The Perils of Voter Ignorance and Affective Polarization

In this edition’s lead essay, Kevin Vallier argues that the erosion of trust represents an undesirable development in public life, one that interacts with political polarization to create a climate of illiberalism which threatens our liberties and civil society. In his fascinating new book, he argues that these two phenomena mutually reinforce one another in a causal feedback loop, something he calls the “distrust-divergence hypothesis.”

Vallier is right to address these important concurrent developments, but I fear that he does not paint a bleak enough picture of the current American political environment. We are in the midst of a period of political ignorance, affective polarization, tribalism, and democratic backsliding unlike any in recent memory, and I have yet to find evidence that would make me optimistic that these trends will experience a sharp enough reversal anytime soon. I believe it is important to understand how entrenched these elements have become before we can even begin to address them.

Once this is done, and in the spirit of brainstorming possible solutions, I will consider the implications of the state of American politics, extract some lessons, and draw a few takeaways. In the end, I hope that the reader walks away understanding the importance of calibrating expectations around the electorate and the political process, finding ways to depoliticize or deescalate politics, and, if we cannot avoid politics as war, then at least contain its domain and scope in ways that minimize its importance and facilitate meaningful interactions divorced from politics.

The Decay of American Politics

As Vallier points out, the decline in trust is inextricably linked to political polarization. In the United States, there is no more meaningful way to understand polarization than through partisanship. While the partisan gulf has only widened during the last few years, this is not a recent phenomenon, and political scientists have been studying the nature of partisan attachment and growth in partisan support and bias for decades.

Paradoxically, Americans are quite clustered together (or unpolarized) around the center when it comes to ideology, or policy preferences. To the extent that they hold consistent views, and if we believe that we are adequately measuring these views (two major qualifiers, perhaps), most Americans are moderate. Indeed, it is the leaders themselves that are ideologically polarized. But because Americans are clearer than ever on which team they belong to, and because voters love shortcuts, they display a perverse tendency to follow their leader.

This is inextricably linked to voters’ pervasive and increasing political ignorance. While choosing not to invest in political knowledge might be rational, it is also harmful. To be sure, this decline in knowledge is not unique to the United States, but is present in other established democracies and indeed throughout the world. Not only do voters refrain from accruing knowledge, but they also struggle to filter out appropriate links of retrospective accountability from irrational ones, allowing everything from sports outcomes to shark attacks to condition their political evaluations.

This already concerns classical liberals for obvious reasons, but it should concern those who place greater faith in the state even more: after all, if we’re willing to entrust executives and policymakers with greater responsibilities, we ought to pay close attention to how informed our choices are when entrusting individuals with these powers. Voters, however, display an unsettling habit of seeing things as they please, not as they are. This behavior is partly caused and entirely made worse by the intense, tribal attachments of voters to their parties.

If voters are too ill-informed to have meaningful, substantive disagreements, then we may conclude that intense partisan attachments are not a reflection of our differences, but rather their cause. Social psychologists have long studied our human tendency to sort into groups and the ensuing danger of these in-group attachments morphing into a form of tribalism. In the context of American politics, this is most strongly manifested as partyism, which results in Democrats and Republicans harboring animosity, hostility, and resentment toward one another, at least in the abstract. This results in studies finding Democrats and Republicans willing to discriminate along party lines when considering suitable spouses for their children or evaluating résumés and granting scholarships.

Thus, voters seem not to know much about politics, except that they hate those who support the rival team. As a result, Americans are more comfortable articulating their feelings about politics rather than offering their thoughts thereof. This affective polarization has seeped into political trust, a proxy for government support. In particular, partisans overwhelmingly distrust their government when the opposing party is in charge.

This hostility extends beyond merely the other political party and its supporters, and instead those groups that voters associate with them, as well as the salient position issues that party leaders project to their supporters. What we are left with is a political landscape in which voters hold opposing views surrounding their party leaders, their beliefs and attitudes, and each other.

