“Partisan Politics, Toxic Identities, Dangerous Divides” Transcript
Guest: Dr. Lilliana Mason
Lilliana Mason: We’re speaking different languages from each other, and we are having a harder time as partisan opponents thinking of the other side as relatable and as, basically, as human.
Betty Teng: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael Epstein: And I’m Michael Epstein. And together, we are your hosts for Mind of State, a podcast for political junkies and armchair psychoanalysts.
Betty: Speak for yourself, Michael.
Michael: Right. Sorry, Betty. A podcast for political junkies and actual psychoanalysts. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Michael.
Michael: Sorry about that.
Betty: It’s all right. Just watch yourself alright.
Michael: Okay, duly noted. So welcome to our next episode of Mind of State. If it feels like we are a nation torn in two, Republican, Democrat or red, blue, that’s because we kind of are. And today we’re going to talk to Lilliana Mason about the consequences of that division in our politics and in our public and private lives and how all of this gets wrapped up into our political identities. And it’s some really fascinating research and data and Lilliana, welcome, first of all.
Lilliana: Thanks so much for having me.
Michael: Thank you for being here. Lilliana is an Assistant Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. In 2017, Lilliana won an Emerging Scholar Award from the American Political Science Association. But most importantly, she is also the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. And it is a fascinating book full of interesting statistics and insights and social psychology experiments, which puts it right in our wheelhouse over here at Mind of State. And it’s really Lilliana’s book that is the wellspring for our conversation today. And when I read it, I thought I need to start a podcast so that I have an excuse to talk to Lilliana about her book. So with that Lilliana, again, welcome to Mind of State. Really thrilled to have you here.
Lilliana: Thank you so much.
Michael: Okay, so listen, I want to start with a little bit of an experiment, well not an experiment, but maybe a little bit of pop quiz for us, okay?
Betty: I don’t know where we’re going with this, but, let’s see.
Michael: You know, if you’re listening at home or you’re driving, you can play along too. And Lilliana, you can quiz me too. So, Betty.
Michael: Ask me anything you want about Duck Dynasty.
Betty: Who are the characters and what are their names?
Michael: Who are the characters? What are their names? Lilliana, do you have a question for me about Duck Dynasty?
Lilliana: I don’t know. Yeah, what’s it about?
Michael: What’s it about? Exactly, here, so the answer is, so if you’re listening at home, can you answer the question, Betty’s question?
Betty: What is Duck Dynasty? Who are the characters in Duck Dynasty? What are their names? And roping in Lilliana’s, what is it about?
Michael: And I have an answer to none of the, I’ve never seen it. I don’t know the answer to any of it. I could like, I failed that pop quiz. So similarly, Betty, ask any question you want about–
Betty: Oh, I know what you’re going to say.
Michael: Do you?
Betty: Yeah. Duck Dynasty gave it away. You’re going to ask me about the Family Guy.
Michael: Family Guy. Ask me any question about Family Guy.
Betty: Who are the characters and what is it about?
Michael: I don’t know. I’ve never seen it. But I do know it’s made by Seth Macfarlane. And I do know that there’s a character in it, like a baby, who talks, Stewie. My daughter watches it endlessly on like an endless loop. She’s in college now.
Betty: So she’s a fan.
Michael: She’s a huge fan. And she’s a very progressive Democratic Hillary voter in 2016. And the real question to you, Lilliana, is what does that all mean? Why would I care? Because who cares what television show you watch?
Betty: Or what would that tell you about Michael and me?
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Lilliana: Yeah, so there was a study done in 2013 by TiVo that actually looked at the top ten network television shows, most popular network television shows, and broke down by party for Democrats and Republicans. And what they found was that there was not a single show that was on both lists.
Michael: Not one?
Lilliana: And in fact, you had to go really far below the top ten in order to find a show that both Democrats and Republicans liked.
Lilliana: So, and the reason that’s important is that that indicates that there is a cultural difference between Democrats and Republicans and that it also means that we, you know, sort of, the water cooler conversations that we think of as, you know, like our sort of national American touchstones, they often are entertainment based and television based. And so those, if we’re not watching the same shows, as Democrats and Republicans, we’re, sort of, not even able to have these watercooler conversations. And so it really does put up a divide between different parties.
Betty: And when we talk about water cooler conversations, they’re, sort of, our 21st century versions of gathering around the hearth or gathering around the campfire. What would you say the meaning of not having these common narratives to talk about, even if they’re, you know, maybe entertainment based like Family Guy or Duck Dynasty? What does that mean that we can’t come together and have these conversations?
Lilliana: Well, so on a sort of superficial level, it means that we’re actually kind of speaking different languages. If we have different cultural references, you know, somebody will do a subtweet on Twitter referencing some commonly known thing within their political circle that the other side doesn’t necessarily even understand. And so on the sort of 30 thousand foot level, what that means is that we’re speaking different languages from each other. And we are having a harder time as partisan opponents thinking of the other side as relatable and as, basically, as human beings who have, you know, strengths and weaknesses and, you know, and understandable faults. And it makes it not only hard for us to communicate across the aisle politically, but it also makes it difficult for us to, kind of, treat the other side with generosity because they seem very foreign to us.
Michael: And there’s no sense of common humanity, right. There’s no sense that we’re all in this together, to quote High School Musical. I brought up the Family Guy and the Duck Dynasty, I don’t mean to be glib, because the divisions, I think what that highlights, are not just necessarily policy divisions, which is how we tend to always think about a bifurcated America. But they’ve seeped into, not just culture, but geography, faith, and we are really, you know, this is the, race, this is the thing that I found fascinating about your book. You know, when I read your book, Lilliana, I went back. The New York Times had a phenomenal map, a very detailed map almost down to the street, I don’t if you saw it, after the 2016 election.
Lilliana: Yeah, I remember that.
Michael: So I typed in a bunch of, I typed my home address, the home address of my childhood home outside of Chicago, and then my sister’s address in Indiana. So my neighborhood in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, voted 92 percent for Hillary Clinton and 4.9 percent for Trump, which is basically like a sea of deep, deep, deep, deep blue. My childhood home was not nearly as pronounced. So it was suburban Chicago, 65 percent went for Hillary and 31 percent for Trump. And then my sister, who lives outside of Indianapolis, was almost 50 50, 46 percent Hillary, 45 percent Trump. But basically a sea of red shortly thereafter. And what’s so fascinating to me, and you wrote this in your book, that we’ve gone from two parties that are a little bit different in a lot of ways to two parties that are very different in a few powerful ways. So–
Michael: –what’s going on? What do you mean by that?
Lilliana: So the, you know, a little bit different in a lot of ways is basically, you know, the way that we want our party system to work is that the parties should be different, right. They should be distinguishable. And they should represent different interests so that it’s not a bad thing for the parties to have different constituencies. That’s sort of natural and necessary. But what we’ve seen happening over the last couple decades is a shift from these, sort of, multiple small differences between the parties to very, very important differences on social identities that are really crucial to people’s sense of who they are. So those are religion, race, ideological identity, which is something we could talk about later, if you like. But also, there’s a difference between an ideology, which is set of policy preferences, and an ideological identity, which is identifying with people who are called liberals or conservatives. And–
Michael: Your team, basically.
