Polarizing Politics: 5 Reasons the 2016 Election Feels So Personal By Stephanie Pappas This year's presidential campaign has been rough. At rallies for Republican candidate Donald Trump, crowds chant, "Lock her up!" in reference to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump, meanwhile, has been accused of groping and sexually harassing multiple women. Clinton has called some of his supporters "deplorable," while Trump has called Clinton a "nasty woman." Anecdotal evidence suggests that this negativity is trickling down. Across social media, people publicly announce their plans to unfriend acquaintances on the other side. Friendships and marriages that have weathered years of political differences suddenly seem on unstable ground, according to social media posts, surveys and news articles. In early August, The New York Times profiled a couple who was split between the Trump-Clinton camps. Though the two had been on opposite sides of the 2012 election, this year was the first time one had threatened divorce over the other's vote. [Election Day 2016: A Guide to the When, Why, What and How] A Monmouth University poll released in September found that 7 percent of Americans said they'd lost friendships over the 2016 election. Experts say there are a lot of reasons for the high emotions on both sides. Here are five major reasons you might find your finger hovering over the Unfriend button before Nov. 8: 1. A deepening partisan divide The 2016 election is happening against the backdrop of political polarization in the United States. Ordinary Americans are increasingly divided, and increasingly less likely to view the other side with charity. A 2014 Pew Research Center nationally representative survey of 10,000 Americans found that 21 percent eschew consistently conservative or consistently liberal views — an increase from 10 percent in 1994. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans viewed supporters of the other party "very unfavorably," up from 16 percent and 17 percent, respectively, in 1994. The two sides even see each other as enemies: 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans said the other party threatens the nation's very wellbeing. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that open discrimination against the opposing party is stronger than racial discrimination in experimental studies. "Today, the sense of partisan identification is all-encompassing and affects behavior in both political and nonpolitical contexts," the researchers concluded. 2. Mudslinging candidates Against this backdrop of distrust and dislike, the 2016 election has served up two incredibly polarizing candidates with extensive public histories. [We Fact-Checked the Science Behind the Republican Party Platform] "Republicans have been very suspicious of Hillary Clinton since she was first lady," said Stanley Feldman, a political scientist at Stony Brook University in New York. Trump's criticism of Clinton — that she is guilty of criminal behavior and shouldn't have been allowed to run — is "largely unprecedented," Feldman told Live Science. At the same time, Feldman said, Trump is a "lightning rod for very strong feelings," due to comments that have antagonized women and minority groups. The rhetoric around the election has cast each candidate as illegitimate or unqualified, he said, increasing the public's anxiety. The candidates' behavior also sets a standard for the public's behavior, said Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.
"It's personal, and that's what they're modeling," Klapow told Live Science. "What's happening is that the concern we have about our country and the passion we may have for our position has gotten much more emotional than intellectual." [How to Argue Politics Without Blowing Up Your Relationship] 3. Hot-button issues The election has also focused on a number of emotionally charged topics: race, religion, sexism and sexual assault, to name a few. "One of the potentially disturbing parts of this election is the extent to which — I'll say particularly the Trump campaign — has seemingly made it OK to more directly criticize various minority groups and women," Feldman said. "That has generally been considered to be unacceptable in public discourse." The breakdown of norms inflames emotions and makes it harder to reconcile across party lines post-election, Feldman said. Racism and sexism also hit close to home for many Americans, who then find it difficult to face friends and family who support a candidate they associate with their own experiences of victimization. "When he [Trump] opens his mouth and speaks about women the way that he does, I feel the fear and I feel the anxiety from my assault take over, as I'm sure most any sexual assault survivor does," an anonymous author wrote on the parenting blog Scary Mommy. "It is, for many women, personal, and then they try to scrutinize the motives of people who are saying, 'Oh, it's nothing,'" Feldman said. "That's much harder for people to forget." 