During the Trump presidency, some of these gaps, which were already wide, somehow found enough space to widen. In 2020, Democrats and Republicans disagreed even more than a few years prior on their feelings toward white people, rich people, and immigrants; Christians, atheists, and Muslims; and journalists, college professors, and even the military, which not long ago served as a uniting force across party aisles. The same goes for their feelings toward key figures, such as Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and, naturally, Donald Trump. To no one’s surprise, the same holds for their views of one another: partisans’ views about “most Republicans” and “most Democrats” being moral, hard-working, generous, and knowledgeable became even more polarized than they were in 2017.

The prospects for the future are in no way encouraging. The Trump presidency has confirmed that there is a link between political polarization and individuals’ authoritarian predispositions. Research has found that even respondents’ child-rearing values can predict their support for Trump. Mainstream media, which had already been losing public confidence over the years, has become another fault line in the battle across parties. Confidence in the press, which had long been chipped away among Republicans, has now extended even to true independents, whose feelings toward journalists are now closer to the floor set by Republicans than to the ceiling set by Democrats.

The pandemic has only served to exacerbate the erosion of trust, as well as deepen the partisan divide. Democrats and Republicans found new topics on which to disagree, including the role of testing, the threat posed by the virus, and the effectiveness of social distancing measures and other restrictions. It is yet unclear whether fear serves to further undermine trust, or whether it is something we can all rally around, like we often do after national tragedies and catastrophes. It appears more likely thus far that the degree of fear is insufficient to overcome political and affective differences.

Even more enduring than the pandemic, continued demographic shifts may further drive the country apart politically, especially as it transitions from a majority-white to a more pluralist multi-ethnic society. Not only have we witnessed an abandonment of democratic norms, but this fading commitment to democracy appears to be largely attributable to ethnic antagonism.

Drawing the Battlefronts (and Buffer Zones)

I fear that the sketch I have drawn is far from rosy, but lest a reader despair as much as I did while writing it, it might be helpful to look for some silver linings amidst all the doom and gloom. Here, I will limit myself to briefly outlining three ways we can address these problems without jumping off the ledge, and in so doing hopefully contribute to the antiwar movement Vallier proposes. I hope we can expand on what different fronts of the antiwar movement might look like in the discussion to follow.

Any political reform advocated and pursued in the protection of liberty should be aimed at making institutions less powerful and intrusive. Decentralization of power is an obvious prescription to emerge from this treatment, but it is not always easy to accomplish. Vallier cautions against choosing sides. He is right, although I think a more proactive reformulation is that we must choose sides: both of them. If Vallier is correct that both sides are converging toward illiberalism, then we must find ways to help both of them reverse course.

A first step toward accomplishing this is understanding that most people love their liberties. They may not always behave in a manner consistent with these preferences, but even those who protested and rioted across American cities last year, or those who stormed the Capitol last month, largely thought they were doing so in defense of their liberties. The fact that they are willing to employ such illiberal means in a twisted pursuit of their liberties suggests that their mistake lies in blindly following their leaders.

Because voters are generally close to each other ideologically, we can isolate the leadership as the cause of the problem. If polarization indeed results from leaders taking polar positions on issues and partisans following them, we may at least conclude that polarization is not so much an attitudinal feature of the electorate as it is a reflection of elite behavior. If we could find a way for leaders to oppose one another less, then Americans would likely follow. For example, if we could incentivize leaders to frame political discourse as deliberative consensus-seeking instead of as conflictual debate, we might begin to reprogram individuals’ motivated reasoning and information processing.

Vallier is also likely correct in suggesting that the executive branch has become too powerful relative to other branches. The presidency frequently abuses its bully pulpit to concentrate power around the unitary executive, and as things stand, the stakes are too high.

However, empowering the legislative branch to balance the power of the executive is neither desirable from a normative standpoint nor viable from a practical standpoint. After all, the only branch that Americans generally distrust more than the executive is the legislative.

