Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
The international initiative More in Common, in collaboration with Purpose and YouGov, recently released an extensive report on the state of civic life among the American electorate.
Reviewing research on how contemporary Americans perceive the political climate in the United States, they assert that more Americans than ever perceive deep partisan division between Democrats and Republicans; meanwhile, trust in members of other, rival, political groups and in long-standing institutions is in decline. This polarization is known to be driven by numerous factors, including:
- Rapid demographic changes
- Increased economic inequality, stagnation in median wage, and job insecurity
- The persistent threat of terrorism post 9/11
- The “echo chamber” effect of social media
- Partisanship of cable television and other media sources
- Erosion of confidence in the “American dream.”
Yet, they contend, “A less recognized factor of polarization is how it is shaped by competing ways of perceiving and experiencing the world. Previous research in social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience suggests that political behavior is strongly impacted by people’s core beliefs” (p. 18).
Core beliefs are defined as “the system of beliefs, values and identities that reflect each individual’s experience and shape his or her interpretation of the world” (p. 18). The authors contend that we can better explain similarities and differences in political attitudes among Americans by looking at these core beliefs in interaction with traditional demographic categories such as race, gender, income, or party affiliation.
Context and Methodology
Responses were collected from December 2017 to January 2018 via YouGov. A total of 8,000 respondents were surveyed. Forty-five of these respondents were excluded on the basis of response quality, leaving a total sample of 7,955. All respondents provided demographic information and completed the 58 items measuring core beliefs. Additionally, each respondent completed a section on one of four thematic issue areas:
- Immigration and American identity
- Race and social justice
- Gender and sexuality
- Religion and extremism
Thirty-hour long interviews with individuals who were distributed across the 7 tribes were also conducted. Additionally, 6 different focus groups, consisting of 8-10 people were also conducted. These interviews provided additional qualitative data on American political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
The core beliefs assessed are listed and defined below (see p. 22):
- Group identity: the extent to which people identify with different groups based on nationality, gender, political party, ethnicity and other factors; views on who is mistreated in American society
- Perceived threat: the extent to which people see the world as a dangerous place
- Parenting style and authoritarian disposition: basic philosophies regarding people’s approach to parenting, which past research suggests may have important predictive power in explaining their attitudes towards more general public policies and authoritarianism
- Moral foundations: the extent to which people endorse certain moral values or “foundations,” including fairness, care, purity, authority and loyalty
- Personal agency: the extent to which people view personal success as the product of individual factors (such as hard work and discipline) versus societal factors (such as luck and circumstance).
Finally, the political views assessed consisted of questions concerned with 7 issue areas:
- Immigration, refugees, the border wall, DACA, and sanctuary cities
- American identity and patriotism
- Police shootings, terrorism, and religion
- Race, racism, social justice, and white privilege
- Gender, sexuality, and sexism
- Media and political discourse
- Censorship, hate speech, political correctness, and belief in conspiracy theories
The researchers then conducted a cluster analysis on the individual survey responses, ultimately Identifying seven “tribes,” or segments of the electorate which distinctive sets of characteristics.
The Seven Tribes
The Exhausted Majority
Importantly, traditional liberals, passive liberals, the politically disengaged, and the moderates are classified as an “exhausted majority.” By this, the authors mean, they are ideologically flexible, do not conform to either partisan ideology, and tend to hold more complex and nuanced views on most issues, compared to the “wings” (i.e. progressive activists, traditional conservatives, and devoted conservatives):
“While members of the ‘wing’ groups (on both the left and the right) tend to hold strong and consistent views across a range of political issues, those in the Exhausted Majority tend to deviate significantly in their views from issue to issue.
Furthermore, the wing groups, which often dominate the national conversation, are in considerable isolation in their views on certain topics. For instance, 82 percent of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, but 80 percent also view political correctness as an issue. By contrast, only 30 percent of Progressive Activists believe political correctness is a problem.
“Similarly, most Americans hold complex views on refugees. Sixty-three percent of Americans are concerned that the refugee screening process ‘is not tough enough to keep out possible terrorists,’ but 64 percent simultaneously believe that ‘people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including America, to escape from war or persecution.’ Just 27 percent of Devoted Conservatives agree in this principle of the US accepting refugees. This suggests that the Exhausted Majority is more practical and less ideological than its more extreme counterparts (p. 12-13).”
