YANSS 133 – How politics became our identity

Dinner parties used to be where you avoided politics. Now talking about politics at dinner parties is the norm.

Years ago, we avoided politics because we assumed the people at our table had diverse political identities, and we didn’t want to introduce a topic that might lead to an argument. Today, we assume our guests share a single identity, after all, why else would we have invited them?

Something has changed in the United States, and for many of us, it’s only at Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering where we don’t get to sort ourselves by political tribe, that we must face people who see the world differently than ourselves.

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In this episode, we spend time with political scientist Lilliana Mason who discusses this in her new book, Uncivil Agreement, in which she says we actually agree about most things, and strangely, “our conflicts are over who we think we are, rather than reasoned differences of opinion.”

As Mason explains, “Our opinions can be very fluid, so fluid that if we wanted to come to a compromise we could, if there were not these pesky identities in the way. We can’t come to a compromise because our identities are making us want to take positions as far away from the other side as possible. What that means is that we are trying to look like we disagree in order to defend our identity and our sense of difference from other people.”

As an example, Mason says that six months ago 99 percent of Americans would have said that, of course, children should not be separated from their parents. Now that the issue is politicized, people claim to feel differently, but in reality, it’s only tribal signaling at play. If their party were to ask them to express their true feelings, they would. They’ve become trapped by tribe.

“Our actual opinions, our levels of agreement, are different than what we are willing to accept our government to do because we don’t want to feel like our party is losing,” explains Mason in the show.

Lilliana Mason is professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland where she researches partisan identity, partisan bias, social sorting, and American social polarization. She is the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and National Public Radio.

Her book outlines how we’ve moved away from issue-based polarization and entered a new realm of identity-based polarization. As long as the identity divide is maintained, we will behave more like warring tribes than a unified nation of people who have different values and ideas about what policies should be enacted.

According to Mason, “Right now, we’re telling ourselves a story about a war that’s going on in our country, and it’s only making the war worse.”

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