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No Argument Here: Americans Talk Politics

Two scholars say most Americans get a healthy dose of political disagreement in their lives because, like moths to a flame, they can't help themselves.
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Among many observers of American politics, there is a growing concern that we are increasingly self-segregating into a polarized nation, a land of red states and blue states with little in between. Book titles like The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart express the worry that current demographic trends are undermining the possibilities for political consensus by creating a nation of geographic-based political echo chambers, which can only lead to further division and extremism.

Are things really this bad?

Well, not exactly, say two scholars who have analyzed the political networks and discussions of more than 3,000 individuals. Political science professors Robert Huckfeldt of the University of California, Davis, and Jeanette Morehouse Mendez of Oklahoma State University, are more hopeful. They find that, in their sample, most people who seek out political discussion do consistently encounter views contrary to their own. Or, as Mendez puts it, "political discussion, in various forms, is alive and well, and that is good for the country."

This is because, contrary to visions of America as isolated into red and blue camps, the scholars find that most people actually have a somewhat diverse range of views in their political-discussion networks — with a crazy co-worker or a curmudgeony uncle somewhere to give them a hard time. As the professors put it in a journal article describing their findings, there is "little evidence to suggest that people are particularly careful to construct networks of political communication that reflect their own political preferences." But more importantly, people encounter disagreement because, as Huckfeldt explains, "People who care about politics can't resist talking about it." And the more people talk about politics, the more they are bound to argue about politics. But the scholars also find that after a little while knocking heads, most people's heads start to hurt (some people like to argue, but most people don't), which in turn dampens their penchant for political chatter. But then, something new happens in the world — and because that's just how people are, they can't resist talking about it, even if they know it will lead to a new dispute. And so the cycle continues. Huckfeldt and Mendez liken this to phenomenon to moths drawn to flames (the title of their journal article summarizing the findings is called "Moths, Flames, and Political Engagement"), though Huckfeldt admitted that he also liked "picking at scabs" as an alternate title. Either way, the scholars believe that they've found a natural "dynamic tension inside democratic society," as Huckfeldt puts it, where people are alternatively drawn into and then grow frustrated with political debate. That people seem drawn into such arguments means that they are overcoming two powerful social-psychological forces that should diminish this kind of behavior. First, most people generally work hard to avoid something psychologists call "cognitive dissonance" — basically the condition of engaging with worldviews that contradict your own, especially when they come from those who you otherwise like and trust. Given the psychologically unpleasant nature of cognitive dissonance, most people tend to steer clear of situations they think might lead to it. Secondly, when people do suffer from cognitive dissonance, one way to deal is to just conform and take on the perspectives of everyone else in order to fit in. One might think that these forces would reduce disagreement through either avoidance or acceptance. But Huckfedlt and Mendez argue that a third force — some sort of need to just keeping talking about politics — overcomes the other two. Generally, a little bit of disagreement is widely acknowledged to be a good thing. As Mendez notes, "it is needed to introduce new ideas." It also helps to prevent the kind of sclerotic thinking that political philosophers — going back to John Stuart Mill and long before, Socrates — warned against. With no gadflies, there is nobody to keep you honest. Discussion, Huckfeldt contends, "is a stimulative to force people to think about things more seriously." But there is also a school of thought that frets that too much debate leads to ambivalence and too much ambivalence leads to political paralysis and demobilization. That is, those who see all sides of the debate lack the intensity of belief often needed for political action, while those who are more certain in their worldview feel much more empowered to act (Or, from a more cynical perspective, as Bertrand Russell once put it, "the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.")

In a 2004 paper, Huckfeldt, Mendez and Tracy Osborn (then an Indiana University Ph.D. student and now a University of Iowa political science professor) concluded that such worries were unfounded. Although the scholars found that being exposed to a wider range of views on the 2000 presidential candidates did make people more ambivalent and less polarized in their views of the candidates (as predicted), it did not keep them from going to the polls. "Any reasonable person should be ambivalent most of the time," Huckfeldt said.

Still, it's hard to argue that America hasn't become more polarized in recent years. Over the last few elections, partisan voting levels have reached all-time highs (fewer and fewer people are crossing party lines). And the study discussed here was conducted back in 1996, and in Indianapolis and St. Louis (generally considered more moderate places). But Huckfeldt, who has been studying political conversations and communications for about 30 years, remains convinced that the purported vicious cycle of ideological self-segregation and extremism is overblown.

And one good reason for this is simply that events have a way of reshuffling even the most carefully sorted ideological decks. In the dynamic moths-and-flames model, it is new developments that keep pushing people to talk about politics. And as the world changes, and as individuals seek to grapple with the changes by talking them through, a million individual conversations can collectively lead to macro-level changes in public opinion.

"There are all kinds of things going on at all times," Huckfeldt explained. "There are shocks to the system. It isn't exactly stable. Good grief, you have an African American running for president. That creates a lot of opportunity."

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