Humans form naturally into groups. We can achieve more in groups than separately, but the trait also evolved because it protected us from predators and foes. We face very different threats to those our evolutionary ancestors did, but our brains remain relatively prehistoric. If you’ve spent the last 24 hours biting your nails while uttering unmentionables about the other side in the US election, then you will know how that feels.
We make sense of politics by applying labels to people: groups we think are like us, and groups we think are not. Brexiteer or Remainer. Trump or Biden. When the labels begin to matter too much, it starts to fracture society.
That’s happening now. Political labels inform who we live with: people now choose room-mates more on voting preference than cleanliness. They inform who we work with: there’s evidence of discrimination in recruitment based on political affiliation. They even affect our health: a parent is more likely to get their child vaccinated if the person they voted for is elected president.
Perhaps most importantly, group loyalty infects the very institutions designed to help temper our groupish tendencies. Supreme Court nominations are now an election issue and approvals are achieved via party lines. Groups increasingly vote with their own tribe and hyper-partisans drive out those who want to occupy the tempering – and slimming – space between factions.
That’s not to say polarisation or strong positions are an inherently a bad thing. Giving voters a clear choice at elections is important, and highlighting differences is an essential part of this. Protest can be an effective way to bring about change. But when polarisation spills over, significantly entering into other parts of life, it becomes pernicious.
Eagles and Rattlers
We are all programmed to think in groupish ways. In July 1954, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif, his wife Carolyn and their colleagues embarked on an experiment that showed this with frightening clarity. Twenty-two eleven-year-old boys came together at a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. They were randomly divided into two groups, and each group was asked to take part in team-building activities, like cooking and cleaning together. Soon, a strong sense of cohesion formed in each. The groups named themselves as Eagles and Rattlers, forming their own distinct identities. Over the course of a week, the teams were asked to compete in a tournament. Crucially, prizes were for the winning group only. They were precious, and scarce.
The scarcity drove the boys to hostility and acrimony. Insults flew, physical aggression flared, and food stocks were raided. The boys began to favour and judge their in-group differently to the once-arbitrary out-group.
Numerous studies since have confirmed that our groupishness starts early and doesn’t dissipate as we age. And research shows that the threat needn’t to be real: it can merely be perceived.
The people and systems that drive us apart are complex, but there are two things that are widely regarded to make it more likely: economic unfairness – a rising GINI coefficient – and a winner-takes-all electoral system.
For those who are no fans of Trump, it has been easy to focus on his polarising activity in the past few years. There has been plenty of it: chants to “Lock her up!”, his Twitter feed replete with denigrations of political opponents and other enemies. Biden can feel more naturally unifying.
But nor is Biden a stranger to polarising politics. Undoubtedly, the man expected to become the new president has made positive overtures to the other side. He has spoken of an “era of division” contributing to the “unrelenting partisan warfare” that has come to define US politics. His final days of the campaign included promises to “work as hard for those who don’t support me as for those who do”.
Nonetheless, he has refused to rule out court packing, in which extra judges would be added to the Supreme Court in an attempt to temper the decisive push to the right that the recent appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett signified. Some Democrats, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have spoken in favour of it.
A previous Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, tried the same thing, but was himself blocked by a bi-partisan group.
Will other Democrats now speak up against their own side, or would they argue that to achieve their objectives – protecting reproductive rights, healthcare and so on – they too can no longer rely on the country’s democratic institutions in their current form, thanks at least in part to pernicious polarisation?
‘I’ll celebrate discreetly’
That’s a dangerous road to go down. There is much that is ill in US democracy – and indeed around the world, as polarisation becomes fixed in the UK, Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Australia and elsewhere. Whoever wins the US election is going to face more pressure to polarise. There will be those within his party tempted to erect barriers to make victory again more likely. And COVID will make it even harder to resist: the near-inevitable consequence is a further rise in economic inequality, catalysing polarisation.
If you were one of the people who stayed up on Tuesday night to watch the election results, then you’ll have heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: you aren’t normal. Most people aren’t that interested in politics. But however disengaged the wider population are, Joe Biden is likely to be their winner. For the next four years, he will be in a position to do something about polarisation for everybody – or at the very least to try.
The divides and dynamics that Donald Trump’s presidency have nurtured won’t be erased overnight. The failure of the ‘blue wave’ to materialise will leave Biden governing alongside a Republican Senate, which ensures hyper-partisan wrangling will continue. But if they want to take a shot at closing the divides, politicians and their supporters will first need to overcome their own groupish tendencies. That’s historically atypical and very difficult to do.
There are glimmers of hope. When Steve Baker, the former chair of the European Research Group of anti-EU British parliamentarians, stood up in Parliament in January he could have been triumphant. The UK was leaving the European Union, an act he had dedicated much of his adult life to promoting. But he struck a markedly different tone from some of his colleagues in saying: “I will celebrate. I will allow myself a smile, I’ll allow myself that glass of champagne, I will enjoy myself. But I’ll celebrate discreetly, and I will celebrate in a way which is respectful of the genuine sorrow that others are feeling at the same time.”
Baker was widely tipped for a promotion into Cabinet, but instead he continues to languish on the back benches. His conciliatory tone wasn’t to be rewarded by his own team. Our brains are programmed to work that way, and overcoming it will require effort. The question is, given polarisation is likely to get worse and not better, will Joe Biden be up to the challenge?