The Exhausted Majority

What do we really mean when we say polarization? Perhaps the reality of American political culture is not as bi-polar as we've gotten used to -- or been told.

Part two of a four-part series on polarization in American media and politics. To begin at the beginning, start here.

Political polarization is such a standard concept now in American political culture that we take it as an undeniable, almost inevitable given. But we need to define what we mean and explore what it looks like beyond stereotypes and generalizations.

The binary, Left-vs-Right dynamic that seems so deeply ingrained in our two-party duopoly is a handy shorthand for oversimplifying a profoundly complex modern political economy. That oversimplification works well if defining all political disagreement as existential conflict between two warring armies is what matters to you. For media systems anchored to and optimized for attention, conflict is the frame. Existential conflict is even better. The hottest takes possible are the most entertaining, and certainty and intractability are demanded. For political campaigning, conflict and existential threat is a great source of ever-escalating urgency. That same oversimplification is discouragingly inaccurate and counterproductive if understanding people and what they believe and want with clear nuance and context is what matters. So as citizens, community members, community organizers — folks trying to live in community with each other in a broadly diverse nation who want to be connected to community and understand our families and neighbors, we are swimming against multiple multi-billion-dollar streams.

My experience in that conversation in my small town in the Hudson Valley of New York does not reflect the story I see oversimplified in news or expressed, dripping with vitriol and disdain, on political Twitter. People are complicated. Communities are nuanced. Beliefs do not cleanly organize into tight, binary ideological either-ors. Perhaps engaging people as the caricatures of Left and Right we’ve grown accustomed to is partly to blame for the cartoonishness of our politics. Our reality is at least a more fine-grained gradient of views on a myriad of issues that can be grouped into generally like-minded ideological communities. Even the idea of a bi-polar gradient is probably limiting, a multi-axis system might tell us a more accurate story, but to find community, to try to make sense of broad differences and trends, some categorization is helpful.

Back in 2018, the Hidden Tribes research project from More In Common sought exact that: to identify a more granular way of thinking about like-minded communities than the bi-polar Left v Right we are so used to. What they found was that the loudest elements of American political life — especially in media — come from about a third of the population: 8% of the US falls into a category they called Progressive Activists (the far left) and 19% and 6% into Traditional and Devoted Conservatives respectively (the far right). These dominant ends of the political spectrum (however flawed a binary gradient may be) with wildly disparate worldviews drive conflict and therefore attention and shape the frames we are given for most ideological arguments. But they leave roughly two thirds of the country (including me in a group they call Traditional Liberals) feeling some combination of frustrated, alienated in one way or another by politics and by both parties, disconnected from the conversation, unrepresented by leaders they don’t hear in the national “debate,” and hungry for some sense of mutual good faith and community service. They called them The Exhausted Majority.

This year Pew Research explored a massive, similar study called Beyond Red vs Blue where they similarly sought to take a less party-centric and more fine-grained look at ideological communities in practice in American politics. They discovered slightly different groupings but a similar shape to American civic engagement. They identified two loud, highly partisan minorities at each end of the liberal-conservative spectrum — groups they dubbed the Progressive Left (6% of the US) and Establishment Liberals (13%) and then Faith and Flag Conservatives (10%) and Committed Conservatives (7%). And then further identified a large set (nearly 2/3 of Americans — sound familiar?), not necessarily moderate, but often less strident and significantly more disengaged from politics who feel under- or entirely un-represented and in many cases excluded from political participation. Importantly (and surprisingly), a small set of their most partisan groups, Progressive Left and Faith & Flag Conservatives, end up falling into Lean GOP and Lean Democrat party affiliation respectively. More work is needed to unpack how those ideologies line up with those deeply counter-intuitive political affiliations, but the possibility of a genuinely liberal Republican voter and genuinely conservative Democratic voter is undeniably present in their sample — evidence at a minimum for the need to be careful and curious as we make our snap judgments about people’s beliefs and behavior.