4. Existential questions Americans as a whole have been losing trust in social institutions for decades. A 2013 report from researchers at the University of Chicago found that when asked about 12 institutions — from the Supreme Court, to organized religion, to the medical establishment — only 23.3 percent of Americans reported a "great deal of confidence" in these institutions between 2008 and 2012. That number was down from 29.9 percent in surveys taken during the 1970s. This confidence level isn't at its lowest point in the past 40 years, however — there was an even lower point between 1993 and 1996, during which only 22.6 percent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in social institutions. The study from 2013 also showed a low level of confidence in Congress, with only 6.6 percent of Americans saying they had great confidence in the legislative body. That same year, 14.3 percent of Americans said they had great confidence in the executive branch. These confidence issues played out during the primaryelection as well as the general election. During the Democratic National Convention, supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders staged a walkout to protest what they called a "rigged" or broken primary system. Much of Trump's candidacy has been predicated on the impression that the political system is broken. "Change has to come from outside our very broken system," Trump told a crowd in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, earlier this week. He also repeated accusations that the system is rigged and that voter fraud means election results can't be trusted. In conversations like these — on whether the system is corrupt — there's little room for common ground, Feldman said. "When you have a situation like this where the candidates are cast as being completely unacceptable, when there are aspersions made about how the system is unfair, it's really hard to see how people are going to walk away from this feeling like, 'OK, we lost, but we can wait four years,'" Feldman said. 5. Social media Once upon a time, you might not have known the political affiliations of your kid's teacher, your ex-boss, your cousin's fiancé and your friends from the adult softball league. Alas,
those days are long gone. Now, the political opinions of people you might never talk politics with are all over Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. "It's not uncommon for us now to discover, 'Oh my goodness, I didn't realize he or she thought that way,' based on what they're saying on social media," Klapow said. The emotional tenor of the election isn't driven entirely by social media, Feldman said, but it isn't helping, either. "People are increasingly turning to the web, to Facebook and Twitter for the news, and that does run the risk of something like an echo chamber, where people who have these intense feelings just find them reinforced," he said. Whether the next election is as vicious as this one will depend partially on the candidates, he said, but also on the public discourse around the process from journalists, politicians and commentators across the media. "I'm not optimistic that this polarization is just going to disappear overnight," Feldman said. "It's going to take a lot of work."
America Isn’t Growing More Liberal; It’s Growing More Polarized by David French Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart has launched yet another debate about America’s ideological direction. Asserting that the country is becoming more liberal, Beinart argues that Occupy and Black Lives Matter activists have commandeered the national debate far more effectively than the radicals of the past, to the point that the next Democratic president is likely to be more liberal than Barack Obama and the next Republican president more liberal than George W. Bush. I think not. All evidence suggests that America is growing both more liberal and more conservative. The Left is moving Left, and the Right is moving Right. From Bill Clinton to Al Gore to John Kerry to Barack Obama, each successive Democratic presidential nominee has run either slightly or substantially to the Left of his predecessor, and the party has won the popular vote in five of the last six national elections. Americans have moved left on sexual issues with astonishing speed, growing supportive of gay marriage and transgender rights in just a few years’ time. Young voters increasingly express support for socialist policies, and the polls record widespread support for immigrants and immigrant rights. The average Democratic legislator is more liberal than at any time in recent memory. For a movement liberal, the future looks bright indeed. Following the explosive growth of the Tea Party, a movement that explicitly rejects biggovernment conservatism, Republicans control more elected offices than at any time in modern history. The Democrats have endured more electoral defeats under President Obama than Republicans did in the years after Watergate. Support for life is holding steady, with some evidence even suggesting that young people are more pro-life than their parents. State legislatures continue to pass pro-life legislation at a record-setting pace. Support for gun rights is increasing. Even Millennials support putting boots on the ground to fight ISIS. The 2016 Republican race appears likely to come down to a battle between first-generation tea-party conservative Marco Rubio and second-generation tea-party conservative Ted Cruz, both of whom still currently trail Donald Trump, who’s raced to the top of the primary polls by moving to the right of every other candidate on immigration. The