to social identity, leading to increased political activity based not on policy goals but on knee-jerk identity-defense responses. Even when opportunities arise for compromise on policies that benefit everyone, partisans will ignore it if it doesn’t make them look like winners. This trend is alarming, as partisanship could override loyalty to one’s nation.

The Impact of Social Identity on Political Polarization

Prejudice, anger, and activism are increasing, not over policy differences, but due to social identity. Americans base much of their political decision-making on partisan cues and become less interested in policies once they decide how they feel about their party. Social distance bias was shown to increase as partisans become more socially sorted, resulting in intransigent and more active governing. A socially-sorted partisan with moderate policy opinions shows less tolerance for opposing political opinions than a cross-cutting partisan with strong policy opinions. This intolerance is due to motivated reasoning, which amplifies in socially homogenous settings. The need for social identity breeds a degree of intolerance, even on moderate policy positions that partisanship alone cannot. It is essential to recognize the impact of social identity on political polarization to mitigate increasing levels of prejudice and anger in society.

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