Lilliana: –those doesn’t always match.
Michael: Right. But it’s basically your team. How you self identify with, you know.
Lilliana: Exactly. And there used to be, you know, a mix of self-identified liberals and conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties, there used to be more of a mix, a racial mix, in the two parties, and there used to be a religious mix within each of the two parties. And increasingly, what we’re seeing is that the Republican Party is now almost entirely white and Christian, if not evangelical and self-identified as conservative. Whereas the Democratic Party is liberal, you know, non-white and non-religious in general.
Betty: So in essence, the moderates in each party have fallen away. Would you say that?
Lilliana: So it’s more, so there’s two different ways to look at it. One is that people are becoming more consistently identified with the, quote unquote, correct party. So if you think of yourself as a liberal, it’s increasingly clear that you don’t belong in the Republican Party. And so, you know, the Democratic Party is becoming more liberal because more liberals are moving into the Democratic Party. That’s one way to look at it. That can also include people who call themselves liberal but aren’t extreme, who still hold relatively moderate issue positions. They just identify as liberal. They think other liberals are people who are like them. Or there could be a situation in which the liberals in the Democratic Party are becoming much more extreme in their policy preferences. And what I found in the book is actually it’s really the former rather than the latter. It’s that the parties are becoming more consistent in terms of identity, but they’re not necessarily becoming more extreme in terms of their policy preferences.
Betty: That’s interesting. And when you talk about ideological identity, I’m hearing something that you pointed to in the book about this being an emotionally grounded identification, that there’s something about this that isn’t just policy based, as you’re saying, and speaking about groups and ingroups and outgroups, that these distinctions are driven by not just thinking, meaning with our thinking brain, but our feeling selves.
Lilliana: Right. The way that I think about it is that you can actually measure ideology in two different ways. One way is to ask people, you know, when you talk about liberals, do you say we rather than they? To what extent do you identify as a conservative? So these are like identification questions. Or you can ask people their positions on, you know, six different really important policies like health care and abortion and etc.. And so what I have found, and other political scientists have also found, is that the identity doesn’t always match the policy positions.
Lilliana: And so it’s possible for liberals and conservatives, self-identified liberals and conservatives, to really dislike each other without actually having extremely different policy preferences. And the more strongly they identify with a group, the more they hate the other side, even if you hold constant all of their policy preferences. So even if their policy preferences are not changing or they have relatively moderate policy preferences or, and this is crazy, even if they have the wrong policy preferences. So there is a relatively substantial group of conservatives who hold liberal policy preferences, meaning, sort of, to the left of the scale when you’re looking at, you know, what would you prefer the government to do? And even among that group of people, the more strongly they identify as conservative, the more they hate liberals, even when they hold relatively liberal policy.
Michael: Right. This was the 2016 election, right. Everybody was talking about, you know, Trump is not a Republican. There’s all these weird things, eminent domain and foreign policy questions that don’t fit into the traditional Republican policy wheelhouse. And, you know, those people will peel off and vote for Hillary. And that never happened, right. Because you stay within your tribe.
Lilliana: Right. I mean, he promised health care for everyone.
Michael: Right. And actually, you know, it was funny. When I was in the 2016 election and then the whole, I mean, I have a very dear friend who lives in Virginia, who is a former Marine who has said to me on a number of occasions that he could never vote for a Democrat. It doesn’t matter who the Republican is. Doesn’t matter what the policy is. He’s always a Republican and he’s never, ever voted anything other than Republican. And when the whole Russian scandal started to emerge, I had people say to me, on social media, who I’m friends with say, well, you know better Russia than the Democrats. I was like, what?
Betty: And that’s something you mentioned in your book, Lilliana, that people will vote for their team or their party rather than for policy.
Lilliana: Right. And in fact, this is something that George Washington himself warned us about in his farewell speech. He specifically said if you allow parties to form or factions to form, people will be more loyal to their faction than they will be to the country as a whole. And that will allow foreign powers to take advantage of us. Basically, it will allow for, sort of, cracks in our armor so that other countries will be able to exploit that weakness. So we cannot allow these types of factions to form. Now, of course, literally that election, as soon as he stepped down–
Lilliana: –there were parties. And–
Betty: Little did we know–
Michael: I was going to say. Jefferson had–
Betty: George Washington, the clairvoyant–
Michael: A great man.
Betty: –predicting 2016.
Michael: A flawed but great man. So let’s take a turn, because there’s some social psychology, social science behind all of this as well. And you had written and, I think this is true, and to Washington’s point, that Democrats and Republicans have grown so different from each other that cooperation is receding as a perceived value, right. We don’t live in a country anymore where we value cooperation. We value winning, even if that means winning doesn’t benefit us. And I want to turn, if we can, if you’ll let us, to this, all right, this is where we’re getting a little techie, Henri Tajfel.
Michael: And some of the experiments that he was doing in the early 60s that really inform and help us understand the human motivation, the psychology, of what’s going on in the political world today. So we don’t lose too many people listening in. But he’s trying to figure out early on, Lilliana, right, that, like, what’s the baseline for group conflict? And he’s running early experiments to, sort of, get at the zero, right. Is that a fair way to start?
Lilliana: Yeah, I mean, I think one thing to say about Tajfel, maybe to make it a little more interesting to start off, is that he was a Polish Jew during World War Two, and he fought in World War Two. He fought the Nazis in World War Two. And he was captured and spent six years in a prison camp, a Nazi prison camp, during World War Two. And before he became a soldier, he was actually trying to get his PhD in chemistry. And when he emerged from the prison camp, he decided to get his PhD in social psychology because he wanted to figure out what it was that could cause people to hate each other so much that we could, you know, the entire world could fight a war over it. So that was really his motivation.
Michael: To understand why the Holocaust happened and why World War Two occurred.
Lilliana: Yeah, yeah. How two groups of people can come to hate one another so much that they’re willing to annihilate every single human on the other side.
Betty: And lose their humanity.
Betty: What would supercede humanity.
Lilliana: Essentially dehumanization. And so he decided to have, as a starting point in his study, he wanted to create a group identity for people that was so meaningless and so weak that there would be no conflict at all between that group and the outgroup, whatever, you know, people who are not them. And then he was, his plan was, to actually increase the amount of conflict between the group, this sort of meaningless group, and outsiders gradually until he found people being biased against the other side.
Michael: To try to determine the tipping point.
Lilliana: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So he, in order to create these very, what he called, minimal group identities, he gave, so one of the examples is he had people look at a, you know, a board full of, or a picture full of, dots and estimate the number of dots. And then he told them that they were overestimators or underestimators. So really no difference. You know, there’s no value difference. One group isn’t better than the other. They just found out they’re in the group. When they are taking the, doing the experiment, they are alone in a laboratory. They’re not meeting anybody else in the group. And then later on in the experiment, he asks them to perform an allocation task, which basically just means we’re going to give out money to people. And you get to decide how the money is allocated. And so, in one of these, or in a few of these studies, he offered people a choice between what I call the sort of greater good condition where he basically said, you can choose for everybody to get five dollars or you can choose for your group, let’s say you’re an overestimator, so you can choose for the overestimators to get four dollars, but the underestimators only get three. So you’re paying, effectively, you’re being punished or you’re sacrificing part of the greater good and your own good for the victory of your group.