Yet it is people on the “wings” who tend to set the public agenda:
“Public debates are often dominated by voices that come from the furthest ends of the spectrum and who are the least interested in finding common ground. This makes it much harder to make progress on these issues, deepening the frustration felt by many in the middle (see p. 70).”
Indeed, 72% of the exhausted majority reported they were pessimistic about the state of politics in America. One of their biggest concerns was over the ability of Americans to come together and bridge the partisan divides, and it was evident that the relentless tribalism they perceive from the wings, has turned many of them off from American politics (p. 114, emphasis in the original):
|Traditional Liberal||Passive Liberal||Politically Disengaged||Moderate|
|“Liberals aren’t completely right and conservatives are not completely right. We gotta meet in the middle, this entire country is based on compromise and we need to start moving forward as a country again.”||“I think it is possible to unite the country but people would have to give up their self-interest. Not all of their self-interest but some of it. Come to the table with an open mind. We have to come to the table, have a healthy debate, try our best to have a compromise…”||“You’re not going to know my opinion because you’ve not been in my place. If you’re able to truly pay attention to where I’m coming from, you understand why I feel that way. You have to let the differences come together and see why there are differences. You have to get that holistic view.”||“What would make me excited again is if people would just give somebody a chance. People should realize that we are all Americans. We have to accept what we have been given and we have to come together rather than divide, whether you are in agreement or not in agreement [with the choice of President or Congress]. In the past it’s never been this bad.”|
This pessimism was also evident in the level of engagement with politics that members of the exhausted majority reported. For instance, 70% of progressive activists and 56% of devoted conservatives reported sharing political content on social media in the past year, while only 19% from the exhausted majority did so. Members of the exhausted majority were also considerably less likely, in the past year, to have donated money to a political organization, to have attended a political meeting, and to have voted in a local election.
This lower level of engagement may be best captured by the result that close to half of people in the exhausted majority selected “none” when asked how they had been politically active in the past year. Only 1% of people on the wings selected this option.
Yet, despite the stark differences between the wings, the report concluded that the views and ideological flexibility of the exhausted majority provide reasons for optimism. Americans may be significantly less divided than we appear to be. Most seem willing to compromise, and even desire it. Indeed, all political tribes ranked “political division” as one of the country’s most pressing problems (overall, survey respondents identified “poor leadership” as the single biggest problem facing this country — although traditional and devoted conservatives dissented sharply from this consensus).
Communicating Across Divides
A number of different tools were used throughout the study to gauge how Americans feel about one another, and about their capacities to engage across difference.
For instance, feeling thermometers were employed to assess how respondents felt about a variety of groups in American society. Importantly, members of all racial groups surveyed reported an average warmth of 60 or higher for each race asked about (i.e., Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Whites). The feelings of Black, White, and Hispanic respondents diverged however, when asked about political groups (e.g., Clinton supporters, Black Lives Matter protesters, Trump supporters) and the police.
However, the progressive activists and devoted conservatives diverged for almost every group assessed, with American women and Asians being the exceptions (p. 105):
People at the wings were also considerably more likely to report that their ideology was central to who they are. Traditional liberals represented an exception, as they were similar to traditional and devoted conservatives on the centrality of ideology (and above the US average).
A similar, and stronger, pattern of results was evident for the homogeneity of one’s ideological group. The wings all reported greater levels of homogeneity in their ideological group than the exhausted majority; traditional liberals reported the US average:
In terms of pressure to conform to certain beliefs and behaviors, progressive activists reported feeling the most pressure from their ideological group to conform (42%, compared to 29% on average). Additionally, 61% of progressive activists reported that Americans (in general) pressure each other to think and act a certain way, whereas only 37% of devoted conservatives held this view.
Overall, survey respondents possessed nuanced views on free speech and political correctness. For instance, there was broad agreement about the persistence and prevalence of racism:
A majority of all segments agree that problems of racism are at least somewhat serious (82 percent overall), and 75 percent of the country believes that acts of racism are at least somewhat common. Furthermore, 60 percent of Americans believe that white supremacists are a growing threat in the United States, including 61 percent of the Moderates and 56 percent of the Politically Disengaged (p. 63).
