By Robert Folsom | November 5, 2012
Plenty of news stories in recent years have noted that American politics have become "deeply polarized."
Nearly all of them define and gauge what polarization means in broad terms -- by a breakdown of "red state/blue state," an analysis of "attack ads," or via the endless examples of the "dysfunctional" legislative process in Washington.
But if polarization truly does run deep in society, the fact is that it will show up in what everyday people actually do. That's why I was fascinated by a story I heard over the weekend, which was not the latest repeat of the same big-picture tale of polarized politics...
...But instead reported on how polarized individuals behave.
The most recent episode of the award-winning radio broadcast This American Life did the shoe-leather work, via interviews in many communities and households to discover how individuals are acting and reacting to political differences they have with people they know and in some cases love.
The short version: Time and again, this episode of This American Life learned of broken friendships and divided families to an extent no one could recall.
I'll mention two of the many examples (one Democrat, one Republican) from the broadcast, which can only be described as open meanness to a friend.
A lady learned of an opening in a friend's hiking group -- only to be told by her friend in front of the group -- that she would not be permitted to join because she was a Republican.
A man and his friend are married to sisters -- but the man warned the friend not to vote Democrat or he wouldn't serve the friend any barbeque at dinner. Further, the friend would need to bring his own food if he visits.
Mind you, these are not hearsay accounts. The radio broadcast played audio clips from the interviews of these people, describing their own behavior.
The broadcast also played many clips to tell how friends/family on opposite political sides each express the same sentiment about the other -- often in the nearly the same language, including:
1) I can't believe they really think THAT
2) People in my party are so much more open minded
3) People on the other side just don't consider my point of view
4) They're acting like the Nazis did [yes, I heard quote after quote saying that].
Now please allow me to zoom out to the big picture regarding the presidential election and the nation's polarized politics, but from a source you haven't heard before. Sage Open is a peer-reviewed journal of the social and behavioral sciences. It has just published the "Elections Paper" I've frequently mentioned on this page. This is an important advancement in the study of social mood's influence on politics. The paper remains available as a free download on SSRN. This is seminal research -- SSRN has posted over 350,000 papers on its website, yet in just 10 months the elections paper has become one of its most-downloaded ever.
Andrea Dibben contributes research.