Aftermath of Antifa protests that led to the cancellation of right-wing Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk at UC Berkeley on the 1st February, 2017.

“(…) each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses (…) Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole.”

— Aristotle, Politics

In his work Politics, Aristotle, while discussing whether the supreme power in the state should belong to the multitude or to the few, argues that the principle of predominance of the many, as opposed to an oligarchy, is, even with all its flaws, grounded in an idea which often presents itself almost self-evidentially to us: that good-faith deliberation of many people is worthwhile since individuals can share knowledge and incorporate the best arguments of every side and, thereby, reach a conclusion/judgement which is more in accordance with reality.

Is it reasonable to expect that all deliberation will have this constructive, moderating effect on what people believe? In a group of people in which participants are exposed to a plurality of views and opinions, the necessary weighing of different arguments can occur.  However, groups can be homogeneous in opinions; what will be the outcome of deliberation then?


An interesting study by the University of Chicago Law School on group polarization had several groups of individuals from two counties in Colorado (one majority conservative and one majority democrat) deliberate on certain issues (such as affirmative action and global warming) and ranked their pre- and post-deliberation opinions. It found a consistent tendency for individuals to move toward their group’s pre-deliberation tendency, i.e. liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

The researchers argue, for instance, that informational influences are one of the factors that can explain this behavior. These come about due to the fact that, in any group with an initial pre-disposition, the number of arguments presented in favor of that the initial tendency will be bigger than those in the opposite direction; due to this biased argument pool, individuals are more likely to polarize and, with that, become more confident in their views. Adding to this, corroboration by like-minded people further increased individual’s assurance in their world-view. Factors like reputational concerns are likely also at play; usually, people care about being perceived favorably by others and may adjust their beliefs, even if only slightly, to better fit in with the group. (see Asch Conformity Experiment)

What are the implications of these results?

As it turns out, the geographical political segregation we see in the U.S. would seem to indicate that polarization will, as a matter of course, occur. Indeed, with large proportions of democrats in urban centers and with republicans dominating less densely populated areas, the above-described dynamics will occur and we would expect to see an increase in the opinion divide between liberals and conservatives. The data bears this out:

The Pew Research Center publishes many polls and reports on U.S.’ public opinion, political polarization and partisan divide; In addition to their 2017 report, which shows many metrics detailing the increasing divide between parties and people, they published an interactive chart very clearly corroborating our expectations.

Source: Pew Research Center. If you have trouble viewing the chart please visit the original website.


While geographical political segregation is undoubtedly a large potentiator of these tendencies, and certainly worrying due to the vicious cycle it creates, there’s another more recent factor worth mentioning: The Internet. At a first glance, one might think that, by freeing people’s interactions from the shackles of distance, the arrival of the world wide web could work against polarization. However, this effect will be lessened and perhaps completely nullified if people choose to isolate themselves on partisan lines online.

The question arises:

Are human beings’ homophilic tendencies observed online?

We should first understand that, with the spread of the Internet came the ability to access inordinate amounts of information; thereby, its selection became all the more vital. Of course, even before the arrival of the web, you could select what newspaper to read but information personalization was exponentiated greatly in the digital age. It is, as such, possible for individuals to cocoon themselves in informational and ideological bubbles where polarization can occur, just like what was observed in Colorado. Let’s look at a real example:

A study on Twitter’s political polarization gathered data on many users’ political interactions and analyzed the retweet and mentions networks that existed. It found two separate communities in the retweet network with a high degree of partisan division:

A    2019 poll from Berkeley IGS    shows that conservatives living in California (a very democrat-leaning state) are much more likely to having considered leaving the state than liberals; one of the most stated main reasons for this is the state’s political culture. Conservatives leaving the state, therefore, will make it more likely that other conservatives also move out.

A 2019 poll from Berkeley IGS shows that conservatives living in California (a very democrat-leaning state) are much more likely to having considered leaving the state than liberals; one of the most stated main reasons for this is the state’s political culture. Conservatives leaving the state, therefore, will make it more likely that other conservatives also move out.

On the other hand, when analyzing mentions, they found that this network did not reveal, as seen in the case of retweets, an obvious political division. Instead, there was a higher degree of heterogeneity. However, the researchers contend that, even though ideologically-opposed individuals interact with each other through the mentions network, this should not be interpreted as a cure for the issue of Twitter polarization. Indeed, since political discourse on the platform is already highly partisan and disconnected from normal, face-to-face interactions, they argue that “these interactions might actually serve to exacerbate the problem of polarization by reinforcing pre-existing political biases”.

The potential consequences of an increasing ideological divide between members of a society might warrant worry. For example, animosity between republicans and democrats in the U.S. has been increasing, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center report.


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This, combined with the occurrence of events such as the Charlottesville protests or the UC Berkeley protests, hints at a weakening social fabric as a symptom of the widening chasm.

Considering what we’ve seen so far, it would seem that polarization is fated to continue its course, especially since it is not clear what can and should done at an institutional level to face this problem. However, one thing is for sure: fomenting a culture in which individuals understand the benefits of learning from each other and, therefore, value meaningful, mutually-advantageous discourse can certainly go a long way in countering the above-described trend. Furthermore, crisply distinguishing between political disagreements/arguments and normal social interactions is of the utmost importance if we want to maintain cohesion in a society afflicted by a large ideological split.


Sources:

  • CNN

  • abc News

  • Pew Research Center

  • FiveThirtyEight

  • What Happened on Deliberation Day, University of Chicago Law School Chicago Unbound, Journal Articles

  • Political Polarization on Twitter, M. D. Conover, J. Ratkiewicz, M. Francisco, B. Gonc¸alves, A. Flammini, F. Menczer

  • Leaving California: Half of State’s Voters Have Been Considering This, Berkeley IGS Poll

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