Professor: It's time to break free of political ideologies

Professor: It's time to break free of political ideologies

America's polarization has climbed to unprecedented levels, reaching beyond politics to the very way we live, political psychologist Matt Motyl says.

And it's time we start trying to change it, he said.

According to data from, based on congressional roll-call votes, political polarization dropped to its low point in the mid-20th century, during World War II and immediately afterward during the Cold War, periods when the U.S. faced an external threat.

But it started to tick up in the late 1960s and saw a "huge spike" over the last decade, Motyl said.

"We're now more polarized than we were after the Civil War," said Motyl, a University of Illinois Chicago professor who spoke at the University YMCA Friday on "the Divided States of America" as part of the lecture series on the 2016 elections.

In fact, he said, polarization by party is now much bigger than any other measure — by gender, religious beliefs, even race, according to the Pew Research Center.

How did this happen?

Motyl believes residential segregation — by ideological beliefs — plays a big role.

He studies how people's moral, political and religious beliefs steer them into segregated "ideological enclaves" — red and blue communities, if you will.

We've all seen the political maps dividing the country into Democrat and Republican states — red in the South and the Plains, blue in the Northeast, West Coast and pockets of the Midwest.

But Motyl went deeper, examining which areas are solidly red or blue — where races tend to be decided by more than 20 percentage points — and those that are more competitive (less than 20 percent), based on individual counties.

In the 1970s, more than 70 percent of the country lived in competitive areas; today, it's just 19 percent.

Most people, he said, now live in "ideologically similar places."

"We don't know each other," he said. "We're segregating ourselves in many ways, geographically, ideologically, with the congressional representative we elect."

In 1951, it was common for legislators of opposing parties to co-author bills in Congress, which Motyl illustrated with red and blue dots connected in myriad ways. By 1977, those dots had started to cluster on the left and right; in 2011, "there's basically no connection," he said. "Democrats only write Democratic bills, and Republicans only write Republican bills."

Democrats now literally sit on the left side of the aisle and Republicans on the right.

It's reflected in, or perhaps encouraged by, social media. On Twitter, there's almost no connection between left and right, Motyl said. Each side talks about the other but they don't retweet or share messages with those of opposing viewpoints.

"We don't ever see what the other side is saying," he said.

All of this leads to different "moral cultures" and life experiences, he said.

While there are some universal human ideas, such as fairness, people have different notions of what that means. Conservatives tend to believe in an "equity principle" — if you work five hours, you should get rewarded accordingly. Liberals usually believe in equality of outcomes — if someone starts out lower, they might need help up. And those beliefs about fairness correspond closely with the red and blue states on the map, Motyl said.

Likewise, conservative areas tend to watch Fox News and "Duck Dynasty," while liberal areas watch MSNBC or CNN and "Modern Family." Liberals live in areas with more hybrid cars than SUVs and more bookstores than gunstores; it's the reverse in conservative areas.

All this separation makes it easier to demonize each other, he said. "If we don't know any conservatives it's easier for us to dislike them," and vice versa, he said.

It also tends to make people more entrenched in their views, he said.

"If we only talk to people who share the same views, we start shifting out toward the extremes," he said. "That makes it harder to have a conversation with people on the other side."

Motyl blogs about his work at PsychoPolitics and also created with two colleagues, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about how to improve intergroup civility.

He said it's not "hopeless," and offered this advice:

— Elect candidates who aren't "hyperpartisan" or promoting extremist agendas.

— At the state level, work on measures that allow open primaries and runoff voting, which tends to reduce hyperpartisanship, he said.

— Reduce the influence of money in elections, which also pressures candidates to be more partisan. Chairmanships on congressional committees used to be based on seniority, but now they're awarded based on how much money people raise and how much they do for the party, he said.

— Rebuild cross-party relationships, something everyone can do on a day-to-day basis. People need to get out of their "liberal and conservative bubbles."

"Try to have conversations with people on the other side of the aisle," he said.

Start out with the premise that "this person may not be evil." They may have valid points based on their own experience, which may be very different from yours, he said. You may not agree, but you need to try to understand it, he said.

"They're half of America," he said.

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David Green wrote on October 22, 2016 at 9:10 am

It's very disappointing that the Y would promote such a superficial analysis as being somehow informative. There is nothing that addresses the fundamental and very real, class-based differences on crucial issues of our time. Instead, partisanship is interpreted in terms of identity politics.

Rocky7 wrote on October 22, 2016 at 3:10 pm

I think the problems are deeper than stated.  BTW, I watch Duck Dynasty, Morning Joe and CNN news which I  guess qualifies me as a Center-Right independent