THIS Q+A IS PUBLISHED AS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES INTERVIEWS WITH MEMBERS OF STANFORD’S POLARIZATION AND SOCIAL CHANGE LAB

 

Polarization isn’t a single, monolithic phenomenon. There are two types: the kind we express in wonky disagreements over laws and policies, and the kind we feel — that visceral red-vs.-blue passion that fuels partisan acrimony and take-no-prisoners elections. 

In this interview — the latest in our series of conversations with researchers on the science and dynamics of polarization — Jan Gerrit Voelkel, a PhD student in sociology at Stanford University and an affiliate of the Polarization and Social Change Lab (PASCL), breaks down these two types of polarization and explains the mercurial forces that drive political division. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jan Gerrit Voelkel
Jan Gerrit Voelkel

Can you walk me through the two major types of polarization? 

The two major dimensions of polarization discussed in the literature are attitudinal polarization on the one side and affective polarization on the other. Attitudinal polarization is about policy views. The study of affective polarization is relatively young — it is oftentimes seen as the tendency for partisans to like their own fellow partisans and to dislike their opposing parties.

What does affective polarization — the partisan kind — tell us about how we see each other?

One American national election survey that has been going on for a long time has asked respondents how they feel towards the parties and the candidates of the parties. You can see that people have always preferred their own party over the other party. But now this gap has very much widened, and it is not so much driven by the fact that people now like their own party more — that has been relatively constant over the last two decades. But it’s more that people really started to like the opposing party much less. 

How do we know this? Is there a way to measure our feelings about the “other side?”

One traditional measure is to ask: How much do you like or dislike Republicans and Democrats? However, important research has shown that it very much depends on how you ask these questions, because people may answer this about elites or about the mass public. My view might be different for Republican elites versus the Republican voter base. They find that you need to be careful to not mistake a dislike of politics in general, for a dislike for voters for the opposite party. 

What can affective polarization potentially lead to?

The next level would be partisan spite, a real contempt for the other side and the willingness to compromise other principles just to keep the other side away from governing. [We may do this] to an extent where we sacrifice democratic principles and ignore the rules that we have all agreed on because we think we are really on the right side. 

Crushed by negative news?

Sign up for the Reasons to be Cheerful newsletter.

Sounds perilous. Does affective polarization ever have the potential to result in a positive outcome? 

You can see affective polarization relate to more political activity, caring more about politics, seeking out more information, being willing to protest and stand up for what you believe in. And I totally think that there can be positive externalities of that. 

This is why it’s so important to study the links between negative partisan effects, then partisan spite or contempt at the next level, and then the things that we think are problematic for society. One thing I’m very concerned about is if we receive the same set of facts and we interpret these two facts very differently, then it becomes really difficult to find agreement on anything. 

A functioning government that is incentivized by the voters to work together and to implement what the majority of the country clearly wants is really important. This can be undermined by polarization, because polarization can lead to more incentives for politicians to not compromise, to play to their base and hope that the other side is so disliked that even the more moderate voters who lean towards their own party will still support them.

Why do you think affective polarization has happened at a mass scale, while attitudinal polarization, which is more about policy and facts, has been less extreme?

This is exactly the right question to ask. My main answer is, “We don’t know.” One thing is that people have evolved into different, new circles, and are getting different views from different sources. That wasn’t so much the case for a long time when there were a few national television programs from which people would get the news. Now there’s a lot more choices and people can select into these bubbles and receive the news, and that may more strongly drive their views for the parties. 

So do Americans actually agree on a lot of policy? Or is it more like they don’t necessarily have strong views on policy in the first place? 

The concept of attitudinal positions has a lot of sub-dimensions. There is partisan sorting, and research strongly suggests that it has increased in the sense that people’s policy views are just more aligned nowadays with each other than before. For instance, my attitudes on climate change might be more aligned with my attitudes on gun laws and everything follows pretty much along the same party line.

Polarization can lead to more incentives for politicians to not compromise, to play to their base and hope that the other side is so disliked that even the more moderate voters will still support them.

Recent research suggests that people do care a lot about policy positions. If someone is from my own party but disagrees with me on abortion or on immigration policies, then I do like them less. If you ask Americans “Why do you dislike the other side?” polls show that they will answer “Well, because they have different attitudes, because they are wrong.” 

There is a lot we still don’t know about the relationship between attitudinal and affective polarization. How are you and your colleagues working to build the knowledge base?

Our team at the Polarization and Social Change Lab is working hard on what we call the “depolarization challenge.” The evidence that is out there suggests that we need a lot of additional information. And with the political moment that we were in, we feel like we need that information quickly to determine to what extent is polarization — and, in particular, partisan animosity or affective polarization — an issue with important downstream consequences and how it can be changed.

As soon as we launch the challenge, everyone out there who is interested will have a chance to submit interventions [strategies]. Then a certain number of our board of experts will choose what they think are the most promising interventions to be tested in a large-scale experiment. We will hopefully have more answers. I hope that by doing this challenge during this coordinated large-scale project, we will make fast progress on identifying more of the answers that we need to determine to what extent polarization matters, and how we can change the trend that we’re in right now.