Not at the Dinner Table

We typically divide the country into two distinct groups: Democrats and Republicans. But what if the real political divide in our country isn’t between “left” and “right”? What if it’s between those who care intensely about politics, and those who don’t?

This week we talk to Yanna Krupnikov, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, about an alternative way to understand Americans’ political views.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We typically divide the United States into two political categories, Conservative ...

Speaker 2:

Democrats have blocked us at every turn.

Shankar Vedantam: And liberal.

Speaker 3: Frankly, I don't care what the Republicans say.

Shankar Vedantam: Finding common ground between these two groups...

Speaker 4: Will you shut up, man.

Speaker 5: Listen, who is [crosstalk 00:00:21].

Shankar Vedantam: ...reaching across the aisle...

Speaker 6: [crosstalk 00:00:23] far-left radical base.

Shankar Vedantam: ...has become increasingly rare.

Speaker 7: Because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.

Shankar Vedantam: This is true not just in a metaphorical sense. In one study, researchers look at more than 1,400 hours of tape ...

Speaker 8: Now, live Senate coverage ...

Shankar Vedantam: On C-SPAN.

Speaker 8: On C-SPAN 2.

Speaker 9: The Senate will come to order. The [crosstalk 00:00:43].

Shankar Vedantam: Hour after hour of hearings.

Speaker 10: [crosstalk 00:00:45] roads, and bridges and [crosstalk 00:00:46].

Shankar Vedantam: Committee mock-up sessions.

Speaker 11: Congress is a very important pillar.

Shankar Vedantam: Testimony.

Speaker 12: Keystone XL, TransCanada [crosstalk 00:00:52].

Shankar Vedantam: Resolutions.

Speaker 13: The clerk will call the roll.

Shankar Vedantam: After all these hours watching C-SPAN, researchers concluded that since the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans in the US Senate have physically crossed the aisle less and less to interact with opposing colleagues. That means senators are staying with their like-minded colleagues, not just in the legislation they are trying to pass, but also by literally steering clear of the carpeted pathway that splits the Senate floor in half.

In other words, just like the rest of the nation, the Senate is more divided than ever, and this divide can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. Today, though, we're going to take a few steps back. We're going to look at the challenge of political division through a new lens. It's part of our October series exploring counter-intuitive ideas in 2020. We hope it will provide a new way to understand the people sitting across from us at the dinner table.

Yanna Krupnikov: People don't seem to dislike somebody just for being a member of the other side. They're concerned that somebody is going to talk to them about politics. If somebody is going to talk to you about politics, of course, you'd rather talk to somebody of your own side.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, why the division you hear about all the time in our politics might not be what really divides us. Yanna Krupnikov is a political scientist at Stony Brook University. She studies a subject we hear a lot about: the bitter political divide in the United States. But Yanna has a counter-intuitive thesis. She thinks the real fault line in America is actually not between Republicans and Democrats. Yanna Krupnikov, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Yanna Krupnikov: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip, Yanna from a CNN program titled “Welcome to the Fractured States of America.”

Clip: The number of parents who would be unhappy if their child married someone of a different political party, that number has exploded over the last several decades from 4% in 1960 to 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats in 2018.

Shankar Vedantam: Yanna, you have a critique of this notion of a fractured country, but I want you to start by laying out the conventional wisdom first. What are we told about the state of political polarization in America?

Yanna Krupnikov: A lot of what we're told about the state of political polarization is that polarization has increased quite vastly over potentially the last decade. What's interesting about this polarization is that there's a twofold approach here. On the one hand, polarization can be ideological, but on the other hand, it can be affective. An effect of polarization is the sense of disliking somebody just because they're a member of the other party without their issues, without their positions, just because they belong to this opposing group. When we talk about Democrats not wanting their child to marry a Republican, or Republicans not wanting their child to marry a Democrat, we're talking often about this idea of effect, this sense of dislike, this antipathy for the other side, and there's this tremendous kind of pattern showing increases in this level of antipathy, that people who are from one party just dislike the other party much more than they did in years past.

Shankar Vedantam: Some of this is almost to an extreme. I mean, some people have even asked whether ordinary Americans see their political opponents as even fully human.

Yanna Krupnikov: Indeed. There's actually a lot of examples of this antipathy. There's research suggesting that people wouldn't want somebody to, as I just said, marry somebody from the other party, that they wouldn't want to hire somebody from the opposing party, that they don't see the other party as human, that they might actually want to do something that would make life for somebody from the opposing party much worse. There are a lot of these, almost nonpolitical examples of places, where partisanship and dislike for the other side has quite profoundly affected the way we see the world and the way we see other people.

Shankar Vedantam: We're told Americans don't want to live next to one another, political partisans that is. They can't bear to talk to one another, and of course they don't want their children marrying people from the other party. You conducted a survey some years ago. When you drill down specifically on the marriage question, what was the hunch you were exploring, and what did you ask?

Yanna Krupnikov: The way we looked at the marriage question happened during these conversations I'd had with my co-authors John Barry Ryan and Samara Klar. We were talking about this marriage question, that something about it seemed quite unusual to us. You are in a survey, you're being asked whether you want your child to marry somebody from the other party, but that's really all you know about this person. All you know about them is that they are a Republican, or that they are a Democrat. When that's all you know about them, one, you can't really put that person into context. But the other thing you might think about them is essentially, if they're telling me this person's partisanship, that person's partisanship is probably something that's really, really important to them. If I was inviting you to meet one of my friends and we had just a brief moment, and I use that brief moment to tell you, you're going to meet my friend, she likes cats. You might imagine that you're about to meet somebody who's essentially going to talk non-stop about cats, if that's the only thing I shared with you about this person. What if this is what's happening in a survey? What if, when people are asked about this hypothetical in-law, and the only thing they know about this person is that they're a member of the opposing party? What if they're imagining somebody who will literally talk about politics for every dinner from now on as their in-law?