From a political participation perspective, the data reveal a decided U-shape in American culture. High engagement on nearly daily basis with political information and high rates of political participation in voting on either end of the spectrum and near total disengagement in the middle. At a civic level, even as a matter of preference and intent, no groups in the Pew typology expressed that being involved in community or even in social or political causes was one of the most important things to them at a rate higher than 13%. Even amongst the most politically engaged groups, community and civic life are not one of their most important activities. With very little variation across their ideological spectrum, what Pew reveals is a milquetoast statement of “community is somewhat important” backed up by little participation. Hyperpartisans are engaged and committed to the hyperpartisan conflict, constantly inflamed by the noise and narrative, but while that particular type of engagement does drive revenue for media systems, it does not drive civic participation. I would argue that that constant conflagration is what keeps much of that large majority from engaging in the conversation because it demands a level of certainty, adherence to dogma, and a tone many are unwilling to adopt. And this unwillingness to engage speaks to one of the most numbing and important local consequences of polarization I’ll explore in part three.

Given the shape of these data, is that large Exhausted Majority still extant in American politics or have they been further sorted over the last few years? In the Pew typology, the Outsider Left (largely younger, very liberal but deeply disaffected with political institutions where I’d probably land in the Pew typology), the Stressed Sideliners, and Ambivalent Right (traditional economic conservative but social liberal folks) make up more than a third of the country. If we also include the Democratic Mainstays and Populist Right we are looking at nearly 2/3 of the country (sound familiar?) again. A complex group of largely disengaged, frustrated folks willing to listen to others but unsure of value of engaging in a political discourse and process that seem irreparably damaged and often hostile to their question-asking and uncertainty. As an average this group may appear Moderate, but this is where averages get us in trouble — that label would be a mistake.

Mostly this large majority of Americans are not centrist in their views. They aren’t actually looking for centrism or moderation in policy: they are looking for moderation in approach, tone, and tenor. Mostly the have loosely held liberal or conservative perspectives on economics, security, and safety, relatively liberal social and cultural perspectives, a deep skepticism about political institutions especially our political parties, and a lot of uncertainty about the future. They are craving a politics focused on community, that feels useful and productive, that feels like it is about them, cares about them, and that they are not just welcome, but encouraged to be part of. I believe that they are looking for in politics is for a conversation that feels like a conversation, where they could (and would) engage in genuine political discourse if they felt it were possible. These people feel disconnected and are craving community. Is there some community possible amongst this disparate group that could create a meaningful counterweight to the edges of the U?

Historically only one valid identity (wealthy, white, male) was allowed mainstream expression. With more voices, more stories, more identities present in mainstream culture, we have not effectively created a shared identity that we all can fit into, that enough are willing to embrace, that can knit us together. (Ezra Klein points toward this explosion as on of the central reasons for our polarization in his excellent book Why We Are Polarized.) Identity formation and need for the safety and belonging that comes from community encourage us to create strong like-like bonds within ingroups. We need spaces to experience our desire to explore, to be curious, to create like-unlike bonds with people in outgroups (or just other-groups) in a society where valid identity expression has exploded. For many, this explosion is confronting and confusing. For others, it is oxygen. For all of us, it offers incredible, expanding new opportunities, AND it creates pressure on what our shared identity might be. Turns out simply sharing geography (at any level) is not sufficient for shared identity, and that lack of anything shared is where the pressures of polarization begin to tear at the fabric of community and make discovering a shared story harder. This lack of shared narrative is at the core of the leadership failure in America. But even if we could find this like-unlike curious space, given the reality of our democratic systems and institutions (partisan primaries, campaign finance, the electoral college, the filibuster), does it matter for more healthier politics?

The exact ways in which it matters and what to do about it relative to national politics are open questions for me. Where is the space for mutual good faith in mainstream culture? How plausible is that kind of discourse in our current media landscape? Can it only happen close to home in smaller communities and smaller discussions? Should the Democratic party credibly build a worldview and narrative about freedom and justice that actually includes the broad set of those Exhausted Majority that would actually prefer more connection to and investment in community? Would they actually win more? Would different debates and more nuance lead to different leadership and policy outcomes or are we stuck regardless until we implement some democracy reforms? I obviously have opinions about those questions (that I’ll probably come back to in other essays), but how this polarization matters in smaller communities is palpable and painful — and something I know we can begin to address now because I have seen it where I live.