Michael: You’re going to take a dollar less to give them two dollars less.
Betty: To win.
Lilliana: Yeah. To win.
Michael: To win.
Michael: And these dots, these were random too, right? I mean–
Lilliana: Randomly assigned.
Michael: Randomly assigned. So people literally were not even actual overestimators or actual underestimators.
Lilliana: No, no. But they didn’t know that.
Michael: But they didn’t know that. Right.
Lilliana: Right. And I mean, in other versions of this experiment, you know, he had them look at paintings and he said, you prefer paintings of clay over Kandinsky, right. Like, he had a bunch of different, in one of them, he said you’re group W and you’re group X. And in one of them, he actually said, I am going to assign you random group numbers. They are assigned randomly. And he actually told them this.
Lilliana: And still these effects happen.
Michael: That was the amazing one where he said to them, this was like a decade later, like I’m telling you, this is random. There’s no meaning to this and yet they still assigned meaning. So what happens? I’m sorry. I interrupted.
Lilliana: Right. So he expected this to be the baseline condition and there would be no, people would obviously choose the greater good over the sort of victory with a sacrifice. And even with these minimal groups, he actually found that people were reliably choosing the victory condition. So sacrificing real resources for this sense of winning. And he couldn’t really get it to a point where people were not willing to do this. And so even in this very, very, you know, minimal, meaningless, value-free, and brand new group identity, he couldn’t, and he was really surprised, he couldn’t get people to stop being prejudiced against their outgroup or privileging their ingroup. And he said in the first, you know, one of these articles, he said it’s the winning that seems more important to them. And he, kind of, was surprised and baffled by the fact that it was possible to find this effect even with these, you know, these groups that were meaningless.
Betty: And so what does that tell us as human beings that we prefer to win rather than give each other equal good? Everybody gets five dollars. We’d rather get four dollars, one dollar more than the other.
Michael: The tribal brain.
Betty: Yeah. The tribal brain tells us that we like to win. But to me, that sounds like we like to have power over another.
Lilliana: Yeah. It’s not just the power over another person or another group, it’s actually that, so what Tajfel ended up coming up with was an entire theory called social identity theory. And what he determined was that it wasn’t about having power over another group. It was much more about feeling connected and feeling your basic, your sense of self esteem, your sense of self-worth was connected to the status of the group that you belonged to. So having your group lose or not win is painful because your group status is connected to your own sense of whether or not you are a good person or you are victorious.
Betty: So you’d rather have that distinction of being esteemed over another group than just have everybody be equal? This is what–
Michael: Losing sucks.
Bettuy: Yeah, and–
Michael: Losing sucks. That’s what it is.
Betty: But what is the meaning of winning? That’s the question that I have. If you’re talking about status, what does status mean then? You know, I’ve got more so that bonds a group together. We have more money than the other group, even though overall we all have less money than we would have ended up with if we gave everybody five dollars.
Lilliana: So I guess, you know, we could run a thought experiment. If you just imagine that, you know, you’re having a bad day, somebody, you know, at work said something mean to you or insulted you. You feel like you made a mistake. You did something wrong. You’re not feeling particularly great about yourself that day. And then you find out that your favorite sports team has just won some type of game. What that does is your sense of identity that is linked to your favorite sports team becomes your own individual status, feels a little bit elevated because your group won. And so anytime you yourself are feeling a little bit like you’re losing, you can grab on to the status of a group that’s winning and you can feel better about yourself. So it’s a very basic sort of human need to feel good. There’s almost nothing more basic than that.
Michael: I was thinking as you were talking, you know, people put those tribes literally, you know, I’m a Cubs fan, on your head, on a cap, on your T-shirts. You brand yourself as a, it’s like a coat of arms.
Betty: Or uniform.
Michael: A uniform. Well, that’s the–
Betty: An announcement.
Michael: It gets to the Jerry Seinfeld joke about sports teams, right, that we don’t actually root for the players. We root–
Betty: For the jerseys.
Michael: –for the laundry, right. We just like the laundry. But in thinking about Trump and his MAGA, you know, the make American great again hats, right. Those are so much winning. You’re going to get sick of winning. It’s group identity.
Lilliana: Yeah. And that’s sort of where the book, kind of, connects to politics, because sort of through the 70s and 80s, political science kind of thought about partisanship as a rational decision that people made based on the policy achievements of each party. So people would look at the two parties and say which party or, you know, has done better things or things that I like the most or which candidate do I trust or which candidate do I like? And that they’re making choices based on the pros and cons of the parties or the candidates themselves. And then sort of in the 90s and early 2000s, we started thinking more, and actually this goes back to theory that, you know, from the 19th, that originally was written in the 1960s, that kind of fell out of favor for a while, thinking about partisanship itself as a social identity. So you feel like the people who are in your party are socially like you. And when you talk about your party, you say we and the party’s status is connected to your sense of individual status. So when the party wins an election, you feel really, really great on an individual level. People feel emotions on behalf of their group. And so increasingly, we’ve been thinking about partisanship not just as a political choice, but instead as an expression of a political identity that is linked to our own psychological wellbeing and linked to the identity, a lot of other identities, that we also have in addition to being partisans.
Michael: Yeah, you know, as you’re talking, Lilliana, as we were talking about Tajfel, I think the best real world example of what you’re talking about in terms of, you know, getting a choice between maximum benefit to everybody, including those people in your group, or gaining less for yourself for the sake of winning, winning being the most important thing, even if it means nothing gets done, to me was Mitch McConnell. As I was reading Tajfel, I kept thinking about Mitch McConnell as majority leader of the Senate during Obama, and even now, where Merrick Garland, you know, doesn’t matter what the institutions of democracy require. We’re just going to obstruct and obstruct, even if it means our constituents get less health care, even if it means the levers of democracy are eroded. Because what matters is winning. Is that, I mean, am I, I don’t mean to have you come in and start trashing the other party.
Betty: Is that an exhibition of what you’re talking about?
Lilliana: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the examples that I use in the book actually is the 2013 government shutdown, which is newly relevant now. And, you know, the cost to the U.S. economy was in the billions of dollars in 2013. I’m not sure what the cost of this most recent government shutdown was, but it was even longer, so it was probably greater. And it’s not just the costs to the government of not having our government function, but also there are opportunity costs to businesses and–
Lilliana: –farmers and, you know, entrepreneurs, right. So there are billions and billions of dollars of cost of having a government shutdown. And usually the shutdown itself is over, or at least both in 2013 and in 20–
Lilliana: 18 to 19, the shutdown was largely over something relatively symbolic that was primarily about winning, right. The wall itself was a symbolic idea. And if Trump didn’t get it, it was, he didn’t get to win. And similarly, in 2013, the shutdown was over Obamacare, which was already moving forward. There was, sort of, no more legislative hurdles that could be placed in front of it. It had already been defended in front of the Supreme Court. And so the, you know, the idea of shutting down the entire government at a cost of billions of dollars to the American electorate in order to feel like we are winning a little bit.
