Red / Blue Polarization

July, 2005

People don't talk politics anymore, except with people they agree with. You don't talk about it in the café. There's just the hate letters in the papers. It wasn't always that way. The language of the campaigns has escalated in a way that has sort of brought out the worst in people. It's really divided communities — and families.

- Phil Ager, a retired music professor who now builds furniture in Washington [1]

In 2004, people all over the United States began talking about the red/blue divide. The term comes from the election night map that painted the U.S. East and West Coasts as bright blue democratic states and the center of the country as solid red republican states.

This map is more than an abstract diagram on national television; it has reached into Americans' daily lives. People tell stories of increasing tension, from fights with co-workers to cars vandalized because of their political bumper stickers. Books by highly partisan authors such as Anne Coulter and Michael Moore are bestsellers. Many people claim the hatred between the two sides is so great, that they avoid talking politics with anyone they don't agree with. Has the conflict between red and blue become intractable?

What is Escalation?

In order to understand what has been going on in United States politics, it is necessary to understand the concept of escalation. Briefly, escalation is a psychological process that causes the parties involved in a conflict to use more and more extreme measures to try to "beat" their opponents. Escalation begins when one party believes the other party has deliberately provoked them. They retaliate, setting off a vicious cycle. As a conflict escalates, the disputants begin to stereotype each other. They cut off communication with the other side and begin to associate only with their own side. The lack of communication contributes to increased misunderstandings and distrust of the other side.

Meanwhile, within each party, the group members become more and more homogenous. Individuals typically look to other members of the group to reinforce their beliefs. Without a diversity of views, no one questions the advisability of extreme actions. This may also contribute to an "esprit-de-corps effect" whereby groups become convinced that glorious victory is assured. Moderates are silenced or worse, seen as traitors to the cause. Eventually more extreme leaders arise and further provoke the other side, thus escalating the conflict further. These leaders fear that if they appear weak or submissive, challengers will replace them. As a result, they will often refuse to admit that any past actions were mistaken and are likely to become more "hardline." This can turn into a trap, when leaders realize they are wrong, but refuse to admit it because too much has already been sacrificed. Leaders continue to demonize the other side, the attacks evantually becoming personal. They move from accusing the other side of doing evil things to accusing the other side of being evil. Such escalation can permanently damage the relationship between the conflicting parties. The last stage of escalation is violence. In worst-case scenarios, the parties completely dehumanize each other. When taken to the extreme, escalation results in genocide and war.

Escalation is one of the most dangerous forces in the world. Although the issues that sparked the conflict may have been legitimate, escalation distorts thinking. Parties caught up in a cycle of escalation are unable to see clearly. They stop attempts at constructively addressing the issues that started the conflict. Instead, they focus on "winning" despite the costs or on hurting their opponents as much as possible.

The conflict in the United States has not escalated to the same level as conflicts that have divided societies in places like Rwanda and Northern Ireland. But, it does have some of the same dynamics.

Two Different Worlds

In 2004, the red/blue conflict in the United States reached the escalation stage. The difference between Bush supporters and Kerry supporters was greater than just a disagreement over government policy. Analysts are beginning to frame the divide as two different Americas. Republican and Democrat are being seen as identities instead of just parties. Journalist Helen Searls writes:

Today being a Democrat or a Republican is a cultural or even an emotional matter, rather than a political decision. As a Democrat, you are identifying yourself as more urbane, thoughtful, international and sophisticated than your perceived Republican opponents. On the other hand, being a Republican means identifying yourself as strong, self-reliant, capable and, as the Republican governor of California Arnie Schwarzenegger would say, not a "girlie man". [2]

While these differences in themselves do not seem that drastic, both sides have turned them into vicious stereotypes. Democrats paint Republicans as uneducated, racist rednecks. Republicans paint Democrats as hypocritical, flakey hippies. There was plenty of evidence of these enemy images in the post-election media. Ted Rall, a Kerry supporter, wrote an article for the left-leaning website Common Dreams titled, "Confessions of a Cultural Elitist." In it he writes:

