What is Polarization?

What is Polarization?

When Becca and I left our home town in central Missouri 10 years ago, I made my way to a liberal university in the city, while she made her way to a conservative college in the country. Like many other Americans in similar positions, we polarized: I became more liberal; she became more conservative. The aim of this series is to argue that such polarization is driven by rational processes. But to do that, we first need to get clear on the empirical story of polarization. In particular, there are three questions we need to answer: In what sense has the United States become increasingly “polarized”? What mechanisms lead to such polarization? And what has changed , making our current polarization different from past polarizations? Today I’ll try to answer the first question; in subsequent posts, I’ll turn to the second two. There are three distinct “polarizations” that Becca and I—and the United States in general—have gone through in recent decades. The first is ideological sorting : my views have become more consistently liberal and aligned with those of the Democratic Party; Becca’s have become more consistently conservative and aligned with those of the Republican Party. For example: in 2010 I was pro-choice and Becca was pro-life, but we were both un-opinionated about gun rights. (In high school, I had the experience—which at the time I thought was cool—of firing a friend’s AK-47 at a shooting range. Non-US readers: yes, you can buy those legally.) Yet in the decade […]

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