Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, both philosophers at Vanderbilt, recently published a piece about “Our Polarization Problem”. They distinguish between political polarization — a measure of distance between political groups, whether in terms of policy or groups’ attitudes toward each other — and belief polarization, wherein members of a group of shared belief talk mainly with other members of that group and thereby come to embrace more extreme versions of those beliefs. Political polarization waxes or wanes as rival political groups move further apart or closer to one another in their views, whereas belief polarization waxes or wanes within a group. I have some misgivings about their categorization, but the phenomena in question are familiar and well studied. Aikin and Talisse think that what we less often fail to appreciate is how belief polarization not only changes us, but changes our views of others:
One feature of belief polarization that is not frequently commented on is that as we become more extreme versions of ourselves, our beliefs about those with whom we disagree also shift. Again, repeated interactions with our fellow partisans transforms us into more extreme advocates of our partisan views, but it in addition makes nonpartisans look more alien to us. As we belief-polarize, we begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. We also lose the capacity to recognize nuance in their views; that is, belief polarization leads us to regard our opponents’ views as monolithic, brute, and extreme. We moreover come to regard larger and larger portions of their behavior as explicable by their political commitments; in other words, as belief polarization takes effect, we come to see more and more of what our opponents do – their shopping habits, what they eat, their profession, where they live, how they spend their weekends – as expressing their misguided political beliefs.
This other-regarding dimension of the belief polarization phenomenon provides the connection between belief and political polarization. As belief polarization leads us to regard our political rivals as increasingly benighted, irrational, and unreasonable, we become more and more inclined to distrust, dislike, and resent those who we regard as our opponents. We thus isolate ourselves increasingly among our political allies, and this in turn contributes further to belief polarization. Our political alliances thereby become more tightly knit and exclusionary; and consequently political parties and their leaders are incentivized to punctuate (and overstate) their policy and platform differences. All of this occurs within a self-perpetuating, spiraling dynamic that intensifies civic divisions and inter-partisan animosity. That is, belief polarization sets in motion a broader dynamic that not only codifies political polarization, but also erodes our capacity for proper democracy.
The main worry that Aikin and Talisse emphasize is that belief polarization yields ‘civic enmity,’ “the condition that prevails when democratic citizens lose the capacity to regard those with whom they disagree as entitled to an equal share of political power.” The connection they see between belief polarization and civic enmity certainly fits the anecdotal evidence I could offer from my own life, and I think we’re on pretty safe ground supposing that civic enmity is at least usually going to be a bad thing — most of those with whom we disagree are not in fact less deserving than we are of an equal share of political power (though I suppose Brennan might beg to differ). What worries me quite a bit more, though, is that belief polarization might in fact make other groups’ views and attitudes toward a highly belief-polarized group more justified, maybe even…true.
Aikin and Talisse’s description of the belief polarized person fits a good many progressive academics I know. Progressives who spend some time reading conservative intellectual commentary will quickly discover that its descriptions of ‘the left’ often bear only a tenuous connection to reality. But the same tends to be true of progressive descriptions of conservatives. I am not conservative by any sane standard of measurement, but I regularly fail to recognize conservative thought or sentiment — whether high-brow intellectual stuff or more ordinary stuff — in progressive caricatures. The right tends to be no better, of course, but the progressives are supposed to be the smart ones, right? At the risk of appealing to what is perhaps by now a cliché, I doubt that most people could pass an ideological Turing test.
I’ve been complaining about something like this for about a decade. In the past few years, though, I’ve found it harder to resist succumbing to it myself. My working hypothesis for why it’s become harder is that the rise of Trumpism has given greater prominence to a different set of voices, voices that I find easier to regard as the voices of the willfully ignorant and vicious. I think it goes without saying that most MAGA types are heavily belief-polarized. At the same time, many progressives appear to be becoming even more belief-polarized than in the past, and in some cases more narrowly belief-polarized, contracting the range of views that minimally decent and respectable people can hold. As their belief-polarization increases, both groups see their opponents as “monolithic, brute, and extreme,” as Aikin and Talisse say. But by the same token, both groups’ own views become more monolithic and extreme, if not always exactly brute. There’s not what I would regard as anything like a moral equivalence, but there’s certainly a moral analogy.
Aikin and Talisse’s discussion of political and belief polarization seems to presuppose that belief polarization’s effects on how we view other groups are not reasonable. In the past, I would certainly have agreed that they aren’t. What I now worry is that, as those effects increase on all sides, they become more reasonable, or at least more plausible to outsiders. To be sure, these beliefs are rarely arrived at by rationally respectable means. But as partisans succumb to belief polarization, their opponents’ view of them as extreme and implacably hostile turns out to be true, and the amount of available countervailing evidence shrinks.