So our guy lost the election. Why shouldn't those of us on the coasts feel superior? We eat better, travel more, dress better, watch cooler movies, earn better salaries, meet more interesting people, listen to better music and know more about what's going on in the world. If you voted for Bush, we accept that we have to share the country with you. We're adjusting to the possibility that there may be more of you than there are of us. But don't demand our respect. You lost it on November 2. [3]

The Republicans shot right back. Cal Thomas, a columnist for the right-leaning Fox News responded to the charge that Bush supporters were "stupid":

This country has moved on from the '60s mentality of free love, no personal responsibility or accountability, high taxes, big government and overregulation of business. This is the dawn of a new age and its name isn't "Aquarius." In war, the defeated side surrenders to the victor. If the left wants to heal the divide, let them move in the president's direction for a change. And if they are in doubt about that direction, they can consult people who live in what the elites consider flyover country: the good people in those red counties who have had enough of the left and said so on election day. The nation isn't growing more divided. It is growing more conservative and republican. And a lot of those people think they're pretty intelligent. [4]

While neither of these articles could be classified as hateful, they are both packed with stereotypes. Both authors assume that both the red and blue sides are homogenous groups that all think the same way. While both articles contain some truth, neither article mentions that the "red" and "blue" sides are made up of millions of distinct individuals, each with his or her own opinions.

These two articles are fairly moderate, mainstream examples of partisanship. As people get angrier, their attacks on the other side become less about issues and more about personalities. Both the red and blue sides compared each other to Nazis. They have also accused each other of being selfish, ignorant, stupid, greedy, power-hungry and evil. These labels delegitimate the other side by implying that they are not simply misguided, but that there is something innately wrong with them. Many people on both the red and the blue sides have given up trying to reason with those who disagree with them. They see the only solution to the red/blue conflict as a separation of the two sides. There have been suggestions that all liberals move to Canada or that the "blue" states secede from the union. Although most of these suggestions were jokes that will never be acted upon, this kind of into-the-sea framing shows the extent of the country's polarization.

Looking at the Numbers

The polls from the last election don't back up the stereotypes of either Democrats or Republicans. A closer look at the map from election night shows not the clearly differentiated blue states and red states, but instead many shades of purple. National polls also show a remarkable amount of agreement over the major issues facing our nation. Analysts are arguing that the 2004 election came down to moral values. They say that issues such as abortion, gay marriage, immigration and the Iraq War were the dividing lines between the red and blue sides. However few of these issues were split evenly with 50 percent for and 50 percent against. For example in the abortion debate, 10 percent of the country is pro-life, 30 percent is pro-choice and 60 percent is in the middle. [5] According to the Washington Post:

More voters on Election Day described themselves as moderate than as liberal or conservative. Many professed compromise positions on supposedly divisive issues: They were for gay civil unions, but not gay marriage; they opposed abortion, but with exceptions that allowed some room for choice. Academics who study opinion on issues such as school vouchers, the death penalty, immigration and equal rights for women find that attitudes in red and blue states are remarkably similar. It's true that regular churchgoers are mostly Republican and non-churchgoers are mostly Democrats, but about three-quarters of Americans fall in the middle -- they are somewhat religious and could go for either party. [6]

Despite these moderate results, the polls do seem to show that the American public is more polarized than ever before. According to the Gallup organization, since the beginning of polling, Bush is the only president who has had more than 60% of his own party strongly approving of him at the same time that more than 60% of the other party strongly disapproves of him. Clinton comes close, but even he never reached such a high level of polarization. [7] So if most Americans have relatively moderate views of the major issues, why are they so polarized over the presidential candidate? There are several possible explanations.

The Causes of Polarization

Elections in the United States have always been hostile. It is impossible to tell if this is the most polarized the country has ever been. However,

emotions seemed to be running hotter than usual in 2004. The biggest reason for this is September 11th. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center represented the biggest foreign threat to American security in centuries. The randomness and cruelty of the attacks, combined with the fact that no one knows how to stop another one from occurring, has left Americans shaken. It is this deep-seated fear that, more than anything else, has escalated the 2004 election into an all-out culture war.