Extreme political polarization has only served to incentivize inactivity on the part of members of Congress, resulting in even greater frustration on the part of the electorate. To be sure, there is value in gridlock, but too much gridlock leads to frustration.

As “Fenno’s paradox” illustrates, while Americans generally hate Congress as a whole, they tend to hate their own member of Congress a lot less. Once again, this suggests that finding ways to decentralize power may be critical to reversing many of these unfortunate trends. We tend to fear and distrust the foreign, the distant, and the unknown, and come to accept and often even like it once we come to know it up close. This is why Americans are generally more trusting of their local government than their state government, and more trusting of their state government than their national government. It is also why xenophobia and opposition to immigration are strongest in the areas with the fewest immigrants.

To be clear, declining trust and social capital, political polarization, and democratic backsliding are not unique to the United States. My own research in democratizing contexts suggests that a worthwhile approach separate from reforming institutions might involve empowering individuals instead. At the macro-level, even empowering civil society often fails to produce tangible democratizing outcomes, and strong civil society does not necessarily result in strong political institutions. Civic activities likewise do not help build political trust.

This is less grim than it sounds. What I observed is that in democracies in transition, civic society does not translate into political trust because civic societies have largely replaced the less-efficacious state. Thus, high social trust and social capital, including civic engagement, are not predictive of political engagement because political engagement is largely futile. Thus, an internal locus of control, or the attribution of outcomes to one’s own behavior, steers citizens away from polarized national politics and toward their immediate surroundings and local communities instead.

Practically, this research means that relying on politically educated, knowledgeable citizens is not the guaranteed way to rebuild political trust. In fact, we might be best served leaving them well enough alone, especially if the supply side of politics fails to live up to the demand side. In the U.S. context, it is sometimes hard to tell which is of a worse quality, but let us hope that it is the supply side indeed. Increasing political efficacy and political awareness without improving institutions risks amplifying existing frustration, but this effect can be alleviated by refocusing citizens toward their communities and localities.

Finally, as Steven Horwitz points out in his wonderful and much more optimistic response essay to Vallier, while politics may often appear pervasive and always appear toxic, we as members of society interact with one another in countless extrapolitical ways. The more we can divorce ourselves from our politics when interacting with one another, the more we will come to see that our political attitudes never belonged there in the first place, and the more we will come to value and benefit from one another.

Markets are one of the most powerful venues for these kinds of apolitical interactions, but they are not the only one. Most people are united in their affection for their cities and states, in their support of common sports teams, their desire to give their children the best education possible, and their love of Beyoncé and Tom Hanks, so long as these are not mixed with politics. Even if these other venues tend to provide less anonymity than does the market, it helps to realize that there is no need to inject politics into domains where it does not belong – which ought to be most of them.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kevin Vallier argues that politics should not be war, and that classical liberals should strive to be peacekeepers. He marshals evidence that high levels of social trust lead to many desirable social outcomes, and that social trust in the United States has been on the wane. At the same time, Vallier also laments the decline of classical liberalism as a force in American politics. He proposes that classical liberals can reinvigorate their movement by addressing the problem of trust—a development that will improve the political climate for everyone.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz points out that civil society is of great value regardless of the political beliefs of those within it. Our neighbors—whom we may hate for voting for Trump, or for Biden—are the same people whom we greet and exchange kindnesses with. They are also the same people who provide us goods and services in the market—meaning that the market and civil society both stand in conflict with our harsher political impulses.

  • Martin Gurri places the blame for declining instutional trust squarely on how internet-mediated social interactions have fatally undermined many of our old, elite-run institutions. The problem is structural, he insists, and not the result of partisanship alone. He is doubtful that classical liberalism, however defined, can offer a workable solution.

  • Americans are paradoxically both highly polarized—and not all that ideologically divided, writes Irina Soboleva. Voters are intensely attached to their parties and their leaders, and, she argues, it is these institutions and leaders that have encouraged polarization. Political ignorance has exacerbated this tendency; in response, Soboleva calls for “buffer zones” of relatively nonpolitical life including but also extending beyond the market.