Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity

by Lilliana Mason

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Political polarization in America is at an all-time high, and the conflict has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy. For the first time in more than twenty years, research has shown that members of both parties hold strongly unfavorable views of their opponents. This is polarization rooted in social identity, and it is growing. The campaign and election of Donald Trump laid bare this fact of the American electorate, its successful rhetoric of “us versus them” tapping into a powerful current of anger and resentment.
With Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason looks at the growing social gulf across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently come to divide neatly between the two major political parties. She argues that group identifications have changed the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents. Even when Democrats and Republicans can agree on policy outcomes, they tend to view one other with distrust and to work for party victory over all else. Although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, they have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy. Bringing together theory from political science and social psychology, Uncivil Agreement clearly describes this increasingly “social” type of polarization in American politics and will add much to our understanding of contemporary politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226524689
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Lilliana Mason is assistant professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Read an Excerpt


Identity-Based Democracy

In the summer of 1954, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues recruited twenty-two fifth-grade boys from Oklahoma City and sent them to two adjacent campsites in Robbers Cave State Park. The boys were carefully selected to be nearly identical to each other in social, educational, physical, and emotional fitness. They were all white, Protestant, and middle class. None had ever met the others before. They were carefully divided into two equal-sized teams, designed to be similar to each other in every possible way. The two teams came to call themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers, and without knowing it they participated in a three-week-long psychological experiment.

During the first week, the teams were kept separate. The boys on each team grew to know each other and to form, from scratch, a sense of being a group. In the second week, each team learned of the other's existence. Having never laid eyes on the other team, the boys on each side immediately began referring to the others as "outsiders," "intruders," and "those boys at the other end of the camp." They grew impatient for a challenge. The experimenters arranged a tournament between the Eagles and the Rattlers. When they came into contact for the very first time — to play baseball — a member of the Eagles immediately called one of the Rattlers "dirty shirt." By the second day of the tournament, both teams were regularly name-calling and using derogatory terms such as pigs, bums, and cheaters, and they began to show reluctance to spend time with members of the other team. Even boys who were compelled to sit out the competitions hurled insults from the sidelines.

In the next few days, the relations between the teams quickly degraded. The Eagles burned the Rattlers' flag. The Rattlers raided the Eagles' cabin in the middle of the night. The Eagles raided the Rattlers' cabin in the middle of the day. Boys from both sides began to collect rocks to use in combat, fistfights broke out, and the staff decided to "stop the interaction altogether to avoid possible injury" (Sherif et al. 1988, 115). They were sent back to their separate camps. By the end of the second week, twenty-two highly similar boys who had met only two weeks before had formed two nearly warring tribes, with only the gentle nudge of isolation and competition to encourage them.

By the start of the third week, the conflict had affected the boys' abilities to judge objective reality. They were given a task to collect as many beans off the ground as possible. Each boy's collection was viewed by both groups on an overhead projector for five seconds. The campers were asked to quickly estimate the number of beans collected by each child. Every boy estimated more beans for their own teammates than for the children on the opposing team. The experimenters had shown them the same number of beans every time.

The Robbers Cave experiment was one of the first to look at the determinants and effects of group membership and intergroup conflict. It inspired years of increasingly precise and wide-ranging research, looking into exactly how our group memberships shape us, affect our relationships with outsiders, and distort our perceptions of objective reality. The following chapters will discuss many of these results. But the simplicity of the Robbers Cave experiment is itself telling. The boys at Robbers Cave needed nothing but isolation and competition to almost instantaneously consider the other team to be "dirty bums," to hold negative stereotypes about them, to avoid social contact with them, and to overestimate their own group's abilities. In very basic ways, group identification and conflict change the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents.

We, as modern Americans, probably like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and tolerant than a group of fifth-grade boys from 1954. In many ways, of course, we are. But the Rattlers and the Eagles have a lot more in common with today's Democrats and Republicans than we would like to believe. Recently, the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump laid bare some of the basest motivations in the American electorate, and they provide a compelling demonstration of the theory underlying this book.

The Trump phenomenon is particularly rooted in identity and intergroup competition — something that Trump himself often highlights. In September 2015, then-candidate Trump told a crowd, "We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning" (Schwartz 2015). Trump's ultimately successful rhetoric, while often criticized for its crudeness and lack of ideological coherence, is consistent in its most important message: we will win. The "we" that is promised to win is a crucial element for understanding the election of Donald Trump and, more broadly, recent politics in the American electorate as a whole.