Michael: Right. You quote somebody as saying it was a fait accompli. We understood that. But it was about branding, right?
Lilliana: Yeah. Exactly.
Betty: And this echoes something that we had another podcast about the wall and the symbolism of the wall and the symbolism of winning, which is our emotional drivers. And since we are about the Mind of State this is, or the mind and the emotion of state, this is really the symbolism of the wall. Shut the government down in 2018, 2019. And I think what you guys are pointing to is that the symbolism of winning, which sounds like it’s protective, it’s protective of our self-esteem, is more important than actually–
Betty: –putting material benefits into the hands of the many as–
Michael: Governing doesn’t matter anymore, right.
Lilliana: Exactly. Yeah. Well, governing, because a functional government requires compromise.
Lilliana: And compromise is the opposite of winning. In a compromise, literally no one wins.
Michael: Right. That’s the definition of compromise.
Betty: Right. Everybody has to take a piece. Everybody has to take a piece of negative for the greater positive to move forward.
Michael: Well, you get something that you want, but you give up something as well. And if you see winning as an either or proposition, you know, you can’t do it. Makes me think. I wonder, like if we’re in some grand Tajfel experiment ourselves, like if the United States right now is in a, kind of, weird Truman Show or Matrix thing where we, you know, somebody’s going to come out from behind the curtain and say, oh–
Betty: I think you’re fantasizing.
Michael: Yeah, it is.
Lilliana: We’re going to wake up soon.
Michael: We’ve all been randomly assigned parties. And, all right, you know, let’s go back to our normal life and actually get things done. I think, Lilliana, this is some measure of why the electorate expresses endless consternation and disgust with Congress, with government. And yet at the same time is the driver of exactly the kind of elections that reinforce the politics that they seem to hate.
Lilliana: Right. And actually this, you know, your, sort of, Truman Show idea that they’ve actually been randomly assigning our parties. You know, people have done this in labs with policy positions. They haven’t randomly assigned the party, but they have randomly assigned the policy position of the parties. So basically switching, you know, Democrats and Republicans holding different welfare policy positions and people reliably just take on the position of the party. And not only that, but they don’t know that they’ve done it. So they, when they’re asked whether the party influenced their position, they say no. And then they’re asked to provide reasons for their position and they come up with them. So there are post hoc rationalizations of policy positions that people have just been basically randomly assigned and they are first, the frightening thing is they’re not aware that they’ve been assigned, that they have been manipulated by their party’s position. And they can and they are capable of coming up with reasons to support their party’s position or the position they’ve just been told their party holds immediately on the spot. And they can kind of convince themselves that that’s the correct position to hold. So you can get people, I mean, it’s obviously not possible on every single issue, but certainly on things like tariffs, clearly, that’s possible. And we’ve seen it happen on a wide–
Betty: On health care
Lilliana: –spread basis. On government surveillance, we’ve seen–
Michael: I was just going to mention that one, right.
Lilliana: Right. We’ve seen partisans, you know, when the party of the presidency switches, partisan preferences for government surveillance switch.
Michael: In your book, you talk about a 2013 Pew Research study, when George W. Bush was president, so Republicans holding the White House. 38 percent Republicans are more supportive than Democrats of NSA surveillance, but under Obama, it, like, basically flips. All the sudden, Republicans are 12 percent less supportive of NSA surveillance than Democrats. And the question, this is, I think, important. The question prompt was exactly the same. The only thing that was different was the party that was occupying the White House.
Lilliana: Right. The policy hadn’t changed either.
Lilliana: The government’s policy hadn’t changed.
Betty: And so, Lilliana, what you’re saying is that, you know, it’s irrespective of policy. People are going for their affiliation of party. And then they think that they’re acting rationally. So they’re they’re choosing emotionally and they believe that they’re acting rationally.
Lilliana: Correct. Yeah. And then even, I mean, so this extends even to things that we think are objective, like perceptions of the health of the economy. Usually overnight between when a new president is in charge of the government or a new party is president, partisans’ opinions about the health of the economy also completely switch.
Betty: That’s amazing.
Michael: In a month.
Lilliana: So, you know, if a Democrat is president, Democrats think the economy’s doing much better than Republicans do and vice versa. And when Republicans–
Betty: So almost overnight. Just because the party in power has changed, the opinions on what’s going on, which has not changed, flips.
Lilliana: Right. The economy doesn’t change overnight, but partisan opinions of the health of the economy do.
Michael: So what does that mean? It’s like how we feel about our country, how we feel about ourselves is entirely dependent on whether our party is winning or losing or how we perceive our party winning or losing.
Lilliana: Well, we want our party to be winning. And so if our party is in charge, then the country must be doing well because our party does a good job of running the government. That’s really more what it is, right. It’s that if our party has just taken over control of the government, then we know that we’re winners. And so we do a good job. And therefore, the economy must be doing great. And if the other party has just taken over control of the government, we know that they’re losers. And so if they’re in control, then the economy must be doing terribly because there’s no way that those people could run the government in a way that’s good for the economy.
Betty: And so what you’re talking about is that these stories crop up because what you’re actually, like, laid out a basic story that if my party is winning, they’re good and the economy is doing well and the country is strong. If my party lost and the opposing party won, then everything is bad so that the narrative switches based on my affiliation to my party in my mind. This is how people behave.
Lilliana: Yeah. And this is actually, so going back to one of the original works studying American political behavior, is a book called The American Voter that came out in 1960 and the authors of that book called partisanship a perceptual screen. So basically they’re saying our partisanship is like this screen that we’re looking through that changes what we see wherever we go. And so the idea is that depending on which party you affiliate with, you perceive a different reality.
Betty: I was just going to think about reality. So what, there’s no objective reality in this situation, even though we think we are working with realistic policies, facts, and decisions. How do we remove this screen?
Lilliana: So we don’t.
Betty: Uh oh.
Michael: Thank you very much for joining us at Mind of State. We’re all doomed.
Lilliana: So the best case scenario is that we have other identities that are relevant to us that we think are, you know, represent a good portion of our sense of who we are, that are not associated with our party. And so the world can function and we can attach our sense of self-worth to other identities that are completely unrelated to the success or failure of our party. And then we don’t have to invest so much in the victory of the party itself, right. We can think about our church or our bowling league or our favorite football team and–
Betty: Or our family.
Lilliana: –those things can be the main drivers of our sense of who we are as opposed to the party.
Michael: Right. It’s actually something you talked about in your book, which is that this is happening concurrent with a drop in associations, the kinds of what you’re talking about. Elks Club. I mean, when I was growing up, my dad was in the Kiwanis Club, right, near his office. And I don’t know anybody in my world that has those kinds of–
Betty: That sounds like such a throwback.
Michael: It is, right.
Betty: I mean, I didn’t even know those things exist. It sounds like literature.
