In the United States, political and public discourse have been increasingly marked by the rise of what scholars have termed “affective polarization” – that is, the idea that when we encounter people who disagree with us, we no longer view them as individuals who are simply wrong or mistaken. Instead, we view them as evil or immoral.
Challenging this trend toward affective polarization is of vital importance for faculty and university leaders at Christian colleges and universities who are looking to train up the next generation of leaders – but it is nevertheless a daunting challenge. That’s why Peter Baker, director of the CCCU’s American Studies Program (an intensive leadership and professional development program in Washington, D.C., that helps CCCU students learn what it means to be a Christian leader in political and public spheres) sat down for the following discussion on the rise of affective polarization, its impact on politics, and how faculty and university leaders can use their classrooms to help students combat this trend.
The conversation was held with Cherie Harder (president of The Trinity Forum, who formerly served as special assistant to former President George W. Bush and director of policy and projects for former First Lady Laura Bush) and Michael Wear (founder of Public Square Strategies LLC, who formerly directed faith outreach for former President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and served as the deputy director of the White House Office for Faith-Based Initiatives during Obama’s first term). The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Baker: Cherie, I’ll turn to you first. You’ve been in Washington, D.C., for over 20 years. To what degree have you encountered the dynamic of affective polarization in your work? Is this a new phenomenon? Are things different today than they used to be, and if so, how?
Cherie Harder: There certainly has always been partisanship, deep disagreement, and name-calling in politics. But I do think there are some things that are intensifying this trend toward affective polarization. One of those trends is that, unfortunately, our identities are becoming increasingly political. You can see this in various ways. It used to be that people would marry across party lines – people with very different political views – but would almost always marry someone who shared their faith. Now, almost 40 percent of marriages are to someone of a different faith tradition, but only around 23 percent of people who are getting married, or even cohabiting with someone, are doing so with someone of a different political party. In many ways, political affiliation is now seen as somehow more intrinsic to our identities than our faith commitments.
Our faith identities are also becoming more tribal in a sense. It’s been reported that around 80 percent of self-reported evangelicals are very strong supporters of President Trump. But if you look at the religious practice, church attendance, [and] adherence to particular doctrines of that group, the idea that they are “evangelical” in a doctrinal sense falls apart. In some ways, “evangelical” is becoming more of a tribal term rather than a creedal one.
At the same time, our politics are becoming increasingly apocalyptic. … Pew found that two-thirds of those who are highly politically involved say they fear the other side. That sense of fear is growing. There’s more fear and, with it, loathing than there used to be. … Now there’s a sense that both one’s identity and the future of the republic hinge on [your vote]. That makes it far more difficult to engage in any kind of compromise. It intensifies the idea that someone who disagrees with you is the enemy who needs to be vanquished rather than engaged.
Michael Wear: I resonate with so much of what Cherie raised. I do think that this [affective polarization] is a real thing that not only affects our politics, and how our politics operate, but it affects who we are as people. It affects the life of our churches. It affects how our college campuses operate. It affects, as Cherie pointed out, our marriages, our romantic relationships, and our friendships.
I think there are a number of factors that contribute to affective polarization. We could have a conversation about the increasing sophistication of political tools – the way that political campaigns are able to reach deeper into people’s lives and speak to them more personally than ever before, and the way that can trigger a more emotional response from folks.
We could talk about the stratification of media – the fact that we can receive our news and commentary from websites and sources that we know we’re generally going to agree with, and we end up in an echo chamber. We’ve talked for a long time about politicians being stuck in an echo chamber. We’re all in an echo chamber now.
But the corollary to that [stratification of media] is this ability – which we have not previously had to this extent – to hear the conversation our political opposition is having in a sort of unformed, unmediated kind of way. We’re easily able to get characterizations and caricatures in our mind of what our political opposition is, who it is, and what they represent. That’s new.
We see this play out all the time. If you’re a liberal, your political opponent is not just Donald Trump or Paul Ryan – it’s David Duke; it’s Richard Spencer. It’s the very worst of the opposition voices. So news outlets and media platforms, aided and sometimes produced directly by partisan advocacy groups and voices, lift up the most strident, toxic representation of what your political opposition looks like, and that’s the predominant image in your mind of who you’re working against. The same thing works on the right. For instance, I was recently on Tucker Carlson Tonight, and the leading segment into mine was about some Black Lives Matter protestors who had interrupted a cop’s wedding. [The argument was,] “This is what Black Lives Matter is about. They’re just going around interrupting poor cops’ weddings and destroying the most important day of their lives.”
We start to think this is who we’re dealing with. We’re no longer dealing with politicians that we disagree with on substance but generally have good intentions. We now have the ability to go on [sites like] Reddit and watch the most partisan of news media tell us stories about who our opposition is. It makes it difficult to say, “I’m going to come to the table and reason with my political opposition,” if the image that we have of our political opposition is of someone breaking up white cops’ weddings and others protesting to bring back the Confederacy. If those are the primary poles of our political debate, then it makes [the idea of] civility and coming together to find common ground outside of the political and moral imagination.