However, September 11th is not the only underlying cause of this conflict. The structure of our society has been changing in recent years. Some analysts are blaming the information age for causing the recent wave of hostility in the United States. People can now surround themselves with only information they agree with. According to Valdis Krebs, a social-network analyst in Cleveland, liberals tend to read only liberal books and conservatives tend to read only conservative books. Krebs analyzed buying patterns on and found that readerships are as fiercely polarized as the electorate. [8] This effect is echoed in television with the rising popularity of partisan cable news programs such as Fox News and The Daily Show. On the radio, conservatives can listen to Rush Limbaugh while liberals listen to Air America. And on the Internet, partisan rumors can be passed around with surprising speed. Psychologists contribute this polarization of information to cognitive dissonance. In other words, it makes people uncomfortable to realize ideas they care about may be wrong, so they tend to surround themselves only with information that they agree with.

The information age is also having another effect that is dividing Americans along partisan lines. Information age workers are freer to move wherever they want. And it seems that people tend to surround themselves with others who think the same way they do. New York Times reporter, David Brooks writes:

We don't only want radio programs and Web sites from members of our side -- we want to live near people like ourselves. Information age workers aren't tied down to a mine, a port or a factory. They have more opportunities to shop for a place to live, and they tend to cluster in places where people share their cultural aesthetic and, as it turns out, political values. So every place becomes more like itself, and the cultural divides between places become stark. The information age was supposed to make distance dead, but because of clustering, geography becomes more important. [9]

As Americans become more separated, it becomes harder and harder to communicate between parties. As communication decreases, misunderstandings and distrust increase and along with distrust comes polarization.

However, it is not just a divided society that is leading to the red/blue divide. Another reason for the increase in hostility is the nature of the issues involved. The majority of Americans take a moderate stance on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and the Iraq War. However, those who do take sides feel very strongly about these issues. All of these issues come down to intolerable moral differences, which are not open to argument or compromise.

The final reason that this election was so tense is because it came down to a power struggle. One analyst argued, "In 1992, James Carville said, 'It's the economy, stupid.' This time, it's the power, stupid." When the Republicans won this election, they won the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the majority of the state governorships, the majority of state legislatures and the Federal Reserve System. [10] When parties are fighting to preserve their status, it is difficult to avoid intractable conflict.

Transforming the Conflict

This conflict could have destructive consequences. There is significant evidence that if the country swings towards one extreme, then, like a pendulum, it swings back towards the other extreme. Although it is the tendency for the party in power to try to change as much as possible before they lose power, it may be a wiser long-term strategy to tow the middle line and keep the majority of voters happy. Plus, there is the simple fact that it is difficult to get anything done in a country that is so sharply divided. Partisan bickering can delay decision-making at crucial moments. Finally, if the escalation continues unchecked, violence is even possible. A nightmare scenario such as another terrorist attack could tear this country apart. The United States could easily explode into violent riots and protests similar to the Vietnam era. To avoid these consequences, it will be necessary to transform this conflict into something more constructive.

Before a conflict escalates into violence, it is necessary to increase the civility between the two sides. One of the easiest ways to do this would be to improve the communication between the red and blue sides. Much of this conflict is based on misunderstandings and factual disputes. For example, a little less than half the country currently believes that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were connected. The rest of the country furiously denies this. Getting the facts straight on this issue might help diminish the polarization between the two sides on the Iraq issue.