average Republican legislator is more conservative than at any time in recent memory. For a movement conservative, the future looks bright indeed. What remains clear is that America is more politically polarized than ever. The Left is growing more Left, and the Right is growing more Right. This is entirely consistent with other patterns, including the polarization of American religious practice, which is so pronounced that “nones” — those unaffiliated with any faith — and Evangelicals are on pace to soon become the two largest religious demographics in the country. America is growing both more secular and more religious, more liberal and more conservative. The middle is vanishing. Beyond increasing ideological and religious polarization — trends that are mutually reinforcing — America is geographically polarized to an extent that makes enduring majorities even harder to construct. Presidential races are fought in a shrinking number of battleground states, with the ideological cocoons of large urban centers and Red America leading partisans on both sides to overestimate their strength. For every conservative who believes the path to electoral success lies in consolidating the vast conservative base, there is a liberal who believes the path to electoral success lies in consolidating the progressive masses. Depending on the skill of a given candidate and the structural dynamics of a given election year, either argument could be correct. The truly interesting question isn’t whether America is becoming more conservative or more liberal, but whether there is any single significant cultural, religious, or political trend that is pulling this nation together rather than yanking it apart. The alleged gay-rights consensus has given way to new conflict over religious freedom, a cause that has united a broad swath of conservative Americans. Failed gun-control measures have given way to increasingly extremist
rhetoric about confiscation, with progressives laying the political groundwork for an unprecedented level of state coercion. Left and Right are increasingly speaking different languages to culturally distinct populations. Our nation’s shared love for Star Wars can take us only so far, and polarization can’t continue indefinitely without truly significant fault lines emerging in American culture. To a liberal living in Manhattan, the facts on the ground confirm a progressive view of reality. To a conservative living in Tennessee, the real ideological competition and real energy both seem to be on the right. A nation that respects federalism and core constitutional liberties can survive and even thrive in the face of profound ideological divisions. But what if the Left isn’t content to let Tennessee be Tennessee or to allow Christian institutions to be Christian? Then the political stakes will be raised, polarization will increase, and America will move into some truly perilous waters.
Politics For The Rest of Us by Ana Berenson Between the crisis in Syria and the U.S. government’s first shutdown in 17 years, political topics have recently been unavoidable in daily conversation here at Bates, as seems to be the case throughout the country. Anarchy jokes fly through Commons, bioethics students discuss the pros and cons of Obamacare, and many of us ponder what might possibly be the “right” way to lead a country. However, these discussions are too often cut short by a common phrase: “I don’t really know much about these kinds of things, so I don’t have too much to say.” Many of us feel that our limited expertise on the workings of political systems means that we aren’t allowed to share our opinions on these current events, especially in the presence of politics majors or others whom we believe to know more than we do. Maybe we feel that these others will disregard our ideas due to our lack of knowledge about the nuances of our complex government, or maybe we truly believe that our thoughts on these subjects are not as valid as theirs are. No matter the exact cause of our hesitation, the result is the same. As these political conversations progress, some voices are silenced while others dominate, culminating in much more exclusive discussions about specific political details. Of course, there is a place for these types of discussions. Indeed, there are many people whom we elect and pay to talk about these issues in a very specific way in order to keep the country running; we call them politicians. However, this does not mean that the average biomedical engineer, businessperson, or politically uninvolved college student should be discouraged from speaking up about issues that concern us all. Nor does it mean that every citizen should aspire to develop an understanding equal to that of a politician in order to feel qualified to mention these issues. Indeed, I believe that political conversations involving individuals of varying levels of governmental knowledge are essential. Those of us who specialize in mathematical reasoning, understanding biological systems, or studying foreign cultures can provide something other than political expertise: multiple perspectives. We so often get bogged down by focusing on the small details, but by involving a variety of people in discussions, we can hope to step back from the issue and consider the bigger picture. Our different interests and