Now, I think the good news is that while those figures and those forces certainly exist, we’ve actually allowed ourselves to tell a worse story about the state of social discourse, and about the beliefs of our fellow Americans, than is actually reflected by reality. The problem is that these stories do shape us, and the more we tell them, the more they’ll begin to tell the truth about us.
Cherie Harder: It’s long been the case that whenever you get people of like mind in a room, the prevailing opinion tends to skew toward the most extreme part of that consensus. That’s why parties in the past moved to the extremes during the primary and more toward the center in the general election. Michael’s point about the stratification of media and the perpetuation of echo chambers means that in general, all the trends and positive reinforcement are toward ever-more extreme versions of that consensus.
Then you combine that with the sense [that] media is rewarded by getting eyeballs to the screen [and thus by] getting the most extreme version of one’s political opponents. It tends to reinforce a sense of, “These folks are not just misguided. These are truly evil folks.”
Then, as a third trend on top of that, there is something in human nature that does seem to relish that kind of story. It feeds on the idea that we are right, and righteous. Those who oppose us are not only wrong, but evil. You see that in the way that, essentially, falsehood will drive out accuracy in social media, and in traditional media, which loves to have extreme points of view on display. It makes for better television. The Atlantic found recently that falsehood continually dominates the truth on Twitter. By sending out a tweet or a post that is more extreme than what the truth actually is, it will consistently reach more people, it will penetrate more deeply into the social network, and it will spread faster.
So both traditional media and, particularly, social media amplify all those trends that Michael talked about and make it harder to see commonalities or possibilities of friendship across a chasm of difference.
Michael Wear: Yeah. One other thing I’ve been thinking about recently is the prisoner’s dilemma. The whole point of the prisoner’s dilemma is [the prisoner has] this isolated circuit where no outside information is coming in. So imagine if you were in this situation where you only had these outside voices that weren’t the actual person you were dealing with, but were the most hardened, biased, supporters of the other prisoner. They’re saying, “Aw. Snitch on him. Just destroy the other guy.” You’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I don’t have much other information to go on except for the fact that these other people seem to hate me. So I better look out for myself. I better fight for my own turf, because it doesn’t sound like the other side is too dispositioned to looking out for my interests.”
That’s very much what we have in our politics right now. There is this sense that, “I would be more civil, and I would look for common ground, but the other side is not interested in that. You need two to tango.” But the evidence for the other side not being interested in common ground is based on a very particular set of inputs that might not represent the full story.
Peter Baker: For those of us who came of age before cell phones and the internet, we bring a before-and-after perspective to the current situation. You both engage college students and young professionals who don’t possess the same kind of comparative perspective. What are you observing about the challenges they face with understanding affective polarization for what it is? How would you describe students’ challenges, their struggles, and maybe even their successes, in pushing back against the way things are right now?
Cherie Harder: For so many young people now, part of their identity is their online identity. Everyone is trying to build their own platform. Part of the way that you build a social media presence is by being among the quickest to react, and posting eye-catching, attention-grabbing, cleverly snarky, or extreme reactions. That does not positively reinforce reflection, contemplation, analysis, accuracy, discernment, or wisdom, all of which take time. It rewards speed. It rewards the extreme. In many ways, it rewards a form of trolling. So built into the system [of online communication] itself are incentives that deepen divides between people.
At the same time, many young people have experienced something that their elders have not – being a victim of online bullying. It’s a deep and an ugly thing. There’s a desire for protection from that, and it has weakened support for unfettered free speech and increased support for speech codes and the suppression of speech that may be deemed offensive, in part because it is equated with bullying. And so, it’s increasingly difficult for younger people to know how to engage those with whom you disagree in a way that is respectful; in a way that’s oriented toward getting at the truth; in a way that’s oriented toward resolution, reconciliation, discovery, and learning, rather than one-upping or “owning” the other.
So when disagreement becomes a zero-sum game where one person is going to be scorned or bullied and the other gets more likes and retweets, a system is set up that makes polarization inevitable and thus makes compromise, discovery, and deeper relationship incredibly difficult.
Michael Wear: It really has been one of my great joys over the last few years to spend quite a bit of time with college students. They carry so much less baggage in some critical ways, and so they bring an earnestness that I value and I think is of great value to our conversations. The problem is that political discourse has become so cynical, sometimes students feel like they need to shed that earnestness in order to fully engage in politics as it is. I would argue that it’s actually the cynicism that is the most fabricated part of our politics right now – it is actually our cynicism that is built around self-interest, and a protection of self-interest, not our earnestness. The earnestness is actually the impulse that would help our politics a great deal.
