This week, Ana (@anamariecox) welcomed Lilliana Mason (@LilyMasonPhD), an assistant professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland and the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, to the show. They kicked off their conversation talking about how Lilliana’s research connects to the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Lilliana noted the power of group dynamics, and how they can make us feel better, or worse, about ourselves, particularly for people of privilege.
“If we feel like our privileged status is being threatened, not even our safety or our way of life, but even, am I still the most powerful group in the country, that is a threat that feels really, really uncomfortable,” she explained.
That then led to an exploration of why people react so viscerally to being called a racist or a bigot. Lilliana noted that it is normally interpreted as an insult, which makes privileged people feel bad about themselves. The reaction, then, is to either become defensive or double down on the privileged identity itself.
Lilliana’s book begins with an anecdote from the Robber’s Cave experiment, which illustrated young men’s willingness to fight with people incredibly like them. Ana wondered how much we can extrapolate from that experiment, conducted in the 1950s with white, 5th-grade boys, to people who don’t come from privileged positions. That led to a discussion about the conflation of identity and partisanship, and how it doesn’t apply equally to all people partly because of privilege, and partly because the two parties are different.
“The real difference between Republicans and Democrats is that… Republicans have essentially become the party of white, Christian, maybe men but gender is a strange identity, and then Democrats are the party of everyone else. Not white, not Christian. What we end up with is one party that is really homogeneous, the Republican Party, and then the Democratic Party is very clearly distinct from Republicans, but they’re not homogeneous, because they’re not all not white. In fact, 54% of the Democratic Party is white, and over half are Christian,” Lilliana said.
She went on to explain that those differences also play a role in how tolerant people are, citing psychological studies that have found that the more often people interact with heterogeneous groups, the more tolerant they are, and vice versa. That principle isn’t unique to politics, and is quite relevant to businesses who seek a diverse workforce and tend to find that when a company begins to get more diverse, that trend continues.
They eventually talked about the power of partisanship, which led Lilliana to bring up George Washington’s farewell address and its warning about the potential for factions to rip the country apart. Citing examples like people voting for Roy Moore over Doug Jones in Alabama, she said that we’re close to that point already. When asked by Ana how we could get out this cycle, Lilliana suggested another partisan realignment, such as a split between racist and not-racist Republicans.
She also suggested some sort “Independence Day” type scenario, where an existential threat to the country leads people to come together. However, Lilliana also said that “the problem with this idea is that people have to agree on the superordinate identity. And the problem with the idea of that superordinate identity is that… both sides are gonna have to agree that the threat is the same and that the solution to the threat is the same.”
For that to happen, she argued that people need to stop characterizing passing a law as a “win for Democrats,” or a “win for Trump.” It becomes easier to do things like pass gun control when they’re discussed as “a win for Americans.” The language of winning used by Trump and political pundits plays into a psychological dynamic, whereby many people prefer a win for their side over something that is better for the greater good.
They went on to talk about how Democrats because they operate in more heterogeneous spaces, are more willing to consider making a change like that than Republicans are. The inability to break out of that cycle poses a number of additional problems, one of which Lilliana highlighted.
“There is some research in comparative politics… which actually has shown that when you have racial, ethnic, and religious alignment politically, the chance of civil war increases significantly, when there is an economic challenge or a crisis of leadership,” she said.
Ana harkened back to her last conversation with Rick Wilson, where they talked about one the ways people can defuse that tension is through spending time in communities that they might not know getting to know folks who aren’t politically and socially like them. However, that is far easier for white people, who will feel safe leaving their own communities. Ana talked about her own experience doing nonpolitical volunteer work, and living her values as a liberal among conservatives before Lilliana closed the show explaining another psychological study that illustrated the power of partisanship.
You can find Lilliana’s book here.
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