Michael: We had all that stuff, you know, growing up. You know, the bowl–
Lilliana: I picture Elks Club as being full of old people.
Michael: Right. It’s all old people now. My dad’s a young guy. But bowling leagues, you know, the PTA associations, even the PTA association that I belong to, you know, for my wife and I did for our kids, it was a, everybody was the same. And politically, right, of different diversity in terms of other things. But in terms of identity, we don’t have those things where you’re at church or synagogue or a bowling league and–
Betty: Sports team or club.
Michael: Sports. Right. Where, you know, I remember somebody, you know, I’m a huge Chicago Cubs fan. The Ricketts family is a Republican family. And people like, well, how can you support the Cubs? Like what are you talking about? Like, I’ve been a Cubs fan for 50 years. Like, they broke my heart a million times. I don’t care about the politics of the owner. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Betty: And so with this breakdown, Lilliana, this screen is more fixed, you’re saying?
Lilliana: Right. The problem that happens is that when multiple identities are largely aligned, and by that I mean that most of the people who are in, you know, group one are also in group two and you’re members of both groups. So if you are, for instance, you know, Republican and evangelical, most Republicans are evangelical and most evangelicals are Republican. So those are well-aligned identities. What happens is that the success or failure of either of those groups affects your sense of wellbeing. So because evangelical is so strongly attached to or aligned with Republican identity, when there is an election, if the Republican Party wins, the portion of your self-esteem that is connected to the Republican Party feels good and the portion of your self-esteem that is connected to your evangelical identity feels good because evangelicals also won because they’re so well aligned with Republicans. So the more–
Michael: So a Democratic victory then is an attack on your faith.
Lilliana: Right. It’s not an attack on your faith as much as it is an attack on, it is a sense of losing that is connected to not just your partisanship now. It’s connected to your party and your race and your religion. And when all of those parts of you feel like they’re losing at the same time, that’s when the outcomes of elections become much more important than any individual legislation that the government does or than the greater good of the nation as a whole. You can’t afford to lose such a large portion of your sense of who you are. And so as these identities line up along with party, the cost of losing the election feels greater.
Betty: And speak, I mean, that speaks to a deep sense of threat on an identity level, but also on an existence level. And so what you’re, some of the studies that you quote, say that in societies where there’s such entrenched alignments along party lines, that violence is likely.
Michael: Right. All this sorting fuels anger and rage.
Betty: And are we in danger of that more and more by your observation of what’s going on?
Lilliana: Yeah, yeah. I mean, so people, first of all, people who study other countries have found that the chances of civil war increase as politics becomes polarized along racial or ethnic or religious lines. So that’s what we’re seeing in the U.S.. Obviously, I’m not saying that we are about to enter a civil war because we have very strong democratic institutions which are certainly being tested, but they, many of them are holding up. So, you know, it’s not entirely about, you know, just the alignment between racial, religious, and partisan identities. But some new work that I have that I’m working on right now, I’m working with Nathan Kalmoe at Louisiana State University and together we’ve been running some surveys actually asking Americans about their acceptance of political violence. So, you know, do you think it would be acceptable if your party participated in political violence if you lose the 2020 election? And what we’re finding is that the stronger people’s partisanship, the stronger, the more people are identified socially with their party and with their ideological label, the more people are willing to advocate political violence. And it’s still, it’s not a lot of people, right. It’s like, depending on the survey, it’s, you know, probably around between five and 10 percent of the electorate says, yes.
Betty: But that’s still significant.
Lilliana: But that’s millions of people.
Betty: And so this is serious, Lilliana, that in this screen that you’re saying that people have over their eyes, brought about by their loyalty to their party, they are willing to endorse winning at all costs, inclusive of political violence.
Michael: Or conceived. They could conceive–
Betty: They could conceive of it.
Michael: Even if they don’t endorse it, they can, or are they endorsing it?
Lilliana: They, depending, we have like 20 different questions, but one of them is actually endorsing it. A lot of the questions are also things like, you know, would you be happier if you heard that a senator had died of cancer, would you be happier if that senator was a Republican or a Democrat? And we find people preferring outgroup senators to die of cancer.
Michael: To die of cancer.
Lilliana: So wishing harm.
Michael: So wishing harm on somebody. You know, this is, I think, so much of how people think about Supreme Court justices today based on what party you’re a part of, right.
Betty: And so it also explains the immigration conflict that’s going on because these are outgroups. And if you’re affiliated with your party, then you’re going to be seeing immigrants as out and not a part of you. And the aggression that’s being expressed towards folks who are just, you know, seeking asylum or appearing at the borders, possibly even going through the proper channels. There’s just an identification with them as being on the out. And if you’re aligned with the Republican Party, then you’re aligned with Trump and then you’re going to feel even aggressive towards these immigrants.
Lilliana: Well, not only that, but the, you know, large, you know, a lot of these, most immigrants that we’re talking about are Latino. And the, sort of, Latino voters in the U.S. have been, they were sort of up for grabs until quite recently in terms of which party they aligned with. And in fact, the 2012, you know, GOP autopsy report specifically said we need to reach out to Latino voters in order to–
Michael: Because they’re more religious.
Lilliana: –win more elections.
Michael: Right. Catholic.
Betty: Also the Southwest is becoming all majority Latino.
Lilliana: Right. Right. And there or, at least minority white and right. They’re Catholic. They’re pro-life. You know, they’ve got, you know, relatively conservative social positions and, or at least the older generation does. And so, you know, the idea in the Republican Party and this was Reince Priebus was the one writing this report, was that they needed to reach out to Latinos. And now, since Trump has become president, or really started running for president, Latinos are much more, are pretty reliably Democrats at this point. So the, you know, the fact that Latinos are predominantly Democrats now, it’s sort of a self reinforcing cycle, right. The, you know, people don’t want immigrants to come here. That makes Latinos less likely to be Republicans, which means that if immigrants come here and become naturalized and become citizens, begin to vote, then the Democrats win. So it’s like this double double loss, right. Not only is the Republican Party losing, but also the Republican Party increasingly represents white people and so white people are losing as well because this, you know, wave of, you know, brown immigrants has come in and they’re joining the Democratic Party instead of the Republican Party.
Michael: Replacing us, replacing us as the Charlottesville–
Betty: That’s the language.
Michael: Can I ask a different question? If I can, I want to circle back just for a quick second to something Lilliana. And then, Betty, I want to ask you about your practice, too, about this notion of winning, because how I experienced the aftermath of the 2016 election, where it was a surprise for most, many people, a shock, I think, in both parties that Trump beat Hillary Clinton and the way there were many people I know who experienced Hillary’s loss as a kind of death. I mean, my mom in particular was depressed. And I know that a lot of people went into therapy over the election. You saw that, right, Betty?
Betty: Oh definitely. Where there’s a surge across the country in people who sought therapy and continue to seek therapy from, well, they call it Trump Stress Disorder. But really, I mean, we’re here in New York City, but I’ve written about the fact that the election was experienced as a trauma, which I thought was confusing because it wasn’t as if anybody was harmed. It was a peaceful election. There was no, nothing cataclysmic happened. But people thought about it and felt it as a cataclysmic thing. And Lilliana, it might be interesting to say, like, is that an exhibition of this win lose? How big of an impact it has on us?
