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The “Strongest Prejudice” Is Great For America

A new study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, titled Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization suggests that the biggest reason for partisanship in America today is ideology. No longer are race, gender, and religion the prime drivers of partisan divisiveness.

Haidt asserts that “This is extremely bad news for America because it is very hard to have an effective democracy without compromise.

I disagree strongly. I think it’s actually great for America.  It’s Haidt’s work that leads me to this conclusion.

Partisanship is just another word for Haidt’s key finding of human “groupishness:” Humans evolved to form into groups that then compete with other groups for political power. Partisanship is a natural and inevitable consequence of fundamental human nature.

Partisanship done right is healthy and beneficial for humankind. We’re very good at seeing the speck in one another’s eye, and very bad at seeing the log in our own. It is through the discussions and arguments that ensue from this that truth is found and knowledge is developed. The scientific method and peer review process leverage this aspect of human nature to the benefit of all.

Groups form around ideas, values, attributes, or traits shared by the individuals in the group.  We naturally gravitate toward people who are similar to ourselves.

Ideas surrounding race, religion, gender, sexual preference, and ideology are examples of values around which groups form.

Of these, the best is ideology: the vision of and for human nature and the role government should play.   All the others are red herrings that distract us from our fundamental partisan groupishness and cause us to focus instead on secondary traits. They’re the equivalent of the football in Haidt’s explanation for why so many people misunderstand religion:

But trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the motions of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community. – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, page 290.

Being divided over identity politics centered around religion, gender, sexual preference, etc. forces us to have the exact wrong conversations, and arguably exacerbates rather than ameliorates the very problems it seeks to solve.

Being divided over ideology, on the other hand, forces us to have the exact right conversation that we should be having, and to ask the exact questions we should be asking: “Freedom from or freedom to?” “Liberty or equality?”  

Having the right conversation forces further introspection. How do we choose between freedom from and freedom to, or between liberty and equality? What factors influence those decisions? What criteria should we use in order to make that determination? And based on the answers to those questions, it forces us to ask “How do we achieve them?”

It forces us to look honestly, openly, and directly at the very nature of partisanship itself, and at all of the other evolved psychological mechanisms that make us human and make us think, do, and say the things we do.

It forces us to look at the reality of human nature as it is rather than at the utopian fantasies that in a perfect world we think it should be.  It increases the odds that we’ll create policies that are effective because they comport with human nature and diminishes the odds we’ll create policies that are disastrous because they deny it and defy it.

The scientific news from Iyengar and Westwood about The Strongest Prejudice is no more “bad for America” than is the scientific news from Haidt and Heterodox Academy about the ideological purity of academia or the scientific news from Haidt and Lukianoff about The Coddling of the American Mind  

On the contrary, as Toni the Tiger says, “They’re GREAT!” for America, because they cause us, finally, to have exactly the sorts of conversations we should be having if we want to advance knowledge and develop policies based in truth, rather than continue along the two hundred year tangent of cognitively distorted thinking the unconstrained vision and its rationalist delusion have put us on. 


One thought on “The “Strongest Prejudice” Is Great For America

  1. I appreciate this perspective. I can’t be as enthusiastic as you about polarization on the whole, just because of the mountain of evidence that people do a better job of leadership by using basic social science findings that reduce demonization. I guess I see two things- one is reducing dehumanization, which one sees in the kind of No Labels recognition of a need to relate personally to one another. To me, it’s not much more complicated a point than expecting our leaders to implement practical politeness. There’s a way that groupishness can be very unhealthy through prohibiting basic forms of communication, or making it easy to assume moral weakness at the heart of the problem when it isn’t.

    The other side is what you seem to be emphasizing, which is that competition and alternative viewpoints are important in a democracy, and that it’s natural and healthy to fight hard for your values. Your “having the right conversation forces further introspection” and “Partisanship is a natural and inevitable consequence of fundamental human nature”. I think you’re conflating healthy and unhealthy aspects of polarization, but I think it’s quite important to rescue the healthy aspects of polarization from this assumption of it being an ultimate evil, perpetrated by slick, deceptive, rich white guys. People understand your perspective, even if it’s an unconscious understanding, which is why I think part of the reason the movement against polarization doesn’t have the success they hope for.


    Posted by jswagner | January 4, 2016, 11:08 pm

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