Is Polarization A Myth?

22 Aug

Only Alien Jesus Can Save US! I’ve consistently had a blogging policy during my tenure as a blogger through all the various permutations of this blog, that I would not make predictions. I’m a social scientist, not a soothsayer. The reason I’ve decided to rebrand this blog is because I am skeptical of an empirical prediction made by Michael T. Klare, that resource scarcity will lead to war. By examining the impact of resources on the likelihood that states would go to war in the past, I hope to offer possibilities for future policy. So, it’s not surprising I am skeptical, that rhetorical tensions in Northeast Asia will lead to war. I have the courage to argue, that South Korea and Japan, or China and Japan, or the two Koreas, or China and the United States (and, yes, the risible notion of North Korea invading the U.S.), will not go war. Without invoking the null hypothesis, all the bluster about war in the region is little more beneficial than a fortune teller’s trick.

But, how to test at least these two propositions? Fortunately, Delia Baldassarri and Peter Bearman have done some research on the supposed polarization in American domestic politics, and this approach might be helpful on the international level.

Baldassarri and Bearman quote a range of studies that find that the mass of the US population is not polarized in the bulk of its political attitudes, and that it has not increased in polarization in the past decade. “The evidence suggests that, aside from a small set of takeoff issues, ‘the policy preferences of different social groupings generally move in parallel with each other'” (784). They resolve part of the paradox by distinguishing between activist opinions and public opinion:

In the same vein, Fiorina and colleagues (2005) dispute “The Myth of a Polarized America” and suggest that the “culture war” commonly conjured up in the media is a fictive construction. According to their analysis, there is no popular polarization, but simply partisan polarization-“those who affiliate with a party are more likely to affiliate with the ‘correct’ party today than they were in earlier periods” (p. 25). It is the political elite and a small number of party activists that are polarized.

This all seems a little paradoxical, so it’s worth looking at the assumptions these two groups of researchers are making about “polarization”.


The most original part of their work here is an effort to model the emergence of issue polarization based on a theory of how social interactions in networks and small groups influence individuals’ attitudes. They offer a sociological theory of inter-personal influence to explain how attitude diffusion occurs within a population, and they report the results of network simulations to illustrate the consequences of this theory. They argue that this model explains how members of society can perceive polarity while actually embodying a high degree of homogeneity.

In more general terms, we show that simple mechanisms of social interaction and personal influence can lead to both social segregation and ideological polarization. (785)

Our goal has been to deploy a model of inter-personal influence sensitive to dynamics of political discussion, where actors hold multiple opinions on diverse issues, interact with others relative to the intensity and orientation of their political preferences, and through evolving discussion networks shape their own and others’ political contexts. In the model, opinion change depends on two factors: the selection of interaction partners, which determines the aggregate structure of the discussion network, and the process of interpersonal influence, which determines the dynamics of opinion change. In the next section, we organize the description of the model around these two elements. Table 1 summarizes the simulation algorithm. (788)


Several things are striking about this work. First is the degree to which it presents a picture of public opinion that seems highly counterintuitive in 2012. The first half of their paradox seems even more compelling today than five years ago — the American public does seem to be very divided in its opinions about social and moral issues. The second striking thing is perhaps an omission in the foundations of their theory of attitude formation. Their model works through 1-1 interactions. But it seems evident that a lot of attitude formation is happening through exposure to the media — television, radio, Internet, social media. There doesn’t appear to be an obvious way to incorporate these powerful influences into their model. And yet these may be much more influential than 1-1 interactions.

This research is of interest for two important reasons. First, it is a sustained effort to account for how issue separation occurs in real social groups. And second, it provides an excellent and detailed example of a microfoundational approach to an important social process, using a variety of agent-based modeling techniques to work out the consequences of the theory of social influence with which they begin. The models allow Baldassarri and Bearman to carefully probe the assumptions of the theory of individual-level attitude dynamics that they postulate. So the work is both substantively and methodologically rewarding. It is analytical sociology at its best.

(This also brings to mind James Carville’s and Stan Greenberg’s “It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!” argument.)

I think, if data allows, it would be possible to ascertain what elites and the general population in, say China, Japan, and South Korea, believe about each other, and compare the two sets of national polls for any common perspectives and whether elite and popular opinions diverge or not in either case. I’m sorry I don’t have such data at my fingertips. But, I really feel – for those who assume science lacks emotion – an urge to provide some hope for those caught up in hysteria.

“We are all gearing up for an international tug of war in this region,” said Narushige Michishita, an expert on security issues at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Whenever the distribution of power changes in a dramatic way, people start to redraw lines.”


“The stakes are much higher in East Asia because you have bigger countries in close proximity, and the conflicts are more direct and emotional,” said Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.


“There is a real possibility that if diplomacy fails, there will be a war,” said Kazuhiko Togo, a former career Japanese diplomat who has written on the island issues.


Yoshiyuki Toita, a 42-year-old member of Ishigaki’s city assembly, was one of the few local residents who joined the expedition. “Japan has come to the point that it must change,” Mr. Toita said. “The era of just depending on the United States is over.”

The article almost doesn’t need background or analysis. The author doesn’t even attempt to survey public opinion, and accepts a government-sponsored poll at face value. Instead the author rests his argument on a small sample of elite opinion.

However, to be fair, Martin Fackler allows us some emotional relief, and perhaps a way at least to frame an alternative to the doom and gloom.

At the same time, said Mr. Nakayama, 45, he values his island’s growing trade and tourism links to the Chinese-speaking world, especially Taiwan, which also stakes a claim to the Senkakus.

Mr. Tamashiro, the fishing boat captain, expressed similar conflicted feelings, even as he has begun taking more activists to see the islands. “Basically, fishermen don’t want the politics to disrupt their livelihoods,” Mr. Tamashiro said. But at $4,500 per boat charter, he said, going to the Senkakus “is not bad money.”

It’s the beginning of a joke, and perhaps a better argument.

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One Response to “Is Polarization A Myth?”

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