How Polarization Deceives


It’s a Malkin-Moore, MSNBC-FOX world. Brian Merchant summarizes a recent study on the “moral stereotypes of liberals and conservatives.” Merchant notes that “that both conservatives and liberals exaggerate not just the shortcomings of the moral views of their political opponents, but those of their own peers as well”:

A Republican, for instance, might end up believing that liberals want to turn the nation into a nonstop San Francisco-style gay sex party. But he’ll also likely think that his fellow GOPers in general are more anti-gay rights than he is. He’ll exaggerate both the moral ideals of his opponents and his own political brethren. However, he’ll correctly intuit the difference between the nature of his and his in-group’s moral priorities from liberals’; he’ll just exaggerate how great those differences are.

What has long struck me is the reification of the enemy – along boomer culture war lines. Political positioning remains overwhelmed by cultural identity in this country, certainly among the over-40s. Obama is not like this, as I noticed more than five years ago now. Most of the next generations aren’t. But the post-Vietnam hippies-vs-squares, protestors vs ‘patriots’ dynamic is alive and well – and is particularly vivid among the self-understood “losers” of the culture wars, who tend to be disproportionately Republican and rural. You see it in places like the New York Post or the O’Reilly Factor. All you need to know for O’Reilly is that someone is “far-left.” Quite what that means in terms of policy is very hard to say on any specific point. But he knows them when he sees them, and vice-versa on the Ed Shultz left. And the visceral hatred for conservative types on the left is just as egregious. The contempt for so many people’s intelligence, people who are far more complex than these caricatures convey, is liberalism’s greatest weakness right now, I’d say.

We’re human, so we’re tribal, and there’s not much we can do about that. But the intensity of the tribalism among some? Perhaps ultimately incompatible with a reasoned liberal democracy.

(Photo: A demonstrator holds a sign near the Washington Monument during a march by supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement in Washington on September 12, 2010. By Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.)