A curious vehicle carrying a mock-up of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. It was used for political propaganda in the 1950s by the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Up to the 1980s and even later, Italy was a deeply divided country where two opposed and incompatible factions squaring off against each other: the "Reds" (the communists) and the "Whites" (the Christian Democrats). Something similar seems to be taking place in the US with the Republican and the Democratic parties.
Seen from Europe, the current Republican debate in the US looks completely incomprehensible. The presidential candidates, the debate, the press reports, everything seems to be taking place on an alien planet, somewhere in another galaxy. One would be tempted to define the situation, paraphrasing Darwin, as the "survival of the nastiest".
Yet, there seems to be some method even in this madness. A recent paper by Iyengar and Westwood (commented in Deric Bownds's blog) generated as small satori in my mind. There is indeed a (perverse) logic in the current US debate. To explain it, I have to start from my own personal experience of when, as a child, I understood two things: 1) that Santa Claus doesn't exist and 2) that the Communists don't really eat babies.
The second discovery had more important consequences than the first on my political views. When I found out that neither of the two factions dominating the political life in Italy was engaged in evil practices such as eating babies, then I started wondering what was all the fuss about. Why was Italy so sharply divided in two separated and incompatible political halves?
I never could find an answer; it was just the way things were. On the one side, there were the Christian Democrats, the whites, the churchgoers, on the other, the Communists, the reds, the anticlericals. The sharp divide that separated these two sections of society didn't just appear at voting times; no, it pervaded society. The Communists, just as the Christian Democrats, had their own shops, restaurants, entertainment places, and entire towns. And it was very rare that a Communist boy or girl would marry into a Christian Democrat family and vice-versa.
This structure of the Italian society came back to my mind while reading the paper commented by Bownds (see below) that describes how deep is the Republican/Democrat divide is in the US. Honestly, I wasn't aware that the US society was so sharply divided into two factions, to the point that boys and girls born in Democratic families rarely marry into Republican families and vice-versa (I lived in California for a few years, but that's not the same thing as "the US"). And, yet, after some mulling over, it dawned on me: it is the way societies tend to behave. Do you remember "Romeo and Juliet"? Yes, the Montagues and the Capulets. Then, the "Blues" and the "Greens" of ancient Roman times; the Guelphs and the Ghibellines of Medieval Italy, and so on, all the way to the modern split of Sunnis and Shiites. It is the way things are.
These sharp divisions of society bring many problems, even beyond the fact that they often lead to violent conflicts. One is that all debate is ideologically filtered. No matter what's the logic of your arguments, the validity of your data, the rigor of your analysis, whatever you say will be always judged in relation to your membership in one or the other faction. This is something I can say from my personal experience in Italy. A partisan debate is not a debate; you either are with one side or with the other. And if you try to mediate; it is worse. As I came from a "White" family, I found that, politically, I was always mistrusted by Reds as an enemy and by Whites as a potential traitor (and BTW, I married a girl from a White family!). I am not sure of whether the US society reaches these levels, but, from what I read, it seems that the Republican/Democrat debate is as much ideologically driven as it was the Reds/Whites debate in Italy up to the 1990s.
In this kind of situation, changing anything in society becomes nearly impossible, because each side has its own rigid worldview and is unwilling to budge from it. This has disastrous consequences when change is absolutely necessary, as it is nowadays with the climate change issue. In the US, by now, the Republican worldview includes as fact that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists on the US taxpayers. There seems to be little or no way to change this view. And that's bad(*).
So, as scientists we tend to think that by showing the data, by developing models, by being clear and comprehensible, then the message will pass and everyone will understand the risks associated with climate change. But it doesn't seem to work that way: if anything, the republican conspiratorial view of climate change seems to become more and more entrenched. That fits perfectly with my past experience in Italy: the more you argue for your position, the more you reinforce the perceptions of an ideologically minded opponent.
Can societies ever free themselves from the deadlock of partisan splitting? Yes, they can and they do. After all, Guelphs and Ghibellines don't exist anymore and, in more recent times, in Western Europe, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Communist parties disappeared or were marginalized in the political arena. What happened was that the entrenched worldview of the Communist parties gradually became totally incompatible with the way society had evolved. As a consequence, these parties disappeared. Not that anyone changed their minds: the old Communists remained Communists, but they became too old to engage in active politics (you can still find many of them scattered in the suburban areas of Tuscany, in Italy). At the same time, young people found that the idea of becoming the next generation of party members was most uninteresting for them. Something similar occurred for the Christian Democrats in Italy, although the story is more complex. Not that the Italian society has become less partisan than before (perhaps, actually, less). But, at least, the old "Red/White" split seems to have disappeared.
With the onrush of evidence about the negative effects of climate change, it is possible that the worldview of the Republicans in the US will gradually become so dissonant with reality that the Republican party will become an anachronism, just like the Western European Communist Parties. But how long will that take? Hard to say, but if we have to wait for the current generation of Republicans to get too old to engage in active politics, that will be too long in comparison with the urgency of acting against climate change.
So, here is the summary by Eric Bownds of the results by Iyengar and Westwood. Worth reading and meditating about.
Jonathan Haidt points to the fascinating work by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.”, who found - in four studies designed to reveal prejudice based on race, gender, religion, or political party or ideology - that cross-partisan prejudice was the largest. For white participants who identified with a party, the cross-partisan effect was about 50 percent larger than the cross-race effect. Haidt points out that This is extremely bad news for America because:
...rising cross-partisan hostility means that Americans increasingly see the other side not just as wrong but as evil, as a threat to the very existence of the nation, according to Pew Research. Americans can expect rising polarization, nastiness, paralysis, and governmental dysfunction for a long time to come...This is extremely bad news for science and universities because universities are usually associated with the left...we can expect increasing hostility from Republican legislators toward universities and the things they desire, including research funding and freedom from federal and state control...This is a warning for the rest of the world because some of the trends that have driven America to this point are occurring in many other countries, including: rising education and individualism (which make people more ideological), rising immigration and ethnic diversity (which reduces social capital and trust), and stagnant economic growth (which puts people into a zero-sum mindset).The situation is made worse by the "motive attribution asymmetry" that I have referenced in a previous post. Both sides of a political divide attribute their own aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite side's to hatred. Millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them.
(*) Note by UB: Perhaps we could bypass the Republican opposition to climate change policies by pushing renewables as a good solution for energy independence, without ever mentioning climate change. The risk is that the Republican worldview may soon absorb and include also the idea that renewable energy is just another hoax perpetrated on the American People by leftists and greens. It seems that it is exactly what's happening. And that's very bad.