Democracy and the Good Life Part 4: Ideology and Polarization

Ideology and Polarization

“The new Reich…has more need of enemies than friends: only in opposition does it feel itself necessary.” Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche

Shifts in the way political marketplaces work have mirrored the hyper-efficiency and exploitation of modern digital marketplaces. If economic marketplaces have become the locus of desire-creation, political marketplaces are all about belief creation.

There are three ways to build market share in a democracy — patronage, indirect rewards and moral persuasion. Of these, only persuasion can be endlessly scaled without friction. It’s that ability to grow without friction that has made ideology the chief instrument of modern democratic marketplaces. Yet what we have traditionally considered to be political persuasion — convincing voters of the virtues of some particular policy — is not at all what sells. Instead, our marketplaces are dominated by giant lifestyle branding machines that have gradually built up a walled-garden of zealous consumers who define themselves by the ideology they attach to their identity, not the products they buy. Voters are sold a vast bundle of ideas packaged like rolls of Costco toilet Paper. This is Consumer Packaged Ideology.

The result of this wholesaling of ideas in a ruthlessly efficient democratic marketplace has been bad for democracy and even worse for individual decision-makers. At the personal-level, CPI has reduced or eliminated some of the benefits that democracy ought to bring, and it has created new hazards and traps that make exploring a good life much harder.

If community, legitimacy, integrity and variety are the benefits an individual decision-maker should expect in a democratic system, the growth of packaged ideologies as THE products in the democratic marketplace impair all of them.

As Churchill notes, fights over ideology are very different than fights over self-interest. They are far less rational. The push-pull and diversification of indirect rewards discourages an “us vs. them” lens on politics. Everyone is advantaged in some respects and disadvantaged in others — everyone belongs to myriad interests and will share at least some interests with almost everyone. Ideas might work similarly, but once they are bundled into a package, diversification goes away. The fewer bundles available in the democratic marketplace, the more likely it is that people will have little or no shared interests except with their bundle buyers. This creates strong tendencies toward polarization and destroys the benefits of political community. Instead of empathy and political maturity, people get enmity and demands for purity.

Legitimacy, too, suffers as polarization creates increasingly binary outcomes in the democratic system. When lots of interests are competing, people should feel as if they are at least sometimes winning, but when people are divided up into two camps, the larger camp will completely dominate. Domination is anathema to legitimacy and quickly creates a sense of disenfranchisement which turns to disillusionment with democratic government. Packaging consumer ideologies is, when taken to extremes, a return to tribalism. When one tribe rules another by force, even if the force is cloaked under the guise of a majority, legitimacy is lost.

It’s not clear that the growth in packaged ideology fosters a culture of corruption, but there are reasons to think it might. When people are busy fighting over big packages of meaningless and incoherent ideas, it’s easier for those in charge to funnel benefits to themselves. Since the business of government that is half-the-economy will and must go on regardless of whatever those fights are about, the opportunities for personal and tribal enrichment will likely be irresistible. Ideological dominance creates a much larger set of one-party governments. In the United States, very few cities or states are still competitive between two parties. When a party no longer fears voter rejection, political office becomes a matter of cronyism and the temptations of corruption increase as the penalties diminish. There is, too, the creeping hypocrisy of a system in which indirect rewards are allocated but not fought over — with everyone pretending to be engaged in battles for justice as they give themselves ever increasing slices of the pie.

That both community and legitimacy are being degraded by ideology is obvious in the massive increase in political polarization. Increased polarization isn’t one of those sporadic hysterical fits that possess the pundit class several times a year — it’s very real. We all feel it, but it’s also well documented by political scientists and sociologists. Studies of affective polarization (the tendency of members of one political party to view ingroup members positively and outgroup members negatively) show a dramatic increase over the last 4 decades.

Parental displeasure and mating choice based on party affiliation are a powerful example. In the United States, parents are much less likely to object to their children marrying across race or religion than across political party.[1] Almost two-thirds of Americans say they wouldn’t date someone who disagreed with their positive or negative assessment of the current President. In 1973, the level of political agreement among newlyweds was 54% — barely better than a coin-flip. By 2016, it had risen to 74%.[2] Fifty years ago, racial lines dominated political ones when it came to relationships.

No longer.

A 2018 opinion research study took a set of stock ideological political statements and asked people not only whether they agreed or disagreed, but whether they thought Republicans or Democrats would agree or disagree. The results were illuminating.

They found that members of the political parties are seriously mistaken about the actual views of members of the other party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with the strongest political commitments were the most mistaken in describing how members of the other party would answer.

Here’s a chart of how the seven political segments the study identified fared in terms of accurately describing whether Republicans and Democrats would agree or disagree with bellwether statements (e.g.,” Properly controlled, immigration can be good for America” or “America Should be a Socialist Country”):

The largest perception gaps (errors in describing how members of the opposing party would answer) are from the strongest partisans at each end of the scale. The people who could most accurately predict how opposing party members would react? The politically disengaged.

Not only did partisanship drive dramatic misperceptions of opponent’s views, but none of the factors that you might think mitigating were helpful. Increased political knowledge and awareness were negatively correlated with perceptual accuracy. So was education. Post-graduate Democrats were almost 4x worse than Democrats lacking a High-School degree in accurately attributing opposing Party beliefs. Consuming news was strongly correlated with perceptual inaccuracy (people who read news “most of the time” were 3x less accurate than people who rarely read the news). And, less surprisingly, social media usage was also well correlated with perceptual error.

In modern America, the people with the most accurate perception of political opinion are the people who care the least about politics and pay the least attention.

Why, it’s almost as if an extremely efficient market was actively increasing susceptible people’s error rate. Of course, that’s what consumer packaged ideology is for. Polarization is the logical and inevitable result of packaging ideas into branded ideologies and selling them in a highly efficient market.

That means democratic government (big or little D) isn’t riding over the hills to save anyone from the pernicious influence of markets. Democratic government is a marketplace with the same disincentives with respect to your beliefs as economic markets have to your desires. Worse, and as an inevitable outcome of that fact, the ideology industry has become something more than a simple mechanism for harvesting votes. The ideology industry has succeeded in creating massive belief change; we live in a world where political ideology has replaced religion, community, virtue and sometimes wealth as the focal point of meaning in life.

A considerable mass of people now think that the most important kind of ideas to have are political. These are precisely the people most likely to be repelled by the hyper-competitive materialism of market culture and who might otherwise have provided a useful cultural counterweight to overwrought capitalism. Instead, they’ve been sucked into their own, even more soul-crushing marketplace.

That makes the cultural environment doubly dangerous. A few decades back, people just had to worry about a tidal wave of materialism drowning everyone in desire. Now there is an equally seductive shore, a land where massively incentivized purveyors of political pornography are hawking their wares. You too can be a Social Justice Warrior or a MAGA Hat-Wearer.

All it will cost you is your self.

[1] Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence of Group Polarization

[2] Konitzer, PredictWise from Quartz

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