The Social Psychological Explanation of Political Cleavages

A cleavage by definition implies a division. Within politics, divisions are overtly evident and are commonly a contentious area and stratified to a large degree. There are a number of explanations for why there are significant political cleavages in our society today. You’d think after thousands of years of political discourse, we’d have sorted out our differences and come together to live in some brave utopia. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and we are still a highly divided species with statistics showing that in many places, political cleavages are growing. One explanation for this is partly due to levels of exposure to certain media outlets, levels of social segregation, and Leon Festinger’s theory of ‘Cognitive Dissonance’, a psychological process of which seems evident to be the root cause of the perpetuation and widening of political cleavages today.  

Have you ever talked to your grandparents and they bluntly reject your arguments without an attempt at sensible discourse? If so, cognitive dissonance probably had a large role to play in that interaction. According to Festinger: cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. This usually occurs when an individual is presented with new evidence that is contradictory to their existing beliefs. When this occurs, the person is said to be experiencing a mental discomfort due to cognitive dissonance. Now, how is that relevant to politics? How is some psychological process potentially driving political cleavages? To answer this question, I must first address how these divisions perhaps came about in the first place.

It is important to understand how we can happily exist in a world with so many contradicting opinions to our own. The answer to this is actually quite simple: we surround ourselves with media sources and outlets that confirm our own beliefs. Sure, the differences in belief may have come about in the first place due to economic differences, ethnic differences, etc. The consistent confirmation of our own beliefs by those we surround ourselves by serves as an adequate explanation for how we protect ourselves from alternate or contradictory opinions. An easy example would be as follows: ‘Tom reads the Belfield Journal as it gives a radical leftist perspective on current affairs, Tom enjoys reading this as he holds similar political beliefs. Tom does not read the Belfield Weekly as it is too conservative for Tom’s liking. Therefore, Tom will only read one non-partisan perspective on current affairs.’ This process is widely present in our society, with the onset of social media platforms allowing users to filter out contradictory beliefs. We can clearly see how one can become surrounded by sources confirming our own views, which further perpetuates political cleavages and prevents discourse between two sides of a fractured coin.

It should also be noted, that social segregation has a role to play too. Segregation is most visible through a racial lens, with New York serving as an example of one of the most racially segregated cities in the world. This can be more widely observed via social differences. Take Dublin for example, Those living north and south of the river are of mainly the same race but are likely to be radically different socially. This difference in social circles breeds difference in political beliefs. Of course, this is one of the many contributing factors that determine political opinion, but it is noteworthy enough to include in this piece. Ireland is a unique example politically but is slowly moving away from traditional voting trends. It seems likely that within the next few general elections, we may see a great difference in political beliefs each side of the River Liffey.

It is evident that selective exposure to media sources and segregation are contributors to political cleavages. One psychological explanation for the widening of these cleavage stems from cognitive dissonance theory. How people deal with this, fuels these political fractures and strengthens group identity bonds. To take an example to demonstrate this, I will use the example of the voter. There are many different categories of voter, three notable ones I will examine are the ‘high information voter’, ‘low information voter’ and ‘partisan voter’. When each of these voters is presented with new information that proves contradictory to their existing opinions, they will all experience varying levels of cognitive dissonance and react differently. Firstly, the partisan voter is ultimately committed to the party they belong to, and any new information is likely to be disregarded. This is because the individual experiences what’s known as a ‘psychological inconsistency’ within their values or beliefs, and in order to alleviate this mental discomfort, they will subconsciously disregard this information and remain committed to their existing opinions. A similar outcome emerges with the ‘high information voter’. Though the individual is politically aware, follows current affairs, is intelligent and knowledgeable enough to form a sensible view, the individual will feel a great sense of cognitive dissonance when presented with this contradictory evidence. Their subconscious will reject this new information and likely treat its sources with hostility. The final case is the ‘low information voter’, who doesn’t really follow politics, doesn’t have much of a party affiliation and is more apathetic towards current affairs than the other two examples. When the low information voter is presented with new and contradictory evidence, they will likely experience substantially less cognitive dissonance than the other two voters. Because of this, the low information voter is more likely to take this new information into consideration and adapt their values and beliefs to incorporate this, ultimately changing their mind.

These three cases serve as an example of how intelligent, politically charged individuals can seemingly be irrational and ignorant to what seems to be a perfectly reasonable counter-argument. One can observe clear examples of this within all of us, and on a macro-level, it can be observed across the U.S. today. Republicans and Democrats are growing further apart, and there is an observable absence of sensible political discourse on the ground and in mainstream media. The U.S is an example of a dual-party system in which there are very evident political cleavages. The processes of segregation and selective exposure to partisan media is overtly present in North American society, contributing to such wide political cleavages. Cognitive dissonance serves as an explanation for the ignorance of one’s counterpart to new and contradictory evidence and explains the blind perception of one’s infallibility. The incapability for one to truly admit their error and see things from a new perspective can be attributed to cognitive dissonance.


By Conor Capplis – Features Editor


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