areas of study provide us with distinct ways of considering the same situations. While some of us may approach them with a mathematical mindset, others are experts at seeing past the politics to the impact on human lives. What is the net result of the events in Syria from a humanitarian perspective? Is a government shutdown logical, if we simply consider the magnitude of its effects? What does the Affordable Care Act really mean, considering the realities of certain diseases? Without the filter of political detail, others are capable of developing these questions as centerpieces for discussion. Allowing these musings to be heard can have a number of benefits. Primarily, this helps to involve a variety of voices in conversation, allowing for more colorful discussions and sending the message that each citizen’s opinion is valid and important. The more that everyone is encouraged participate, the more individuals will feel inclined to share what they have to say. This, in turn, will allow more of us to feel more comfortable becoming involved in political issues about which they feel passionate, or that affect us in some way. In addition, this could also provide political experts with new ways to consider issues that they had only approached from a certain direction. By making the opinions of others known, we can provide the politicians of today and tomorrow with a more wholesome perspective of current and future issues, a perspective that they can consider when making decisions that are intended to represent the best interest of the rest of us. Speak up. Your opinion is valid; not only should it be shared, but it needs to be shared.
Political Evolution: Why Do Young Voters Lean Left? It's in the Genes Avi Tuschman “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 30, you have no brain.” Variations of this saying have been attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Aristide Briand, and Winston Churchill. The thought first came, in fact, from a French statesman, François Guizot (1787–1874). Regardless of its origin, the adage raises a fascinating question: Do the young really lean left because of passions and idealism? And as people age, do they incline toward the right because they become more realistic or cynical? For the past 10 years, I’ve studied political divisions through the lenses of evolutionary anthropology, genetics, and neuroscience. Research reveals that during their 20s people around the world experience significant shifts in the traits biologists use to describe the human personality. Specifically, “openness” declines and “conscientiousness” increases. Higher openness is associated with intellectual curiosity, a preference for variety, and voting for the left; higher conscientiousness, characterized by self-discipline and dutifulness, predicts support for more conservative politics. This rightward shift in political personality is fairly universal, and so is the timing. A 2004 study by psychologists Robert McCrae and Jüri Allik in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology of 36 cultures across Africa, Europe, and Asia discovered that openness and conscientiousness differ between 18- to 22-year-olds and older adults. If an individual’s political personality hasn’t changed by the time of his or her 30th birthday, however, it’s not likely to differ all that much at 40, 50, or 60. This isn’t to say that all teenagers are liberal and all older people are conservative. In any age group, people are distributed along the left-right spectrum on a bell curve. The entire curve, however, moves somewhat to the right during the mid-20s. A common explanation for this personality change in young adulthood was voiced during the politically turbulent 1960s in the U.S. At the time, the young leftist counterculture claimed that its ideological enemies could be found on the far side of Guizot’s magic number, 30. This belief implied that people older than that became more conservative because they were more likely to own a house, to earn a higher salary, and to have too much at stake to back a revolutionary call to destroy the existing order. Contrary to popular belief, paying taxes, accumulating wealth, and being in the 1 percent or the 99 percent are extremely poor predictors of left-right political orientation. According to American National Election Studies, an academically run survey project, the correlation between family income and party identification for U.S. voters in the 2012 presidential election was a mere 0.13. This weak statistical relationship is typical of past elections. There is one life event, though, that greatly accelerates a person’s shift to the right, and it often occurs in the 30s: parenthood. Its political impact is easy to see among a cohort of Canadian college students studied by psychologist Robert Altemeyer. Their scores on an ideology test at age 22 grew more conservative by an average of 5.4 percent when they were retested at 30. But among those 30-year-olds who’d had children, conservatism increased by 9.4 percent. Why did having kids push people to the right? Parents stay on the lookout for possible sources of danger that nonparents can ignore. This shift in perception is so strong it creates an illusory sense of risk; new parents tend to believe that crime rates have increased since they had children even when actual crime has dropped dramatically. Because “dangerous world” thinking is associated with political conservatism, parenthood pushes people to the right, and more so when they have daughters. Experts on personality, such as McCrae, a psychologist at the National Institute of Aging, say people’s personalities may also be hard-wired to shift over time. As we age, changes in gene expression may subtly alter openness, conscientiousness, and other traits. These traits and the