Lilliana: Yeah, yeah. I mean, so one way to think about this is to say, go back to the minimal group Tajfel experiments, right. And say, you know, we want to win. We’re willing to sacrifice to win for a group that we just found out that we’re members of. But now imagine that we’re talking about a group that is, you know, the way that you were raised. It is your parents and your siblings. And, you know, you go to church, it’s your church that you go to every week. It’s your racial group which maybe you identify very strongly with. These are really crucial parts of who we are. And so if we’re willing to sacrifice for the victory of a tiny meaningless group, imagine how much we’re invested in the victory of these really central identities.
Betty: And to your current research, it’s to endorse violence–
Michael: Or just fuels anger and emotion. I mean, I look at the protests that have been going on and I know I participate, but sometimes you just think we’ve all lost our minds. Just it’s just emotion and anger that seems to be fueling everything right now.
Betty: But to your point, Lilliana, this has been happening for the last 20 years, so that this election is really a symptom rather than a cause. I mean, it’s–
Michael: Or a culmination.
Betty: Is it, has it upped the ante in terms of the power of partisanship or is it simply a progression?
Lilliana: So there were some political scientists that did a study after the 2012 election asking Republicans how, you know, what their emotional state was. And they also asked, you know, parents of small children how they felt after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. And they also asked Bostonians how they felt after the Boston Marathon bombing as sort of baseline feelings. And they found that Republicans after 2012, felt sadder than those two other groups of people. So the amount of, you know, the sort of emotional stake in the threat from losing that election was even stronger than the way that, you know, parents of small children felt after hearing about Sandy Hook. So–
Betty: What you’re pointing to, Lilliana, is, like, almost like a political climate change, and it’s getting hotter and hotter because if we’re talking about Sandy Hook and we’re talking about the death of partisan senators not being mourned over, being, you know, hoped for. And with Obama to Trump and we saw that there was a rejection of Obama in Trump’s language, in Trump’s supporters, that doesn’t seem to merit, he’s very personal. So are we headed into a hotter environment according to what you’re seeing and what you’re looking at in the future?
Lilliana: So there’s no way to, I mean, obviously no way to predict–
Michael: No George Washington.
Lilliana: –the future. I’m not George Washington. The one, I guess, it’s important to think about emotions in, you know, the sort of more scientific way to think about emotional response to these things is, I like to think of it with, like, sort of, an evolutionary psychology approach. And and so we think about anger, feelings like anger, and enthusiasm, as we call them approach emotions. So they’re the type of emotions that get people moving and going. And anxiety, as, you know, in contrast, anxiety is what we call an avoidance emotion. So people who are feeling anxious often sort of sit down and wait and don’t do anything. So in terms of politics and campaigning, we want people to be angry and enthusiastic. We don’t want them to feel anxious. Or at the very least, if they’re feeling anxious, we want them to also feel angry. And so, from an evolutionary perspective, one of the best ways to get people to respond to a threat with anger instead of anxiety is to make them feel like they have a strong group around them. So the story that I use is, imagine that you’re standing in the middle of a savanna and then you hear the roar of a lion. If you’re all alone and unarmed, you hear that lion roar and you’re probably going to hide because you’re under threat, but you have no group with you.
Michael: Fear overwhelms.
Lilliana: You’re very vulnerable.
Betty: To protect you.
Lilliana: Right. You’re vulnerable. You’re anxious. You’re scared. But if you’re standing there with a huge group of people who are with you and everybody is armed and they’re ready to protect each other, you might go fight the lion. And so you’ll respond to that roar with possibly, you know, anger and excitement, and then you’ll go and attack. And so the idea, and I think a lot of what Trump, whether or not he, you know, realized that he was doing this, a lot of what his campaign did was to take a bunch of people who felt sort of lost and alone and give them a group, give them a sense of identity. So they went from feeling anxious and not certain where the threat was coming from or whether they could even fight it, to having him point to where the threat was coming from, whether he was correct or not. Give them a target and tell them you have this group of people around you. And together, we’re going to fight this threat, whether it be immigrants or, you know, women, or Muslims, or whatever the group was that he was attacking that very week, right.
Michael: Because that’s the real danger, which is to say, you know, the lion is really a threat. But when you have a demagogue stand up and say this other person is a lion, that this other person is a threat–
Lilliana: Right. This tree is a lion.
Michael: –whether they are or not.
Betty: Right. Rather than these very complicated globalization or financial services or realities–
Michael: Or just another human being. Just taking another human being and turning another human being into a carnivorous existential threat.
Betty: But it–
Michael: All for the sake of group identity and winning.
Betty: Well, and I also think it’s simpler. It’s a simpler story.
Michael: You’re going to win.
Betty: You’re going to, if you’re afraid and everything’s changing around you. There’s climate change. There’s all sorts of uncertainties in the world.
Michael: We talked about this with Sheldon Solomon. You know, this notion that Democrats go out–
Betty: Who’s a social psychologist.
Michael: Right. At Skidmore. He’s, you know, the idea that Republicans stand up and say you’re under threat and you are special. And Democrats stand up and say I am competent. You can see it already in the beginning of the 2020 election, right. They’re doing what we talked about earlier, Lilliana, you know, they’re still policy focused. And you get the sense that there’s like–
Betty: A disconnect.
Michael: And a hunger with Democrats for just, like, raw anger and emotion. You know, it’s funny. I had breakfast with a friend in Texas in the middle of the election, and I was like, what the hell is going on?
Betty: And this is 2016?
Michael: 2016. And he was just like, oh we’re just, you know, Romney had a glass jaw and we just want someone who can throw a punch. That’s it. We just want someone who can throw a punch. That’s how he described the election to me.
Betty: And Lilliana, what your story about the lion and the savanna for me with a trauma treatment focus, you know, we’re talking also about flight fight and freeze. So if you’re frozen, which is the most terrified state a person is in when they’re under threat, that’s what that correlates to what you’re talking about. And fight is still threat, but it’s motivated threat. And so it’s just an interesting metaphor that we’re, in many of our interviews, always going back to this sense of threat and this sense of danger. And this, which we are not in a war and we are not under active threat by an opposing force.
Michael: No common enemy.
Betty: We have no common enemy right now. In fact, we’re in a very fragmented world, but we are almost looking for a place to situate our sense of threat. And that’s just interesting because it seems to be driving our politics, too.
Lilliana: Right. And I think that the way to think about it from a social identity perspective is to say that these are not physical threats. These are threats to status. And so what we’re actually, and this is sort of why what, you know, we’re seeing this like competition over victimhood, right. You know, who gets to be under the most status threat? And, you know, the, you know, incels would tell you that men are particularly threatened, right, the status of men is threatened. Women are taking over. And so whoever can, kind of, claim the biggest status threat can motivate the most people. So it’s not necessarily a threat over actual physical safety as much as it is a threat to internal, you know, sense of self-worth, which can be even more frightening sometimes, because if you’re, you know, if your sense of who you are is being, and your superiority or your your status level, is being threatened, everything else feels terrible.
