Elizabeth Suhay

Are Polarized Resentments Calming?

Air Date: February 13, 2023

American University scholar Elizabeth Suhay discusses "The Politics of Truth in Polarized America"


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome to the program today, professor of government at American University and co-author of The Politics of Truth in Polarized America, Elizabeth Suhay. Welcome, Liz.

Suhay: Thanks so much for having me.

Heffner: what do we mean by polarization?

Suhay: Uh, polarization can mean so many different things, but I think today in the US when people mention polarization, they’re mainly talking about partisan polarization. So they’re talking about some sort of difference between Democrats and Republicans. Um, now political scientists, um, I’m political scientists, so my colleagues, we talk about several different kinds of polarization. So we talk about, um, normally attitudinal polarization. So people disagree about policy, no surprise. We also talk about increasingly social polarization or affective polarization. So this is basically Democrats and Republicans not liking each other much and liking each other less over time. And there’s a third type of polarization, though, and this is the type that I study, which is disagreements over what is true. So disagreements over, um, facts, fact claims. And this is something that I think is really understudied and has huge consequences for US politics.

Heffner: What are you studying right now?

Suhay: So, I mean, I’m, I’m really fascinated by, by polarization and so many different topics around it. And the thing that I’m most interested in right now is this idea of belief polarization. So why you can have people on the left and on the right who literally see the world in a different way. Um, so, you know, we’re familiar with the fact that recently there’ve been a lot of debates about COVID, for example. So Republicans in particular have been really skeptical about the efficacy of masks, have been skeptical about the efficacy of vaccines. But I really see belief polarizations being so much bigger than that. It’s something that affects, um, people’s beliefs about a range of topics. And one of the things I’m most interested in is people’s beliefs about inequality. So people’s beliefs about economic inequality in particular. So why people, some people are poor, why some people are rich, why some social groups are less others. And so there you see big, big differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Heffner: Liz, our first episode after the 2016 presidential election was, uh, with Katherine Cramer, uh, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and MIT…

Suhay: Yeah, I know Kathy

Heffner: Who wrote a book The Politics of Resentment, and one aspect of that book was economic.


Suhay: That’s really important work. And I think that, you know, people are studying rural areas much more than they used to, and that’s really important. So I would say a couple of different things about that. Um, so on the one hand there are, there’s some contradictions here. So the Republican party has traditionally been the party that believes in the American dream, that believes that the United States is a meritocracy. And so I found in my research that they are much more likely to say things like, you know, the poor have it easy or, um, you know, to defend wealthy people as being, you know, hard workers and, and job creators. And that’s something that has been, um, a part of the Republican party and is actually still a part of the Republican party today. And the Democratic party is much more likely to, to argue that the economy’s unfair.But we’re seeing this interesting shift because more and more Republicans actually are lower education and relatively lower incomes. And I don’t wanna exaggerate this because if we look at the aggregate, you actually see that the two parties are now about equal in terms of where their incomes are. But it used to be very different, right? Where the Republican was much more the party of affluent people, not, it’s no longer the case. So we basically have a lot of people who are Republican who are conservative, um, many of them in rural areas, many of them white who are struggling economically. And so they’re beginning to, to think about, you know, what’s going wrong with the economy, and, and they have some different answers. And to some degree, those answers can map on to what Democrats have to say, like a concern about lack of jobs, for example. But their narratives in general are, are different. And, um, um, they, they end up merging in an interesting way, I think with conservative and Republican thoughts. And a big one, Trump was somebody who, who was able to, to see this developing and I think develop some narratives around job loss and economic security in rural areas and among white folks and, um, you know, have a story to tell them that really resonated. And those stories involve, um, concern about globalization, concern about immigration and recognizing, you know, job loss in, in rural areas in particular.

Heffner: Can you tell me though, what’s changed since Kramer did that research with respect to belief polarization? Uh, obviously the, the pandemic intensified that urban and rural feud

Suhay: mm-hmm.

Heffner: And rugged individualists who can choose if he or she wants to get vaccinated or he or she wants to mask. We, we know that those are almost cliches now in the culture mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but tangibly speaking, I do wonder if the toxicity of belief, polarization and negative partisanship and polarization, if that toxicity has waned at all, and if there’s any evidence of that.