Yet, most were cool to Black Lives Matter (48% support). This is likely in part because members of the different tribes varied in who they perceived as the most frequent target of intolerance: progressive activists and both liberal tribes reported it was Asian, Black, and Hispanic Americans; the remaining tribes reported it was White Americans.
Clear majorities also oppose the use of race in college admissions (87%) and believe that sensitivity around issues of race is too high (p. 97):
A similar ideological dynamic around sexism and gender issues. Overall, 75% of the exhausted majority agreed that problems of sexism are serious, yet close to half of the exhausted majority also agreed that people are overly sensitive about sex and gender issues.
Women (31%) were more likely than men (20%) to say that problems with sexism are “very serious.” Yet, the difference between progressive activists and devoted conservatives dwarfs the gender divide. Additionally, the attitudes and beliefs of progressive activists and devoted conservatives were considerably different from the average American (p. 100):
An interaction between tribe membership and gender was evident when respondents were asked if the rights of the opposite gender were more protected than their own gender, in American society. Eighty-three percent of female progressive activists reported that the rights of men were more protected than women, while 73% of male devoted conservatives reported the opposite.
Overall, as the report noted, “the vast majority of Americans want to feel free to speak their mind, but they also recognize that there should be limits on speech that is dangerous or hateful” (p. 128). Yet, even on this issue noticeable differences between the tribes emerged. The three liberal tribes and the politically disengaged all have stronger convictions concerning the need to protect people from dangerous and hateful speech, while the moderates and the two conservative tribes have stronger convictions regarding free expression:
The general climate in America today was perceived as one where there is a pressure to conform to thinking a certain way on issues of immigration and immigrants; race and racism; gay, lesbian, and gender issues; and Islam and Muslims. Across the board, respondents felt considerably more able to express what they thought about each topic when around people who were “like them” (p. 131):
The Hidden Tribes report concludes that Americans “are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other” (p. 137). Political rivals are increasingly presented as caricatures — helping to create the false impression that outliers who possess more extreme views on many issues are representative of how large swaths of “others” think and perceive the world.
According to the researchers, the best way to overcome increased polarization may be through appeal to an overarching national identity. They believe this could be effective based on the large number of people who do report a desire for compromise and an exhaustion with the current state of political affairs in America. There is also fairly-broad agreement on issues related to patriotism and national identity:
A slight majority of respondents (53%) “strongly” agreed that they were proud to be American, and 81% agreed that America is, overall, a better country than most others. Again, progressive activists (44% agreed) and devoted conservatives (85% agreed) differed strongly on this item (see Figure 7.3, p. 121).
When asked to select what was important to truly being an American, respondents overwhelmingly selected a belief in freedom and equality (91% overall, a range of 83 – 97% for the seven tribes). A clear majority also believed it was essential to speak English, although there was greater disagreement across the tribes on how important it is to have been born in America, or subscribe to Christianity (p. 123):
Why Are These Findings Important?
Standard public opinion polling typically presents findings with an emphasis on demographic factors such as race, gender, income, party affiliation, and ideological self-identification. Social science research on political attitudes and political behavior has expanded this focus to include what the Hidden Tribes report dub “core beliefs.” Importantly, in this approach, factors such as party affiliation and ideological self-identification are considered downstream — an outcome of an individual’s core beliefs (see e.g., here, here, here).
A critical finding is that the wings (particularly the progressive activists and devoted conservatives) seem to be the primary drivers of political discourse in the U.S., despite representing a relatively small share of the electorate and holding views far outside the mainstream of public opinion on many issues. This echoes a conclusion reached by Andrew Gelman over a decade ago:
“The cultural divide of the two Americas looms larger at high incomes . . . A theme throughout this book is that the cultural differences between states — the things that make red and blue America feel like different places — boil down to differences among richer people in these states.”
A good portion of survey respondents reported feeling pressure to think in a certain way on a variety of topics, and indicated that this pressure was more prominent when around others “not like them.” Most felt that our political discourse has become too focused on taking offense and expressing outrage. Many of these survey respondents feel like their views are not well represented in the national conversation — and they want people who hold different political views to listen more to others and be more willing to compromise. A first step towards facilitating this compromise is recognizing that most Americans have more in common politically than they may realize — including that they share a sense of frustration about the state of contemporary civic culture, and they want to do something about it.
Hawkins, Stephen et al. (2018). Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape. New York, NY: More In Common.
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