personality shifts that unfold between late adolescence and early adulthood are moderately heritable between generations. To understand why both nature and the environment tug at our personalities at certain times, we must trace these subtle changes in our personality to activity in the brain. Neuroscientists once assumed that the brain, along with the rest of the body, finishes dramatic development after puberty. But we now know that it doesn’t reach full maturity until at least age 25. Consider the prefrontal cortex, which lies directly behind the forehead. It’s responsible for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and making complex cost-benefit judgments that weigh immediate incentives against future consequences. Unlike most regions of the brain, the prefrontal cortex continues to grow, and its cautionary functions go on developing well into the mid-20s. Much earlier, in adolescence, a part of the brain called the limbic system, which plays a central role in sexual arousal and pleasure, kicks into action, stimulating thrill-seeking and risktaking. Actuaries who work for car insurance companies have long deemed people younger than 25 risky. Why would nature permit this tempestuous gap between the flaring up of teenage passions and the onset of mental maturity 10 years later? These personality changes are probably evolutionary adaptations to different phases of the life cycle. High levels of openness encourage the young to wander the world and find a mate. Conscientiousness is crucial when raising a family. Political pollsters are well aware of these life cycle personality changes, which is why they pay so much attention to age. When youth turn out to vote in higher numbers, as they do in presidential elections, analysts can stratify their samples to look for trends by age brackets that correspond roughly to before and after the brain developments that happen in the mid-20s: That is, they analyze the 18- to 24-year-old group separately from the 25- to 29-year-old group. In midterm elections, when the youth vote is underrepresented, pollsters often lump them all into one demographic group, 18 to 29. In this era of big data, political pros of course have other tools at their disposal that make analysis of these large groups less relevant. As Chief Executive Officer Jim Walsh of the political ad network DSPolitical points out, it’s now easy to microtarget individuals of any age and according to dozens of other demographic and consumer categories. Nevertheless, public opinion experts still keep tabs on age groups to study their impressionability to the changing flow of history, culture, and economic cycles. In some cases, current events trump life cycle stages, altering the collective attitudes of a cohort in surprising ways. In 1984, 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale by a 22-percentage-point margin—the same margin as 50- to 64-year-olds. This youth vote may have been anomalously conservative, because Reagan had presided over a strong recovery from recession and Mondale was perceived to be a weak candidate. Young Republican voters in 1984 may also have been expressing their feeling of disconnect with the liberal social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s young voter adheres more closely to the personality pattern shaped by evolution, though environmental variables such as the social media revolution have left a mark as well. As expected, millennials lean substantially to the left on most social issues, but slightly less so on economic issues. These “digital natives,” who grew up steeped in social media, have also been dubbed the Selfie Generation. And Selfie may be a more apt description: The age group is characterized by individualism across the board. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are far less affiliated with traditional political, religious, and cultural institutions and less likely to be married than previous generations were. Some commentators have accused the Selfie Generation of having a sense of entitlement, interpreting their individualism as a kind of Facebook-induced narcissism. Other observers have argued that millennials measure higher in cynicism and singleness—and more often live with their parents—because they face worse economic prospects than did the previous two generations.
Whichever perspective one takes, our changing economic and technological environments have surely left an impression on millennials and molded their political behavior in various unforeseen ways. Still, like most 18- to 29-year-old cohorts, their vote is markedly more liberal than average. Despite generational idiosyncrasies, the universal stages of life do influence our political orientations, true to Guizot’s words. And like many other facets of our political nature, these life cycle shifts have deep evolutionary roots.