Suhay: Um, so that is a great question. So I recently wrote an article, um, with some co-authors that went through data through 2020, and those data actually showed that on many of the, um, many beliefs about the economy, that polarization is still increasing through 2020. The idea, you know, whether the poor have it easy, that sort of thing. But my view of very recent politics is that polarization may be starting to the decrease around some of these questions. And a lot of it comes from the fact that many republicans, many people on the Republican base are hurt economically. Um, but also, uh, this is, I guess, um, more intuition than scholarly judgment here, but I think frankly, people are just fed up with, with extreme polarization. So I think that we’re seeing, um, political candidates who are changing their rhetoric around this and appealing, trying to appeal more to moderates within their parties, appeal more to independence. And, um, we saw this in the 2022 congressional elections. Um, we also saw that in the 2022 congressional elections, those that were more extreme, especially on the Republican side, um, often didn’t win their races, right? So, so voters are selecting out some of those more extreme candidates. So I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re turning a corner on, on polarization

Heffner: That’s encouraging. And let me ask you, y you said interestingly that the Republicans and Democrats, basically, they are a mere image now in terms of the blue collar vote that they each have in their ranks of regular voters, at least from this last election cycle in 22. Um, a similar percentage of, um, low income, uh, workers, if we wanna call them blue collar. But what I’m interested in is whether the low income overlaps with or is synonymous with college education or a lack of college education

Suhay: mm-hmm.

Heffner: My theory would be that these are actually two different groups, the folks who were mathematically as a scientific question in a certain income bracket, and the folks who were non-college educated or non-high school graduates, I don’t think those things overlap and, and I think they certainly don’t overlap in each party.

Suhay: Yeah. So there are some, some important differences here. Um, and, and I wanna, I’ll speak in generalities. We wanna remember, of course there’s a lot of heterogeneity within the parties, but on the Republican side, we especially see a move toward lower education voters, um, voting Republican. Um, for a long time this was the trend among whites and, um, but increasingly we’re seeing lower education voters of color moving toward the Republican Party in, in small numbers. But it’s a clear trend. And then we’re seeing Democrats certainly tend to have higher education voters on balance. So that’s one big difference. The other thing I would say is that if we’re looking at who are these low income voters? So on the Republican side, maybe this is clear from what I just said, but they’re more likely to be white low income voters, and on the Democratic side, they’re more likely to be, uh, Black and Latino low income voters. So there are some, some differences there. But, um, you know, my belief is that, um, many of these voters share a lot in common and some savvy politicians, um, you know, with the right messages could potentially draw the, you know, some of these individuals to their side. And, and I think it’s an open question right now, who’s gonna do a better job, uh, the Democrats or the Republicans going forward?

Heffner: This may be anecdotal, but my basic point in short was just that as the pandemic brought attention to specialized skills that are taught in some trade schools, but often not requiring education or higher education, that those are not necessarily low income earners. They might be part of what we used to consider middle class or high income earners. Is there evidence to back that up that you, that you have a, a growing low educated or non-educated high income voter out there?

Suhay: Yes. And so that, that description would fit the, you know, I guess stereotype one, one would say of some of the most passionate Trump supporters, they’re a combination of, of being, you know, s at least middle income, but not having a college degree. And so those are people who, um, Trump really appealed to. And the idea as to why he was so appealing to these individuals is that on the one hand, they’re doing okay economically, some even doing very well economically, but they have a sense that their status has declined over time. And I think that there’s also a lot of resentment about that college divide. And so there’s resentment toward, um, you know, people that, that these folks would think are our elites, um, educational elites.

Heffner: If based on the economic data, isn’t there evidence also that as a result of inflation and increased profits during the pandemic, that a lot of the non-college educated or lower educated high income voters have doubled, tripled, quadrupled their wealth? And, and that doesn’t, that doesn’t have an effect. I mean, I I I’m thinking about Katherine’s work, and I don’t recall if she specifically touched on this, but whether their capacity to increase their value in a capitalistic system has any effect on their belief or negative polarization.

Suhay: So that’s an interesting question. I’m actually not, I have to admit there, I’m not, I’m not sure about those data. I really think it depends on, on who you’re looking at. Um, but certainly with inflation, inflation has hit the lowest income earners the hardest. I mean, on the one hand, many of these folks have seen pay raises, but it’s not enough to keep up with inflation. So they just don’t have enough discretionary income, um, to cover those, those increases. But, you know, we continue to see, um, high income earners, uh, do quite well, and they certainly are much more able to others than, um, much more able to, um, to basically, you know, keep up their lifestyles given inflation. I, you know, I, I haven’t seen those data though that you cite, I’m sorry.

Heffner: If political scientists could solve the polarization issue through their research and then action triggered by their research, what would that look like?

