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What You Can Do About Political Polarization

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Thursday May 07, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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The problem of political polarization is characterized by a large number of people holding extreme political views (also know as hyper-partisanship) with fewer political moderates, to the point where healthy political disagreement becomes destructive. Here in the US, this problem exists both on a systemic and personal level. Some have suggested this is one of the most serious problems our country faces since the signs only point to the problem getting worse, whereas others are less pessimistic, but do agree that it is problematic for both our government and its people. As a social psychologist, l will address this issue with the goal of mitigating the antipathy (hatred) that many with hyper-partisan views have towards those who don't' share their political views, and offer a strategy that all of us can put to use—even if we are part of the roughly two-thirds of the country who are politically moderate and don't fit into this hyper-partisan category.

There are actually many things we can do to make sure that we are not part of the problem. This includes getting our news from unbiased sources (those heavy on reporting facts and light on political commentary), making an extra effort to befriend those who have different political opinions than ourselves, monitoring and assessing the track record of those in our political party (not deifying them), being cognizant of the confirmation bias when separating fact from fiction, and playing devil's advocate by seeking out and discussing the many sides of any issue. These are all great suggestions (if I do say so myself) except that if you are politically moderate, the chances are you are already implementing most of these strategies. What we need is a strategy we can all use to mitigate this most serious problem; a strategy that we can implement that influences others. This strategy is refusing to tolerate politically divisive language.

Politically divisive language is misinformation, half-truths, or opinions presented in a hostile way based on either a lack of critical thinking or an intent to manipulate opinions and beliefs. Refusing to tolerate politically divisive language is another way of saying that you will no longer allow others' ignorant statements or deliberate manipulation to go unchallenged. Challenging others, if done correctly, will result in not only diffusing their political extremism, but also in reducing the amount of propaganda they would have otherwise shared. This one act could have far-reaching effects. You want your challenge to sting the other person, and perhaps even embarrass them enough as to deter future similar rhetoric, but they need to know what was wrong with their rhetoric, and after some reflection, need to see the problem with it. Obviously, there is a lot of subjectivity in determining what constitutes "politically divisive language," as well as situational factors that need to be considered before speaking out against such language. Pick your battles.

Politically divisive language comes in many forms. I will go over five of what I believe are the most common and destructive forms, provide examples, and offer suggestions how to effectively challenge others who use this language. The more knowledge you have in the area of critical thinking, specifically with cognitive biases and logical fallacies, the more likely you will be to spot other forms of politically divisive language.


Imagine making a list of all the bad things you have ever done. Clearly this list would not be representative of who you are as a person. By ignoring the good things you have done and even the neutral things, it would be an unfair characterization based on a half-truth. Demonization is the process of making a person, group, or idea out to be evil (i.e., metaphorically turning them into demons) by doing essentially the same thing. It is a form of deception.

Example: "Since he has been in office, Senator Lipshitz has made millions in speaking fees and book deals while his state has seen a rise in crime, a rise in poverty, and a decrease in jobs. It is clear that he has only his self-interests in mind."

Response: "I am curious why you failed to point out all the good things he has done for his state while in office. It appears as if you are not really interested in an accurate portrayal of Senator Lipshitz, but your goal is to demonize him. I would think that the whole truth is important to you, is it not?"


This is a more extreme version of demonization used extensively by the Nazi party in their propaganda as a way to disassociate the Jews with their humanity. It is a powerful psychological manipulation that lessens, and can even eliminate, any empathy a person might feel for another human being. In politics, we see many extremists refer to the other party as "animals," "predators," "fungus," "parasites," and "viruses."

Example: "People on welfare are nothing more than parasites living off hard-working Americans."

Response: "Dehumanizing people is a very dangerous practice—one that contributed to the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews initiated by a charismatic leader who manipulated his people to believe that the Jews were more 'parasite' than human. I don't believe that you are suggesting anything as barbaric, but failing to acknowledge the humanity of this group leads to hatred rather than solutions, which I am assuming is not your goal."

Dichotomous Grouping

Political extremists tend to dichotomize groups into ingroups and outgroups, often creating unrealistically simplistic criteria for each group, failing to acknowledge the spectrum of political views that the vast majority of people hold. These false categories become more real as people feel they need to "pick a team" and alter their political views to be accepted as a member of the ingroup. This "us versus them" mentality often involves exaggeration and creating strawman arguments.

Example: "We are the true Americans who stand for freedom and democracy, whereas the other party are socialists who only want to destroy the fabric of this great nation."

Response: "Your statement reflects black and white thinking—a failure to recognize that political beliefs exist on a spectrum. I am curious if you really believe in this dichotomy that you imply, or do you realize that the majority of Americans hold both liberal and conservative views on different issues?"

Note: You can also call the person out on demonizing the other party. Also note the statement identifying some common ground (i.e., liberals holding some conservative views and conservatives holding some liberal views).


Think of splitting as the non-human equivalent to the dichotomous grouping form of politically divisive language. Rather than dichotomize groups of people, it is the dichotomization of ideas, usually into simplistic "good" and "bad" categories. This has become so common that most people don't realize how wrong it is. In the abortion debate there is the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" sides, yet by that label alone it is impossible to tell where a person stands on the many issues that comprise the larger issue, such as the laws that should be put into place, the circumstances under which abortions should be allowed, who pays for them, etc.

Example: "Are you pro-life or pro-choice?"

Response: "I guess I am pro-choice in that I choose not to accept either of those labels. The abortion issue is far too complex for labels that can even begin to accurately represent my views on the issue. I bet if you thought about it, you would feel the same way about your views on the issue. Regardless of where we stand, I would be confident in stating that we both want what is best for humanity."

Note: Like with the dichotomous grouping, finding common ground is helpful in your response.


Stereotyping, or failing to acknowledge the individuality of people by grouping people by common traits—even if the traits are imagined, remains a serious social problem in our society. This is done within politics all the time when liberals are described as free-loading, anti-American, tree-hugging, elitists who have no values and conservatives are described as Bible-thumping, gun-owning, trailer-park-living, racist rednecks. Stereotyping contributes to polarization by associating negative traits to the other party, reinforcing the myth that each person in the party shares those negative traits.

Example: "Did you hear that a woman is suing the NRA because her son accidentally shot himself? Goddamn liberals."

Response: "Surely you are not implying over 100 million people should be blamed for this lawsuit, are you? I am sorry, but your stereotyping reflects ignorance and a lack of critical thinking."

It is very important to note that this is a not strategy designed to suppress one's opinion, but alter the way they tend to express their opinion by discouraging destructive politically divisive language. For example, if someone argues that our President is a "cotton-headed ninny muggins," they would have every right to. That is one of the things that is great about America. While this may qualify as hostile language (at least in the elf world), we can't know what level of critical thinking was involved in forming that opinion, and the opinion reflects no clear intent to manipulate opinions and beliefs of others. People will offer opinions, argue, and debate about politics—this is what we want. But we want these arguments and debates to be reason-based and the people making them to stop using psychological manipulation at the expense of reality. When these conditions are met, we see more moderate views, more cooperation, more unity, and less hatred. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, I think we would all agree that this would be a very good thing.

Podcast Episode: What You Can Do About Political Polarization

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