In his chapters, “Your Brain on Groups” and “The Press Secretary in Your Mind,” Ezra Klein sets out in his book, Why We're Polarized, to show how group identity is a much more important factor in understanding the increased polarization of American political parties and their members than the policy platforms each party espouses.
Several research studies that Klein explicates have demonstrated that the subliminal pattern of human beings to self-sort into groups to secure a “group identity” overpowers every other factor in determining how and why human beings behave the way they do. This is just as true in the political arena as in every other.
Group identity is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact belonging to a group or groups nurtures our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual character. Recent research on the epidemic of loneliness that plagues our social order supports the power of group identity, but from the reverse side: social isolation has been shown to physically assault our bodies and minds with the same fortitude that disease or injuries assault us. Social isolation brings with it overwhelming stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and the inability to think rationally, plan, make sound decisions and regulate our emotions. In general, when we’re not part of a larger group, we tend to decline in health or fall apart.
Over and over again Lilliana Mason finds that identity is far more powerful than issue positions in driving polarization. … “This is the American crisis,” Mason writes. “Not that we have partisan identities, we’ve always had those. The crisis emerges when partisan identities fall into alignment with other social identities [i.e., “groups” that give us a sense of belonging], stoking our intolerance of each other to levels that are unsupported by our degrees of political disagreements.”
How we feel about some “one,” or a “group” of people that we don’t have much connection to, is much more predictive of our attitude toward them, and of our desire to cooperate and work together, than what we think about them. That’s because the subliminal source of our drive to be part of a group reaches back to more primitive days when our very--personal--survival depended upon being part of a group for protection.
For many of us things that trigger our “group identity radix” lie just below the surface of our rational decision-making processes. Policy issues often may not trigger the same kind of intense passion in us as, say, when someone threatens our family, or our spouse, or our livelihood. When our livelihood, our way of life, or our family or “group” is threatened, our survival instinct immediately kicks in, often before we’re even aware of it. It’s instinctual.
That’s why, for example, negative ads are so effective in political campaigns—they reach way down to our instinctual fears about our livelihood, which causes us to feel threatened.
How many times have we watched such ads and thought, “that’s so ridiculous,” or “no one could possibly believe that,” or “everyone can see through that nonsense?” And yet, negative ads are not designed to appeal to our rational thought process, but rather to our lower, more subliminal, survival instincts that rely heavily on being part of a group to stay alive.
For those who identify with the group that is sponsoring the ad, they find themselves reacting with anger, or hostility, or determination to “conquer” the opponent (usually, the other political party’s candidate). This reaction and identification with the group of like-minded people is so strong that the person “hooked” by the ad may join the fight even when their own self-interests will suffer (for example, when Republicans offer to cut taxes across the board with the greatest cuts going to the wealthiest, leaving working-class people less well-off!). Nothing appeals to our deeper instincts as much as a “common enemy.”
This graph demonstrates the relationship trend when our group identity comes into conflict with truth or facts that our primary identity group does not believe. It’s an inverse relationship: the STRONGER we identify with our “group” (going further out toward the right side of the graph), the less we are inclined to be persuaded by facts, truth and accurate information, especially if it conflicts with what our “group” believes and accepts as “truth.”
On the other hand, the LESS we identify with any one “group,” the freer we are to accept truth, facts or accurate information on their own merit. In other words, we are not bound by any “group-think” to accept or reject facts or truth due to our identity with the group.
What’s particularly scary about the power of group identity today, as opposed to say, 1950, is that many Americans identify much more closely with an influencing-group than they did 70 years ago. Hence, “identity politics.” Klein cites the work of Shanto Iyengar, for example, who worries that American political partisanship is “mutating into something more fundamental, and more irreconcilable, than what it had been in the past,” in other words, partisanship that defines who you are and what you believe rather than merely defining political viewpoints that happen to support.
Klein writes, “If [Iyengar] was right, then party affiliation wasn’t simply an expression of our disagreements; it was also becoming the cause of them. If Democrats thought of other Democrats as their group and of Republicans as a hostile out-group, and vice versa, then the consequences would stretch far beyond politics—into things like, say, marriage.
“And the data was everywhere. Polls looking at the difference between how Republicans viewed Democrats and how Democrats viewed Republicans now showed that partisans were less accepting of each other than white people were of black people or than black people were of white people” (p 76).
This same radical partisanship shows up in the Media as well. “The media has become tribal leaders,” [Sean Westwood] says. “They’re telling the tribe how to identify and behave, and we’re following along.”
How do we overcome the magnetic pull of identity politics? It turns out that the more “groups” one belongs to, the less one identifies with any one particular group. The more groups we belong to, the more each of our “group identities” is “crosscut” by more viewpoints, by a greater diversity of people, by different sets of operating values, and by different cultural traditions. Any chance at unity or cooperation between parties in American politics, and between people who identify strongly with a particular partisan viewpoint, will depend on how many different and divergent groups people embrace at the same time.