Suhay: That’s a great question. Um, so, you know, there are a lot of different possibilities. Um, I actually was just talking to a colleague, uh, yesterday evening, who is part of the American Political Science Association who’s working on with many others on an initiative to try out new voting systems such as Ranked Choice Voting that can help reduce polarization. So Ranked Choice Voting is something that we saw implemented in Alaska, and, um, many people are, are quite happy with the way that it, that it worked out. And it, it, um, it really reduces an emphasis on partisanship. It does things like, um, uh, as practice in Alaska anyway, they have, for example, a primary that is an open primary where it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or, or Republican, everybody participates. So that’s one idea. Um, you know, another idea is frankly, to work through existing organizations. So there are existing organizations that really emphasize bipartisanship, and I think that citizens essentially need to organize, they need to form social movements, maybe even in order to, to make some progress. So the last thing that I would suggest is media reform. So one of the reasons why we have such polarization today is because the Fairness Doctrine was taken away in the 1980s under Reagan. So this was a law that said that broadcasters had to include perspectives from both sides on controversial issues. And that was something that really kept the media pretty balanced before that era, and immediately when that was repealed, we had a rise in, in partisan media. So I think that that’s one concrete step. Now, maybe it doesn’t come back in the exact form it was in before. Media has changed a lot, but I think something along those lines, um, could be helpful. So those are, those are a few ideas.

Heffner: The idea that you could not have some fairness or equity in a media system because of the internet and how quickly it moves is not true. Uh, as we know in France where there are around election times, uh, systems in place to try to ensure the accuracy and equity in the delivery of campaign messaging. But we have to be honest about belief polarization in the course of our conversation, Liz. Anyone who’s watching this on the public airwaves or wherever now, and here’s you or me, talk about the Fairness Doctrine, thinks that that, and maybe partisanship is waning and therefore they’re not gonna have this thought. But it, that, that the derivation of, of the Fairness Doctrine was to muzzle Rush Limbaugh and his successors like Sean Hannity. That would be the understanding in rural Wisconsin. Uh, and probably rural, the, the rural Potomac areas where, where you inhabit, uh, Virginia, Maryland <laugh>, that’s the fact. And anytime Fairness Doctrine is mentioned on the public airwaves, there will be someone who writes to me and says, liberal hogwash, propaganda, disinformation, you are the problem. So what do we do about that in, in the realm of thought or belief polarization?

Suhay: Right? So I mean, I I would mention a couple things. First of all, folks who write in about that or you know, contact you, they should realize,

Heffner: Or you!

Suhay: Or me after this program <inaudible> has the same thing is going on on the left. So, you know, at first it was just Fox News. Now there’s also MSNBC. So, you know, I think that it’s something that people on the right maybe would, would welcome, cuz it would mean that folks in their liberal bubble would also be exposed to some conservative views. And, you know, I I think that that would be helpful. The other thing I would say about the Fairness Doctrine is that I think that some people, um, exaggerate what it does. So it does not say that you have to give equal time to both sides. It gives a lot of leeway to, to broadcasters in terms of how they represent the other side. It can be very brief, right? Um, so I I, you know, I think it’s actually more flexible than, um, uh, than many believe. But, um, I, I understand that, that there is, um, concern out there. But, you know, just generally speaking, it is important to, to keep in mind how unregulated our media is relative to other places. And, and, you know, frankly, I I do think it causes some, um, some dysfunction. So another thing that I would mention, um, that people are talking about is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. So this was something that allowed social media platforms to post almost anything on their platforms. I mean, to allow users to post with no repercussion, so they don’t even have to police disinformation. So that’s another place where we could toughen up a little, uh, to at least say, if you’re gonna allow somebody to post on your platform, please make sure that it is not blatant disinformation

Heffner: Right.

Suhay: That that would also would be helpful.

Heffner: We’ve talked a lot on this program ever since 2016, but really dating back to 2014 in the beginning of that election season on the profitability and greed of incentivizing, uh, that, that sort of system, um, of, of disinformation and, um, and the, the absence of, of any kind of liability and kind of the invincibility of the liability shield, that to this day, uh, when we air in 2023, this, this will still be the law of the land barring something extraordinary. Um, social platforms will not have liability. Period. And nothing has changed in that regard since the, they were formed. I mean, but since multiple campaigns in which there were violations, abuses, and irresponsibility on the part of those companies. Let me ask you, as we close on the question of waning polarization or the, I asked you about toxic polarization. Um, do you think a 6-3 Supreme Court supermajority favoring conservatives, at least at this juncture, is something that is also going to tame the toxicity in communities that felt that they were denied franchise and decision-making in, um, some critical social issues of our times?