The election of Trump is the culmination of a process by which the American electorate has become deeply socially divided along partisan lines. As the parties have grown racially, religiously, and socially distant from one another, a new kind of social discord has been growing. The increasing political divide has allowed political, public, electoral, and national norms to be broken with little to no consequence. The norms of racial, religious, and cultural respect have deteriorated. Partisan battles have helped organize Americans' distrust for "the other" in politically powerful ways. In this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of "us versus them" and "winning versus losing" is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party.

Across the electorate, Americans have been dividing with increasing distinction into two partisan teams. Emerging research has shown that members of both parties negatively stereotype members of the opposing party, and the extent of this partisan stereotyping has increased by 50 percent between 1960 and 2010 (Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes 2012). They view the other party as more extreme than their own, while they view their own party as not at all extreme (Jacobson 2012). In June 2016, a Pew study found that for the first time in more than twenty years, majorities of Democrats and Republicans hold very unfavorable views of their partisan opponents (Pew 2016). American partisans today prefer to live in neighborhoods with members of their own party, expressing less satisfaction with their neighborhood when told that opposing partisans live there (Hui 2013).

Increasing numbers of partisans don't want party leaders to compromise, blaming the other party for all incivility in the government (Wolf, Strachan, and Shea 2012), even though, according to a 2014 Pew poll, 71 percent of Americans believe that a failure of the two parties to work together would harm the nation "a lot" (Pew 2014). Yet, as a 2016 Pew poll reports, "Most partisans say that, when it comes to how Democrats and Republicans should address the most important issues facing the country, their party should get more out of the deal" (Pew 2016).

Democrats and Republicans also view objective economic conditions differently, depending on which party is in power (Enns and McAvoy 2012). In the week before the 2016 election, 16 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats believed the US economy was getting better. In the week after the election, 49 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats believed the economy was improving (Gallup 2016).

These attitudes are all strikingly reminiscent of the relations between the Rattlers and the Eagles. Those boys desperately wanted to defeat each other, for no reason other than that they were in different groups. Group victory is a powerful prize, and American partisans have increasingly seen that goal as more important than the practical matters of governing a nation. Democrats and Republicans do not like each other. But unlike the Rattlers and the Eagles, the Democrats and Republicans today make up 85 percent of the American population.

This book looks at the effects of our group identities, particularly our partisan identities and other party-linked identities, on our abilities to fairly judge political opponents, to view politics with a reasoned and unbiased eye, and to evaluate objective reality. I explain how natural and easy it can be for Democrats and Republicans to see the world through partisan eyes and why we are increasingly doing so. Just like the Rattlers and the Eagles, American partisans today are prone to stereotyping, prejudice, and emotional volatility, a phenomenon that I refer to as social polarization. Rather than simply disagreeing over policy outcomes, we are increasingly blind to our commonalities, seeing each other only as two teams fighting for a trophy.

Social polarization is defined by prejudice, anger, and activism on behalf of that prejudice and anger. These phenomena are increasing quickly — more quickly, in fact, than the level of our policy disagreements. We act like we disagree more than we really do. Like the Rattlers and the Eagles, our conflicts are largely over who we think we are rather than over reasoned differences of opinion.

The separation of the country into two teams discourages compromise and encourages an escalation of conflict, with no camp staff to break up the fights. The cooperation and compromise required by democracy grow less attainable as partisan isolation and conflict increase. As political scientist Seth Masket wrote in December 2016, "The Republican Party is demonstrating every day that it hates Democrats more than it loves democracy" (Masket 2016). That is, the election of Donald Trump and the policy and party conflicts his campaign engendered has revealed a preference for party victory over real policy outcomes that has only been building over time.

The First Step Is to Admit There Is a Problem

In 1950, the American Political Science Association (APSA) assembled a Committee on Political Parties that produced a report arguing for a "responsible two-party system" (American Political Science Association 1950). As they argued, "popular government in a nation of more than 150 million people requires political parties which provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives of action" (APSA Report 1950, 15). Parties, therefore, simplify politics for people who rightly do not have the time or resources to be political experts. In fact, E. E. Schattschneider argued in 1942 that "political parties created democracy and that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties" (Schattschneider 1942, 1).