Once we have the facts straight, it is vital for members of both sides to stop associating only with people they agree with and reach out to the other side. Journalist Jeffrey Rosen writes about his mixed marriage — he's a Democrat, his wife a Republican. He says that through dialogue, they have actually made each other more moderate over the years. He argues that this is "consistent with studies of group polarization, which suggest that, when politically mixed groups deliberate, they move toward the middle, whereas, when like-minded people deliberate, they become more extreme." [11]

This can be expanded to large-scale dialogues as well. The easiest way to conduct a large-group dialogue is through the mass media. In this conflict, the media has helped to escalate the conflict. But, there are also strategies to use the media to de-escalate conflicts. Some journalists have suggested, rather tongue-in-cheek, that study-abroad programs should be arranged between blue America and red America. This actually may not be a bad idea. Study abroad programs and similar joint projects that would bring people from both sides together to work on projects could help to foster peaceful coexistence.

The next step would be to "separate people from the problem" (a Fisher-and-Ury-Getting-to-Yes phrase). People need to recognize that other thoughtful and caring people have very different views on how best to address their community's many complex problems. They need to see their opponents as human beings instead of enemies. Constructive debate needs to focus on the solutions that are most likely to be successful, and not upon personal attacks leveled by adversaries against one another.

Wherever possible, the parties should try to reframe the conflict in ways which transform win-lose confrontations into win-win opportunities. In cases where this is not possible, the parties need to recognize and accept the fact that political and legal institutions will repeatedly be called upon to make the tough choices. Finally, one crucial element of civility is recognition by conflicting parties that it is possible that they are wrong and that the policies advocated by their opponents are actually better. This entails an obligation to seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by opponents and to carefully try to explain and justify one's own position to one's opponents and others.


Polarization and conflict are not necessarily bad things. In fact, this country was founded on the principles of democracy and healthy debate. Furthermore, some of the issues at stake in this election such as abortion and the Iraq War came down to grave questions about the sanctity of life. Certainly, such complex issues should not be trivialized. However, it is impossible to address these issues in the current climate of hostility and polarization.

We need to redefine the meaning of civility. Clearly, civility has to go beyond mere politeness. It is not enough for people to say, "excuse me, please," while they (figuratively) stab you in the back. Civility also cannot mean passivity. People must be able to raise tough questions and present their cases when they feel their vital needs are being threatened. A civil society cannot avoid tough but important issues, simply because they are unpleasant to address. In short, any reasonable definition of civility must recognize that the many differing interests that divide our increasingly diverse society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult issues. However, while continuing confrontation is inevitable, the enormous destructiveness, which commonly accompanies these confrontations, is not. We need to envision a more constructive way to address the red-blue conflict.

[1] Dean Paton, "The Race for Governor that Simply Won't End," Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 2004, p. 2.

[2] Helen Searls, "Divided States of America," Spiked, October 27, 2004. m/Articles/0000000CA755.htm

[3] Ted Rall, "Confessions of a Cultural Elitist," Common Dreams, November 10, 2004. iews04/1110-25.htm

[4] Cal Thomas, "The Nation Isn't Growing More Divided," Fox News, November 8, 2004., 2933,138601,00.html

[5] Tom W. Smith, "What do Americans Have in Common?" NPR, November 15, 2004. lates/story/story.php?storyId=4170775

[6] "A Polarized Nation?" The Washington Post, November 14, 2004, p. B6.

[7] "Bush Ratings Show Historic Levels of Polarization," Gallup Poll News Service, June 4, 2004.

[8] William Schambra, "Nasty Politics? Puhleez! Get a Historic Grip." The Christian Science Monitor. October 21, 2004. 004/1021/p09s01-coop.html

[8] Emily Eakin, "Study Finds a Nation of Polarized Readers," The New York Times, March 13, 2004, B9.

[9] David Brooks, "Age of Political Segregation," The New York Times, June 29, 2004, p. A27.

[10] Carla Marinucci, "Contentious Partisanship at Full Tilt," The San Francisco New and Featured section, October 31, 2004. http://

[11] Jeffrey Rosen, "House Divided," The New Republic, November 15, 2004.

Images m/gallery/single/se545.jpg/
from, a site where over 300 people have sent in pictures of themselves holding handwritten apologies to the rest of the world for the U.S. electing Bush.

http://www.sac VA/election2004/


http://www. (If this link doesn't work, go to and search for purple.)