Tuesday's midterm elections handed Republicans full control of Congress, which will soon include an increasing number of extremely conservative (and liberal) members, a trend that reflects the nation as a whole. Studies have shown that the moderate middle is shrinking as more of the citizenry really leans further right or left into the political playing field.
Lately there's been a lot of talk about "a divided America," but it's all been a few decades in the making. One particularly ambitious Harvard undergraduate was even able to illustrate the Senate's growing polarization from 1989 to 2013. And now, the people the Senate represents are split on pretty much everything (including how split we are) -- except the National Park Service. Because parks are awesome and everyone knows it.
As for why we're so divided, we really can't say with certainty. But we can tell you what it's doing to us -- aside from, like, all the Congress stuff. Polarization in American politics is bleeding over into our everyday life in ridiculous ways, affecting who we love, where we live and, perhaps most absurdly, how our brains function. Here are a few stats to illustrate the growing cultural schism, and possibly make you throw a few smiles at your Republican and/or Democrat
foes friends today.
1. Republicans and Democrats are basically modern-day Capulets and Montagues.
Researchers compared two surveys in a 2012 paper on Democrats' and Republicans' views of the opposition. While just around 5 percent of Americans in 1960 said they would be "displeased" if a child married outside the party, by 2010 that number had jumped to about 50 percent for Republicans and 30 percent for Democrats. Why Republicans would be comparatively more upset remains unclear.
2. Partisans try to give their fellow Democrats and Republicans a leg up, regardless of actual merit.
In a June 2014 paper, researchers presented over 1,000 people with the resumes of a few high-achieving high schoolers and asked them to decide who deserved a (nonpartisan) scholarship. The resumes contained clues about each student's political ideology ("President of the Young Republicans") and race ("President of the African American Student Association"). Race mattered, but politics mattered more -- a whopping 80 percent of participants chose the candidate in their party.
3. Everyone feels more comfy around people who agree with them politically.
A separate study by the same researchers above also found partisan bias when the stakes were more personal. Over 800 participants were given $10, and told they could give a portion of it to someone else. Whatever amount they chose would then be tripled, and its recipient would be able to give any amount back to the original donor -- the same, more, or none at all. The test reveals how much the first player trusts the second to give them a favorable return. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that Republicans gave significantly more to fellow Republicans, and vice versa.
4. Party affiliation even predicts where Americans want to settle down.
A recent Pew Research Center study looked at many aspects of partisanship in the U.S. and found that disagreements go way beyond the controversial political issues of the day -- Republicans and Democrats are split on their ideal home sweet home. Just about three-quarters of "consistently liberal" respondents would prefer a community with smaller houses where amenities are within walking distance, while the same amount of "consistently conservative" respondents preferred the opposite: large houses set farther apart from neighbors.
5. It seems that partisanship might affect how successful we think we are.
When there's a Democrat in the White House, Democrats think they're doing all right -- at least according to a 2012 study out of the University of Chicago. When researchers asked more than 2,000 Americans whether their own family's finances had improved in the last year, 28 percent of Democrats said yes, compared to just 9 percent of Republicans.
6. It also shapes the values Americans teach their kids.
The Pew report also found differences between Democratic and Republican parental values. Republican parents were much more likely to teach religious faith and obedience, whereas a lot more Democrats emphasized tolerance with the young'uns.
7. No matter where their news comes from, partisans stick to their guns.
It may not be terribly surprising that Republicans and Democrats choose to get their news from different media outlets. Fox News is a GOP favorite, while Dems love their NPR. However, one Ohio State University study showed that even consuming polarized content from across the political aisle doesn't help partisans get along. One researcher suggested people may be going to different outlets "just to see how wrong-headed [opponents] are."
8. Politics actually lessens our brain's ability to reason.
Sigh. Before the 2004 presidential election, researchers hooked Republicans and Democrats up to a brain scanner and presented information that threatened their party's candidate. Instead of seeing brain circuits that are associated with reasoning light up, researchers noticed parts known for regulating emotion were activated. When the participant came to a conclusion regarding the information, the brain rewarded itself -- much like a drug addict's brain function, one researcher told Live Science.
A 2010 study showed how partisan bias rears its head with just the slightest encouragement. An Arizona State University researcher asked some participants whether unemployment had changed since 2008; others were asked how it had changed since President Barack Obama was elected. While participants replied to the nonpartisan question saying unemployment had remained about the same, around 60 percent of Democrats claimed it had decreased during Obama's presidency and around 75 percent of Republicans said the opposite. In fact, unemployment increased between 2008 and 2010.
9. Hoping for change? It's possible, if everyone gets something out of it themselves.
In the end, partisans are capable of evaluating arguments from the other side to reach a mutually satisfying agreement -- but it's easier if you pay them to do it. When researchers at Yale asked participants politically charged questions (such as "How many U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq?"), answers fell along party lines. But when offered monetary rewards for either giving the correct answer or admitting they didn't know, the partisan gap closed up to 80 percent. The researchers concluded with the suggestion that America's partisan divide may be more about team spirit than anything.