Sean Theriault, in his 2008 book on congressional polarization, described the context of the APSA report this way:

When the report was released (the 81st Congress, 1950), the average Democrat in the House was less than 3 standard deviations away from the average Republican. In the Senate, the distance was less than 2.25 standard deviations. Little changed in the ensuing 25 years. ... As a result of both polarization between the parties and homogenization within the parties, by the 108th Congress (2003–4), the average party members were separated by more than 5 standard deviations in the House and almost 5 standard deviations in the Senate. ... Now, political scientists, in claiming that party polarization has drastic consequences, are offering reforms to weaken the party leadership inside Congress. ... Although polarized parties may be ugly for the legislative process, they were the prescription for a responsible electorate. No longer are constituents forced to make the complicated vote choice between a liberal Republican and a conservative Democrat. Additionally, voters need not wonder whom to credit or blame for the way that Congress operates. (Theriault 2008, 226)

Political parties are indeed important elements of democracy. Parties simplify the voting decision. The vast majority of American citizens are not, and cannot be expected to be, political experts. They do not read legislation; many do not even know which party is currently in the majority. But most voters have a sense of party loyalty. They know, either through a lifetime of learning, from parental socialization, from news media, or through some combination thereof, that one party is better suited to them. This acts as a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that allows voters to make choices that are informed by some helpful truth. According to Schattschneider (1942), this is a crucial element of representative democracy.

Even better, when people feel linked to a party, they tend to more often participate in politics, just like sports fans attend a game and cheer. Partisanship, then, is one important link between individuals and political action. It encourages citizens to participate and feel involved in their own democracy.

So why write a book about the problems generated by partisan identity? It should be clarified at the start that this book is not opposed to all partisanship, all parties, party systems, or even partisan discord. There has been, and can be, a responsible two-party system in American politics. Instead, this book explains how the responsible part of a two-party system can be called into question when the electorate itself begins to lose perspective on the differences between opponents and enemies. If the mass electorate can be driven to insulate themselves from their partisan opponents, closing themselves off from cordial interaction, then parties become a tool of division rather than organization. Parties can help citizens construct and maintain a functioning government. But if citizens use parties as a social dividing line, those same parties can keep citizens from agreeing to the compromise and cooperation that necessarily define democracy.

Partisanship grows irresponsible when it sends partisans into action for the wrong reasons. Activism is almost always a good thing, particularly when we have so often worried about an apathetic electorate. But if the electorate is moved to action by a desire for victory that exceeds their desire for the greater good, the action is no longer, as regards the general electorate, responsible.

In the chapters that follow, I demonstrate how partisan, ideological, religious, and racial identities have, in recent decades, moved into strong alignment, or have become "sorted." This means that each party has grown increasingly socially homogeneous. It is not a new finding. Matthew Levendusky (2009) wrote a thorough review of how partisan and ideological identities, in particular, have grown increasingly sorted. Alan Abramowitz (2011) wrote a full summary of the polarization of various demographic groups in the American electorate. Both authors note the increasing divide in the electorate but generally come to the conclusion that, on balance, this sorting or demographic polarization could be read as a source for good, as it has simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement.

I take a more cautious, even cautionary, view of the effects of the social, demographic, and ideological sorting that has occurred during recent decades. In line with Bill Bishop's (2009) book The Big Sort, I argue that this new alignment has degraded the cross-cutting social ties that once allowed for partisan compromise. This has generated an electorate that is more biased against and angry at opponents, and more willing to act on that bias and anger.

There is a very wide line between a political rally and an angry mob. At some point, however, there must be an assessment of how closely a responsible party can or should approach that line. When parties grow more socially homogeneous, their members are quicker to anger and tend toward intolerance. I argue here that, despite clearer partisan boundaries and a more active public, the polarizing effects of social sorting have done more harm than good to American democracy.

Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative, wrote in spring 2016, "Here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms" (Kagan 2016).

As American partisans find themselves in increasingly socially isolated parties, it is worth examining what kind of effects this social isolation may have on their political behavior and sense of civic responsibility.


For decades, political scientists have understood that the effects of partisanship are mitigated by what are called "cross-cutting cleavages." These are attitudes or identities that are not commonly found in the partisan's party. If a person is a member of one party and also a member of a social group that is generally associated with the opposing party, the effect of partisanship on bias and action can be dampened. However, if a person is a member of one party and also a member of another social group that is mostly made up of fellow partisans, the biasing and polarizing effect of partisanship can grow stronger.


Excerpted from "Uncivil Agreement"
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Table of Contents

ONE / Identity-Based Democracy
TWO / Using Old Words in New Ways
THREE / A Brief History of Social Sorting
FOUR / Partisan Prejudice
FIVE / Socially Sorted Parties
SIX / The Outrage and Elation of Partisan Sorting
SEVEN / Activism for the Wrong Reasons
EIGHT / Can We Fix It?

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