Suhay: Um, you know, the, the fact that the Supreme Court is so tilted toward the, the conservative side, um, you know, it has interesting implications with respect to polarization. Um, on the one hand, you might expect that it would deepen polarization because, you know, you essentially have a court that is, um, you know, tilted in, tilted in, in one direction. Um, and, you know, the recent abortion decision in particular was something that really obviously would’ve en encouraged, uh, the, the pro-life movement and absolutely enraged people who were pro-choice. But you also, you know, see in that instance that there’s, um, you know, to some degree polarization, but you also have people in the middle who, who actually have, are frustrated with the court. And so if anything, you know, I’m not sure if, if how to think about this in, in terms of polarization, but it, it, it actually I think tends to push people who are in the middle more toward the Democratic party. And that’s something I think that we’ll see in, in 2024. And if, if more decisions like, like that one come down the line, um, you know, I think, I’m not sure it will lessen polarization per se, but I do think that it will move many independents over to the, the Democratic party.

Heffner: That’s interesting. I was thinking about it from the perspective of moderating the extremism on the, on the right or feeling though, um, that constituency is, has the authority to decide the law of the land, and therefore, yeah, I’m gonna chill out a bit. Um,

Suhay: Uh, I, no, I, I that’s a, I think that’s a really smart point. I think that there is something there. It, um, you know, certain things, I mean, in in particular, um, uh, moving decisions of abortion back to the, the States is something that has been so central to the Republican Party. I, I don’t think that especially Democrats quite understand how important that is. Um, and the fact that that’s been achieved, I I think it will, um, bring the temperature down a bit. Of course. We’ll, we’ll see what happens. Um, going forward,

Heffner: What’s important to you to study in 2023 after these past 2022 midterms? What are you thinking about differently as you approach studying our political life this year?

Suhay: Yeah, so, uh, you know, I’m, I think I’m interested in, in a couple of different things. Um, you know, to the topic that we’ve been talking about here, I am interested in whether maybe we’ve turned a corner on polarization and we’re gonna see some lessening. I think as Trump exits the stage, I think he really inflamed polarization really, um, you know, drummed up a lot of enthusiasm on, on the rights and of course, told some lies about the 2020 election. Um, and then, but there was, you know, a, a reaction on the left as well where the left moved further left in reaction Trump. So I think as he exits the stage, um, things will begin to change. Um, the other thing that I’m interested in is really what happens surrounding these, um, this changing the changing economic profiles of the, the two political parties. So this, this now parity in terms of income between the two parties, um, although the, the Democratic Party is, is the more educated party, and I am fascinated by how Republican politicians are gonna react to this. I think that, um, you know, while, while Trump was not an effective populist while he was in office, he campaigned as a populist. And so I think you see more Republicans picking up on that theme. And at the end of the day, the Republican Party, conservative economically, they’re not gonna become the party of redistribution. It’s just not gonna happen. But there are things that they can do that can, um, you know, maybe at the margins kind of address some of the, the concerns of people who are struggling economically. Um, you know, whether it’s, um, trying to, um, uh, get more, make more goods in America, or improved trade deals, basically increased tariffs. Um, so <inaudible. they, they may, may try to do. Um, but you know, at the end of the day, um, if you’re somebody who is struggling economically, you know, the Democrats, uh, on balance have they, uh, the better policies to help you. So, um, I’m not sure how successful Republicans will be at the end of the day.

Heffner: You’re mentioning former President Trump retiring from the stage while he’s an active presidential candidate. So, you know, this is a person who’s been Teflon Don. And so remains to be seen, um, if, if he could be the nominee, um, in these last seconds we have, I, I do find that analysis really interesting, um, if and when there’s gonna be a populace, a constituency of the Republican Party that expects the goods from, uh, more equitable systems. Um, and, um, if, if not redistribution, um, or if not, uh, equity as a result of revenues, um, the, the, the party itself has been, you know, totally unmalleable, you know, on that issue. It’s been an anti-tax party, um, so remains to be seen. I, if, if there is anything on taxation where you could see the Republican Party shifting at all in the 30 seconds we have left, what might it be?

Suhay: Sure. I think what’s most likely to happen is that the Republican Party is likely, uh, parts of the Republican party may compromise with Democrats over, for example, increasing taxes on the rich. I don’t think we’ll find the entire Republican Party move over, but there might be enough people that, um, can be drawn on, um, for example, to get us over the 60 vote threshold in the Senate that, um, we could see some reform around tax policy. So th that is, that is one thing that I would note. Um, and yeah, we’re, I guess we’re out of time. So

Heffner: Thank you Liz, uh, Liz Suhay at American University. Appreciate your work, uh, and scholarship on polarization.

Suhay: Thanks so much for having me.

Heffner: Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.