Michael: It’s exactly what you’re saying, which is that how identity politics is, in effect, balkanizing us as a nation
Lilliana: Right. And I think it is important to also point out that the difference, you know, Democrats are usually the party that’s, like, accused of identity politics. But in fact, I think the difference between the ways that the Democrats are running elections and Republicans are running elections does reflect the fact that we do have, on average, the nation on average holds liberal policy preferences and on average, the nation calls itself conservative. So the average American is a person who identifies as conservative and prefers liberal policy preferences.
Michael: So a schizophrenic.
Betty: Or actually, your term of crosscutting, right. We’re actually more diverse than we think we are.
Lilliana: But it’s policies that are crosscutting and policies don’t matter as much as identity. So, right, that’s why Trump was, the idea that Trump was, promising health care to everybody was really popular. People liked that. People would like to have health care. And, you know, people would like to have Social Security and people would like to have, you know, to have protection for themselves and their families if something goes wrong in their life. And so in general, Democrats can run on policy based campaigns because their policies are actually more popular. And Republicans, ironically, are sort of forced to run more identity based campaigns, right. They’re forced to run on status threat and, you know, who is coming after you and who is going to replace you, right. I mean, these types of status threats in particular to traditionally high status groups like men and white people, right. Those are very threatening, status based, threatening messages. And what that does is it creates people who call themselves conservatives, but prefer liberal policies to focus more on who they feel like they are than what they actually want the government to do. So the two parties are actually incentivized to run different types of campaigns. And the problem is that the identity based campaign is a lot more exciting than a policy based campaign and actually gets people moving and active–
Lilliana: –much more effectively than, right, than the policy based campaign, which is like, yeah that makes sense. I would like that, but I’m not going to, like, get up off my sofa and go, you know, to a protest or go mobilize people to vote or go volunteer for a campaign just because I think that that’s a sensible policy position. However, if I think immigrants are coming to take my, you know, my Minnesota summer house, then I’m definitely going to get up and vote.
Betty: Well, that speaks to the evolutionary brain because, or neuroscience, because our fear centers and our threat centers drive us and will supercede our thinking centers, which is the, you know, the neocortex. So the policy sits in the thinking part, but if we’re under threat then we’re not going to be thinking. And does that mean that this policy approach at this moment in our climate is not so effective?
Lilliana: Right. Yeah. Because our, sort of, the animal brain takes over when there’s threat apparent. And so, yeah, I mean, I think policy based campaigning in general will work better for Democrats than it would for Republicans because their policies are less popular on average. But in general, right, across the board, identity based campaigning is more effective than policy based campaigning because it gets at these, right, these very, very powerful kind of animal parts of our brains that do take over from our rational, thoughtful, you know, cognitive processes.
Michael: There are limits to policy based campaigns.
Betty: But are they mutually exclusive? Can you have, like, an emotionally driven policy, or mix of two? Does it have to be one or the other?
Lilliana: Well, I think that is where Democrats probably, you know, if they knew what to do, that’s where they would go, right, to make–
Michael: That was what Obama was in 2008.
Lilliana: Right. He went for enthusiasm, not anger.
Michael: Yes. It was a positive emotion, not a negative emotion, but there was a lot of emotion associated with the campaign that wasn’t really policy driven. Who are we, right? And we are the kind of nation that can elect a black man to be president. And that was a–
Betty: Who had the personality to motivate people.
Michael: Seemed like a really nice guy. You could have a beer with him, right. You know, which brings me, Lilliana, and we don’t have a whole lot of time, but I want to try to understand, also, some of what had been driving us. And you mentioned in your book, and I think it’s really essential because I think one of the things we haven’t meaningfully discussed is how race divides us and has always divided us as a country. Back from when the Constitution was being written and the conflict between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in terms of rights and human rights and slavery. So, you know, everybody goes back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but Lyndon Johnson supposedly said we’ve just lost the South for a generation after the Civil Rights Act passed. If it’s not actually accurate, it certainly feels accurate. And he was proven to be true. And then Nixon, of course, picks that up and goes with his Southern strategy. And at that moment, the two parties sort of cleave both in terms of race and in terms of geography. Is that where all of this starts in the modern sense? Certainly we had a civil war over this, too. But is that where all this starts?
Lilliana: Yeah, I mean, so I think the way that I think about it is almost like we had this, you know, 50 year perfect storm where we had the Civil Rights Act, which basically told conservative Southern Democrats that they, white Southern Democrats, that they did not belong in the Democratic Party anymore. But also, at that point, it was, you know, the South was, there was not, you couldn’t find a single Republican in the South at that point. And so this was a very, being a Democrat in the South was a very powerful political identity. So these guys did not just become Democrats overnight. They hated the idea of being Democrats. And so, I’m sorry, Republicans, right.
Michael: Republicans, and this is left over from Reconstruction, right.
Betty: This is historical. The carpetbaggers.
Lilliana: This is after the Civil War itself. And so they, basically, they kind of, there were conflicts within the Democratic Party. You know, the more conservative Southern Democrats started moving away from the Democratic Party. But still–
Michael: The Dixiecrats, right?
Lilliana: Yes. But still identified as Democrats. And I think, really, it took a generation for them to really move over into the Republican Party. And during that time, we had a bunch of crosscutting identities. So in the 70s and 80s, as this process was occurring, there was a lot of confusion in terms of which party represented which people. And so that really was a time of relatively low polarization, at least partisan polarization, because it was, the parties were sending unclear cues to people. And then in the 90s, or late 80s 90s, the religious right became really politically active. And they joined forces with the Republican Party and had, sort of, all of their requests, got, you know, were included in the Republican Party platform by the year 2000. And so that’s an even clearer cue, which, you know, which side you’re supposed to be on. And then at the, during the 90s, we also had partisan cable news appear. And then we had the Internet appear. So not only were the parties sending much clearer cues about who belongs with which party, which race and religion belongs with which party, but also those cues were being communicated in much more efficient ways. So partisan news and the Internet, eventually, were able to communicate who is us and who is them more efficiently than, you know, the three network news channels used to do.
Betty: And I picked up on that in your book about media and social media and to the point of Kiwanis and our bowling leagues disappearing, we seem to be finding those niches online in very narrow echo chambers that people find their people online, maybe all across the country, but they really get each other going in a 24/7 kind of way. Would you correlate that, that they find their identity online rather than in reality in groups and in their actual communities and neighborhoods?
Lilliana: Well, yeah, I mean, we’re definitely having, a lot more of our social interaction is happening online and in general people tend to be less polite when they are not face to face with the human being. So it’s possible not only for us to–
Michael: Less tolerant.
Betty: And more incendiary.
Lilliana: Right. It’s possible for people to not only connect with an increasingly like minded group of people, but also to attack people who are unlike them in a way that they never would do in a face to face environment.
Michael: Yeah, I experienced that personally because I had to walk away from Facebook. I found it too unpleasant and depressing.
