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The word “polarized” saw major airtime through the whole U.S. election cycle, even to the point of becoming a cliche. That meme about a dress polarized us. Miracle Whip polarized us. The fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head during the vice-presidential debate is still polarizing us. With all that background noise, I am more than sympathetic towards those who’ve long grown tired of the term. Unfortunately, it’s as significant now as it’s ever been.
Even before the election, researchers were telling us that political polarization has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. Last year, I wrote a piece here on Convivium on how party affiliation is rapidly becoming a more salient societal division than class, gender or even race. Fingers have been pointed in all directions in an effort to find out why, with the usual culprits being social media (or the influencers that dominate it), the economy or the health of our political parties. While all these factors are certainly pieces of the puzzle, there’s another institution in play: the family.
According to the findings of Shanto Iyengar, Tobias Konitzer and Kent Tedin, homes can become veritable hotbeds for partisan thinking. They measure two different factors contributing to polarization: political or religious agreement between parents, and between parents and children. Both have “increased substantially” in recent decades, Iyengar and his colleagues report.
While this might seem like a positive sign of familial unity (by no means necessarily a bad thing), Iyengar, Konitzer and Tedin describe polarization as a tendency to compete with, or increasingly sever, connections to people on the other side of an ideological debate. Polarized families are also more likely to reproduce problematic narratives about people who don’t believe in the same things, which is when matters cross a line and the family unit becomes an echo chamber. Similar beliefs are replicated and it’s hard to introduce new, challenging or uncomfortable ideas.
The research draws attention to a number of fascinating, and occasionally disturbing, points.
First, they confirm that people are increasingly selecting their partners with religious or political traits in mind. While American couples in the past may have discussed diverging political views over a Sunday roast, this is a rare reality today – one that’s intentionally avoided.
To check if they missed a reason why families are becoming more polarized, the researchers looked into three other potential causes. For one, couples could choose partners less out of political reasons than some other related factor such as a similar upbringing, level of education or geographical location. Or perhaps politically-minded singles socialize with kindred spirits, thus limiting their pool of potential dates. They also looked at whether couples might start with diverse views but converge their convictions over time. The data, though, seems to refute all three factors. People are increasingly choosing partners for what seem to be partisan reasons.
Not only are polarized beliefs leading us to seek romantic attention within our echo chambers, they’re having an impact on the way we literally see people. In a bizarre and concerning twist, Iyengar and his team quote a study called “The Politics of Beauty” that reveals a tendency to find those in an opposing camp less physically attractive.
If the formation of couples under the influence of their political affiliation is a major initial cause of familial polarization, another is the strong likelihood of passing down ideological leanings to children. The image of a rebellious teenager pushing back against his or her parents’ belief systems may be a strong stereotype, but political or religious views were successfully transmitted to the younger generation in 72 per cent of the families studied, an increase from 60 per cent in 1965. Figures this high were found only in families in which both parents shared the same perspective, which contributes to “prolonged exposure to one point of view.”
The problem isn’t with parents passing down beliefs to their children. In fact, this is a dynamic looked upon positively within many cultural and religious traditions. It does have the effect, though, of facilitating an environment where certain assumptions may be harder to challenge, or where collective blind spots are more difficult to address. This becomes conducive to polarization if an additional element is thrown into the mix: contempt.
We’re talking here about active contempt for the other side. This could emerge as disparaging comments about a different religious tradition or as problematic narratives about political opponents. Contact with the other side might be presented as uncomfortable at best or a necessary evil at worst. This might be heightened in communities where families send their children to schools where students and teachers are ideologically homogeneous and there are few opportunities to dispel stereotypes encountered at home.
The cycle can repeat itself in the following generations with children raised in polarized homes becoming more likely to marry partners who share similar views. Over time this can move from a slight polarization to more extreme varieties where parents actively resist a child’s attempts to date or marry someone from the opposing camp. It seems that if a modern-day Romeo and Juliet were staged with the star-crossed lovers coming from liberal and conservative backgrounds, audiences might feel more sympathy for the couple’s parents.
It’s not just family agreement that’s fueling polarization, though. It works the other way around too. Iyengar and his colleagues mention how “polarized politics create pressures toward conflict avoidance in personal relations, increasing the importance of partisanship as a basis for mate selection.” An increasingly hostile public life puts pressure on families, which in turn can insulate themselves against foreign ideas and so become more conducive to stereotypes and polarized thinking.
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If this goes on for long enough, familial polarization can spiral out and have wider consequences in society. The researchers claim that family conformity is a “likely explanation” for other ways partisan biases manifest in academic evaluations, the decrease of interpersonal trust, politically biased job selection and even the aforementioned way we perceive physical attractiveness. Given their emphasis on this being something of a snowball effect, Iyengar, Konitzer and Tedin are less than optimistic and predict “still more discord and animus in elections to come.”
So just what can be done? How can families invested in their political or religious identities maintain their positions without contributing to an increasingly hostile and polarized culture? While the three authors of the report don’t venture to suggest a solution, it’s clear from their research what a good set of first steps would be.
First, since it’s contempt that poisons a politically or religiously aligned home, we can start by working against it. This means resisting the temptation to criticize others for belonging to another group. If we have an issue with another political or religious persuasion, sharing just what exactly we find problematic about it is far more helpful than painting an entire group of people as unintelligent, blind or even inhuman. We can pay attention to ideas – not to the people holding them.
And since we’re trying to take negative attention off the folks we disagree with, a second step would be finding ways to reach out to them. This can mean building friendships and inviting them into our homes, which exposes our children to different perspectives and proves that just because someone holds a different opinion doesn’t mean they’re an existential threat. One of the best vaccines against polarization may be relationship, after all.
Another strategy would be to contextualize the art and media our families consume. With the culture being what it is, there are plenty of movies, books and albums a given family may take issue with. But we can strive to build a culture of discussion rather than of disparagement. Instead of shielding children, especially older children, from different points of view expressed in society (which they will likely be exposed to outside the home anyways), we can advocate for open discussions and a search for valid positions.
This is no easy task. Promoting connection and dialogue in an increasingly polarized culture is going to invite pushback. We might be viewed with suspicion by those we hope to reach out to. Or we might be accused of betrayal by those in the same camp as us. But, according to Iyegar, Konitzer and Tenin, we got into this situation through baby steps. It’ll take quite a few more to get back out of it.