Polarization Doesn’t Have to Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Collage of landmarks around Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by OPMaster/Wikipedia, DemocraticLuntz/Wikipedia, and OPMaster at English Wikipedia.

Nearly two years ago, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway introduced the country to the notion of “alternative facts.” The coinage—an Orwellian euphemism for “lying”—seemed to represent a new turning point in the wider breakdown in America’s shared understanding of the nation’s social and political realities: If some Americans believed traditional “facts” and others believed “alternative facts,” then where would that leave us collectively? There is no lack of contributing causes for this apparent divergence, from social media bubbles to diminishing trust in traditional sources of expertise to the growing alignment of political and social identities.

We worry, however, about the extent to which the representation of American society as deeply polarized can be self-fulfilling and self-defeating. Too often, we exaggerate the extent to which we are divided and discount the resources and contexts that connect us. Polarization is not just an observed fact but also a political agenda that needs to be resisted. Here, then, is some slight good news from Kentucky.

Bowling Green is a purple college town in red Warren County, which went 59 percent to 35 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. (Coincidentally, Bowling Green’s population is more than 10 percent Muslim, mostly because of Bosnian refugee resettlement in the 1990s). In February, we held an online town hall in the area using a tool called Polis, in which more than 2,000 people participated. The structure of a Polis conversation is simple: People make short statements via a kind of online messaging system and respond to the statements of others. They can agree, disagree, or pass. As the statements and responses accumulate, the results look like survey data. Unlike typical surveys, the shape of a Polis conversation is determined by the community. You don’t know what you’ll get, but what you get reflects participant concerns.

We wanted to know what people thought might make living and working in Bowling Green better. We worked with the local newspaper—the Bowling Green Daily News—to connect the discussion of community concerns to the work of local journalism, which plays an important role in representing those concerns. We worried that the conversation could be derailed in any number of ways—by excessive polarization or incivility, by intentional misinformation campaigns, or simply by lack of interest in this sort of civic exercise. None of those things happened.

There were clearly divisive issues in the community, including immigration, the need for additional protection of LGBTQ rights, marijuana legalization, and minimum wage laws. The most divisive statement was about immigration, specifically whether “a city should have the right to declare itself a sanctuary city.” Overall, 31 percent agreed, 41 percent disagreed, and 27 percent passed.

Polis also sorts respondents into voting blocs that—in Bowling Green’s case—loosely distinguished a liberal Group A from a slightly larger and more conservative Group B. In the sanctuary city case, Group A was strongly in favor of the statement, while Group B was even more strongly opposed. This is the shape of a polarizing issue.

Responses to “A city should have the right to declare itself a sanctuary city.”

Marijuana legalization followed a similar pattern:

Responses to “Recreational marijuana should be legal.“

But here’s what surprised us: Across more than 600 statements, there were very few that generated such polarized responses. The overwhelming majority received strong consensus support. These covered a wide range of issues, including traffic problems, local development, cable and broadband services, jobs programs, and government accountability. The Polis representation of this consensus looks a bit like a beehive, with the large body of consensus statements on the left and the handful of divisive statements trailing off to the right.

A plot showing a large cluster of consensus statements and only a few divisive statements.

The consensus issues had some notable similarities. All were subjects over which local government had some control. Most were subjects that appeared rarely in social or national media but regularly in local media. Some were literally pedestrian—almost nobody is happy with the traffic situation in Bowling Green—and the frequency with which traffic came up suggests that it shouldn’t be underestimated as a political concern. Some statements revealed communication gaps between the community and local institutions, such as the lack of awareness of the local power utility’s exploration of residential broadband service. Still others reflected surprising alignments of opinion across the major political divides.

Responses to “Cable companies need competition and not be allowed to raise rates of customers. Once you sign on, that is your rate unless you upgrade.”
Responses to “City/County officials with connections to a project or proposal should abstain from voting on the project or proposal.”
Responses to “The arts are an important component of K–12 education.”

There was also more alignment than might have been conventionally assumed on issues like opioid addiction, which a substantial majority of the population prefers to treat as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Responses to “In order to better combat the opioid epidemic, it is time to view drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal justice problem.”

Because all participants could add statements, rather than just vote on what was already in the system, the Polis conversation also teased out distinctions that might not be visible with traditional surveys. For instance, one of the most divisive statements involved a prospective “fairness ordinance” that would prevent businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Responses to “It is embarrassing that our city is the largest in the state not to have a fairness ordinance.”

Given expected political breakdowns, the results were perhaps not that surprising. But a similar statement opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in general received support across group lines.

Responses to “People in Bowling Green should not be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.”

Taking a step back, the Bowling Green Polis raises the question of whether it matters if we think of ourselves as fundamentally divided or mostly in agreement about the range of issues we encounter in our daily lives. We think it might. The former invites confrontation and defensiveness, while the latter suggests a basis for dialogue about more challenging issues, such as—in Bowling Green—the difference between nondiscrimination as a matter of law and nondiscrimination as a matter of private morality, or the gradation of options around drug policy and sentencing.

Does an exercise like the Bowling Green Polis strengthen the sense of shared interests in ways that diminish partisan digging-in and enable progress on these issues? Again, we think it might. As social media displace local news organizations as primary information sources, residents of the same area have fewer ways of seeing themselves as communities, structured by commonalities as well as differences. Good local journalism has traditionally played this role, but local journalism is in deep trouble in America, facing challenges to its financial sustainability and pressure to move toward, not away from, reporting models that play to divisiveness.

As we try to step back from the edge of a major social and political crisis, we will need to find more ways to strengthen and sustain the connection between local journalism and communities. We will need to create more spaces for good dialogue, virtual and in-person, instead of putting our hopes in the willingness and wisdom of social media companies to exclude the bad.

The Bowling Green Polis left important questions unresolved. How can community opinion data play that representational role? How can the process of representing the community to itself be made more durable, repeatable, and inclusive? How can such conversations lead to solutions to the problems they identify? We’re still working on that.

In the meantime, the Bowling Green Polis is an interesting experiment in depolarization—one that uses social media techniques to find common ground in a community, not just the real and imagined differences.

All charts courtesy of Polis.