Betty: And families have broken apart.
Michael: Yeah. Well, you know, but my feed, my group, because of what I did for a living, was just a mix of everybody, right. The documentary film business itself tends to be more liberal. The people who I became quite close to in my films were far more conservative. And I, you know, these were people I was very close to. And I couldn’t post anything. Because they would go at each other in the comment thread. And I was like, you know–
Betty: It would be endless.
Michael: Oh my God. And I was like, wait you all matter to me. This is not how I, this is not why I’m here. This is just a picture of my kid’s birthday. Would you cut it out? And it was, you know, you could see the fertile ground for someone, or a country like Russia, to come in with all of these trolls and fake stories. They didn’t, you know, they didn’t have to do much to turn us against each other.
Lilliana: No. They knew exactly what to do.
Michael: They knew exactly what you do. You know, it’s funny. It reminded me of Jill Lepore wrote in These Truths last year that if you had turned to somebody in the mid 60s and you’d said that the second half of the 20th century politically was going to be defined by the paradigm that guns are freedom and abortion is murder vs. guns are murder and abortion is freedom, you would have, people would’ve looked like you were crazy. And yet that is–
Betty: absolutely the–
Michael: –set in stone. That paradigm drives practically everything now. I think, you know, in so many ways.
Lilliana: On the right.
Michael: On the right. And look, on the left, too, for a lot of people, right. You know, guns are murder, abortion is freedom, and there is no, there’s–
Betty: No middle ground.
Michael: Zero middle ground for anybody anymore.
Lilliana: Well, and that’s interesting too, because even, so those are presumably policy based ideas, right. Are, you know, what should the government do about those two things? And even with those, even with guns and abortion, we’re seeing that people are having a social, like, an identity based connection to the opinion groups on either side. And so it’s almost, it’s like everything is becoming wrapped together into this huge identity thread. And I’ve actually, in the in the book, I have a little bit of work looking at pro-choice and pro-life identity versus pro-choice and pro-life attitudes like preferences for what the government should do. And the thing that gets people much more active in politics is the identification with the group pro-choice or pro-life, regardless of their, of the extremity of their policy positions. And I’ve also found that, and others have found that, gun ownership is becoming a real identity. And it’s something that the NRA actually has been intentionally fostering a sense of threat to gun owners in order to create an identity among gun owners so that they will be loyal.
Michael: Political consultants and all these groups are playing us to drive us because they benefit.
Lilliana: Right. Any time that you feel that your group is under threat, you tend to think of yourself as a group member more, right. So if, because we all have millions of group memberships and so if, you know, you may not be thinking about your hometown as a salient group membership right now, but if somebody were to walk up to you and say everybody from your hometown is stupid, you would all of a sudden start thinking about yourself as a member of your hometown. And so by presenting these threats to people, it creates more of a sense of group identity, it makes these identities much more salient. And so if we’re having these Facebook arguments, right, we may not have thought about our identities as, you know, whatever the argument on Facebook happens to be about. But all of a sudden, there’s this argument going on and then it’s like, well, I want my side to win. So I’m going to start fighting it because I need that victory for myself. And I didn’t even think of myself as that type of, as a member of that group until you brought it up and made me feel threatened. So the threat itself is actually creating more identification with groups than we sort of had before.
Michael: And more activism is creating more emotion.
Betty: And threat galvanizes your identity. Threat galvanizes political identity and it seems like the political operatives are capitalizing on this.
Lilliana; Well, threat also doesn’t just galvanize identity, but it also prioritizes identity. And I think that’s really important.
Betty: That is really significant.
Lilliana: Because we have so many identities and, you know, I think that helps explain these, for instance, like the Obama Trump voters, right. It’s not that they went from being not racist to being racist. It’s that their white identity was not as salient earlier than it was once Trump started campaigning. And really after Obama’s second term, you know, his race itself made white race much more salient. And then Trump really took that and ran with it. But it’s, you know, the question is, there’s a new book coming out in a couple of weeks by Ashley Jardina called White Identity Politics–
Michael: From Duke?
Lilliana: –and it’s very exciting. Yeah, from Duke. And, you know, she literally, just a few years ago when she started writing this book, people were like, that’s not a thing. There is no white identity.
Lilliana: And so, you know, it’s not really about making an identity. It’s about reminding people about the group that they are a member of.
Michael: Well, that’s the thing. It becomes this echo chamber, right, where you, an echo chamber is maybe the wrong metaphor, but propelling itself forward and there’s no way to sort of arrest it, right.
Betty: And you make a really good explanation for the Obama Trump voters, which I’ve been puzzling about. And people have been looking at this group of people as potentially the hope for a different outcome. But if it’s about prioritizing white identity, then that’s a different way of looking at that group of people who are maybe in the middle or were in the middle at some point.
Michael: It’s all kinetic. That’s the thing, right. It’s all kinetic. So someone–
Lilliana: It’s a fight. And it’s also what you see sort of these battles over victimhood, right. Who’s the real victim in the Brett Kavanaugh, right, situation? Because the ones who can claim credibly being victims are the ones who are able to point to a direct threat and then that galvanizes and mobilizes people to think about that identity and then to participate in politics on behalf of that identity. So if men are under threat, then men get to be the ones who are galvanized and, right, the male identity becomes extremely salient. And everybody thinks about their political participation based on whether or not, you know, their male identity is being threatened.
Betty: So, paradoxically, the threat to identity and the victimhood of race is empowering.
Michael: Right. We all traffic in our grievance. That is what we are right now.
Betty: We’d call that in my field persecution complex.
Michael: All right. It’s got a fancy name to it. I like that.
Lilliana: Well, I would also just add that because the divide between the parties is, I think, increasingly becoming sort of a social justice divide, that the idea of grievance, right, is like used to, you know, for a while from the social justice side of the spectrum, kind of belonged to that side. And that what we’re seeing coming from the right is kind of a rebuttal to saying, no it’s actually us that have grievances, right. It is the traditionally high status groups like men and white people–
Betty: The majority, the mainstream.
Lilliana: –who have the real grievances.
Michael: The billionaires under assault right now. Well, look I think the solution is that we should all join an Elks Club or the Kiwanis Club.
Betty: I already have a bowling name.
Michael: You do, really?
Michael: We’re going to do a Mind of State bowling league. Maybe that’s the solution. Lilliana, will you join our bowling league?
Lilliana: Yeah. Let’s get like the millennials to all start joining Elks Club.
Michael: Oh, there you go.
Betty: That would be, I think that actually would take off.
Lilliana: It probably would.
Michael: It would be like them drinking PBR. You go to the Elks Club and the Kiwanis Club and drink your PBR and then you’d solve all the political problems.
Lilliana: Yeah, that’d be great.
Michael: Well, listen, thank you. It was really fascinating. Thanks for getting up and getting to the studio. We really appreciate it.
Lilliana: Thank you so much. This is a lot of fun.
Michael: Well, we have reached the end of yet another session and as my analyst likes to say to me, take your problems home with you. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Chad Dougatz. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty: And I’m Betty Teng. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Pod, on our Facebook page, and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.