But you also tend to find that students are grappling with the dangers of affective polarization and the way that politics is trying to claim more and more of our identity, and some typical responses are less than ideal. I will often find either a sort of withdrawn apathy – a sort of [feeling that], “Well, I don’t want any part of that. So the best way to show that I reject that is to reject the whole system top to bottom” – or a sort of acceptance, a feeling of, “Well that’s just the way it is. And what it means to engage is to look like, and sound like, and be like what I’m seeing.”
A lot of my work is around providing some moral and political imagination for Christians, and particularly for young people to see that engagement in the public square does not have to be done by those kinds of norms as they’re presented to you. That you’re actually able to bring your full selves to the public square, and not operate in the same kind of self-serving, uncivil, and destructive ways that you might see others operating.
Peter Baker: I’m going to use these two words, apathy and acceptance, that you just shared, Michael, to spend some time thinking about our faculty. What are things that we can do – the practices, the vocabulary, the vision – as campus and classroom leaders, to push back against the trend that we see in some students to move toward either apathy or acceptance?
Michael Wear: I think the liberal arts education model of busting up paradigms and problematizing assumed facts is still important. But we need to understand that for this generation coming up, they’re already coming to college with the assumption that the way things are now is not the way they’re supposed to be. So I would urge faculty and institutions to not just bust up old paradigms, but to help students put things back together again.
You need to model positive examples of how people have been navigating things like affective polarization to still get things done. For example, if you’re going to talk about the history of the political parties when it comes to, say, criminal justice reform, you should point out the fact that right now in Congress, we have Hakeem Jeffries, who’s a Democrat from New York City, and Doug Collins, a Republican from rural Georgia, who have come together to sponsor bipartisan criminal justice legislation that’s received the support of President Trump and Van Jones.
I fear that we’re not giving our students a sense of hope. Students are entering and leaving our institutions with a sense of how broken things are, but also a sense that the systems and structures are so powerful and so overwhelming that there’s nothing you can do – especially within the boundaries of faithfulness and integrity – that would have a positive outcome and lead to flourishing.
Cherie Harder: I agree. It’s relatively easy to problematize and smash up an existing paradigm. It is much more difficult to help form an educated human being who is fully equipped to engage the challenges of life in a holistic, wise, and discerning way where not only is their intellect trained, but their loves are properly ordered.
So I would just add a couple things. Peter, you mentioned the word “vocabulary.” The words we use are important, and Christian college leadership is uniquely positioned to influence and change the vocabulary around these issues. Part of Orwell’s 1984 emphasizes the fact that, actually, words do shape our thoughts. The vocabulary that is used in the public square has changed significantly over the last couple of decades. In David Brooks’ book The Road to Character, he actually quantified this to a certain extent. He used Google Ngrams, which measures word usage across medium over several decades, and found what one might suspect: There have been sharp declines in word usage that spoke to either virtue or community. Words like “common good,” “character,” “conscience,” “virtue,” “kindness,” “bravery” – essentially, they all tanked. Whereas words that … were self-expressive or even self-valorizing shot up in terms of usage.
Essentially, the words that we use affect the thoughts that we think. They’re part of the paradigms that we build, and Christian college leaders have a unique opportunity to speak a language and a vocabulary that [attests] to the fullness of human flourishing; that talks about virtue; that basically raises the deepest spiritual [aspects] of existence in a way that the popular culture does not. That kind of vocabulary is formative and I think is a necessary, if insufficient, condition to addressing the affective polarization we’re talking about.
In addition, I think an emphasis on deep reading and old books is important. C.S. Lewis said, “You should always read one old book for every new book.” Part of that is there are a lot of things that we assume now that perhaps shouldn’t be assumed – they should be questioned and debated. Old books present different assumptions that enable us to see the assumptions of our own time more clearly. Intellectual inquiry requires engagement with the past and thinking through how they wrestled with deep questions. Books help us do that. I think not only reading old and difficult texts, but learning to read well is important. Polarization and trolling make reading comprehension much more difficult. Studies have shown that … once someone has insulted you and has, in a sense, attacked your perceived sense of identity, you are probably not going to understand everything they say. You’re going to be reacting to the attack rather than delving deeply into the substance, if there is any. Essentially, being able to read well requires a certain civility, and I think Christian college leaders also have the chance to model that.
A third thing that I think Christian college leaders can do is embody the practice of hospitality. Hospitality is another necessary, if insufficient, condition to overcoming our affective polarization, because so much of our polarization is driven by incivility, by attacks upon identity, and by the sense of rejection that drives a further sense of alienation, isolation, self-defensiveness, and protectiveness. Hospitality, at its core, breaks all of those down and makes conversation possible. Hospitality is also a Christian virtue, and something that has become less practiced today. Increasingly, people don’t know who their neighbors are. People are far less likely to have others into their home, and it’s actually one of the delightful practices that Christian leaders can model. It offers a bridge over some of the worst polarization that we struggle with.