Shankar Vedantam: What did you find when you actually asked Americans this question? How did you tweak the question and what did you find?

Yanna Krupnikov: What we ended up doing is we amended the question a bit. We basically added a qualification. We told people that this future in-law, this hypothetical in-law was actually never really going to talk about politics. They might be from the other parties, but they were never actually going to discuss anything political. We ran an experiment in which people were randomly assigned to either a group in which they got asked the normal question, how happy would you be if your child married somebody from the opposing party, versus a question, which they were told, how happy would you be if your child married somebody from an opposing party, but this person was never going to talk about politics?

Yanna Krupnikov: What we found is significant differences in people's preferences for the other side. Once people were told that their child's future spouse was actually not really going to talk about politics, their animosity toward the other side quite profoundly decreased.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, if I was a Republican parent, the thing that I might be most worried about is not that my child is going to marry a Democrat, my child's going to marry a Democrat who's going to talk politics all the time. If I had the reassurance that politics was not going to come up all the time, my feelings about my future Democratic son-in-law or daughter-in-law changed quite profoundly.

Yanna Krupnikov: Exactly. In theory, what people were concerned about is essentially politics coming up in their day-to-day lives. They actually were not as concerned about the opposing partisanship component of it.

Shankar Vedantam: To better understand how this played out in people's lives, Yanna and her colleagues ran the study again, but changed whether the hypothetical new daughter or son-in-law talked about politics frequently, occasionally, or rarely. They found that what people cared about the most was not whether a future son-in-law or daughter-in-law had different politics, but how much the future in-law wanted to talk about politics.

Yanna Krupnikov: People don't seem to dislike somebody just for being a member of the other side. They're concerned that somebody is going to talk to them about politics. If somebody is going to talk to you about politics, of course, you'd rather talk to somebody of your own side. If that's going to be part of your life at every dinner, certainly of course, you wouldn't want it to be contentious, but the key aspect there is conversations, not necessarily partisanship.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking of a clip from Saturday night live that I think your research speaks to it. It's actually about a wedding celebration. The celebration is interrupted by the character known as Debbie Downer.

Speaker 15: [crosstalk 00:10:10] my beef.

Speaker 16: Yeah, these mashed potatoes look like heaven.

Speaker 17: After we eat, I vote we get a line dance [crosstalk 00:10:16].

Speaker 16: Hey, speaking of voting, how do you guys feel about Trump?

Shankar Vedantam: What do you think, Yanna? Do you think that clip speaks to your thesis?

Yanna Krupnikov: I think it speaks to the thesis quite profoundly. I think actually that is exactly what people are quite worried about. You're having kind of a nice celebration. Somebody comes in for whom politics is incredibly important, who is essentially going to change the conversation to that particular bent. Imagine that every dinner you're now incredibly tense, trying to figure out, is there something political that's going to happen here? I think that's what people are deeply concerned about.

Shankar Vedantam: Imagine sitting at dinner with friends and family, someone mentions a tweet from Trump, everyone freezes, will this become an argument? Yanna's data suggests that if the people around your table were a cross-section of America, most would prefer to change the topic, but some people would get super excited. It's these people who would also be really upset if a child of theirs were to marry someone from the other party.

Yanna Krupnikov: There certainly is a group of people who are in fact affectively polarized. No matter how we describe this in-law, they are displeased with their child marrying somebody of the opposing side. I would bet that even if we told them, politics will literally never come up ever, ever, ever, they would still be displeased that their child married somebody of the opposing party. These people struck us as being what we would term unconditionally polarized. They were sort of polarized exactly in the sense of hating somebody just because they are from the other side. As we dove into this question further, we wanted to investigate exactly what contributes to this unconditional polarization. What correlates with somebody disliking somebody just from being a member of the other side, which led us to this idea of certain people being deeply involved in politics. People for whom politics has become so profoundly important that it's something beyond just an interest in politics.

Shankar Vedantam: As you say, the deeply involved care a lot about politics, like Debbie Downer, they want to talk about politics even to people who want to talk about something else, but you make a remarkable claim. You say the central fault line today in the United States might not be between Republicans and Democrats, but between people who are deeply involved in politics and everybody else. What do you mean by that?

Yanna Krupnikov: When we think about deep involvement, we think of somebody for whom politics is front and center. It is something that they think about on a daily basis. It's something that they think about actually probably on an hourly basis. It is something that is a center to the way that they view the world. John Ryan and I, in describing these people and thinking about these people, conceive of them as being quite different from actually the majority of Americans and the majority of people. We see the fault line as how central you view politics to the world, how much attention you pay to politics, how you interpret political events, how much of an impact you believe that politics has in your life. We see it as a fault line in the sense that, for people who are deeply involved, politics is of such profound importance that it dominates the world perspective, it dominates how they view others, it dominates what they do with their day. We see that as being profoundly different from a large group of Americans for whom politics is less important and for whom politics seems more as something that is happening on the side, something that is potentially troubling, something that is potentially problematic, but something that they don't necessarily want to think about all that much.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to spend some time talking about the characteristics of the people you describe as deeply involved, because of course, it's one thing say this is a distinct group, but you go further than that. Through a series of surveys and experiments involving thousands of Americans, you find the deeply involved have a set of very distinct characteristics. The first identifier is something that you hinted at a second ago. These are people who spend a lot of time on politics.

Yanna Krupnikov: Yes. When we think about the deeply involved, we think about a set of psychological characteristics that leads somebody to sort of really care about politics, to think about it a ton. In fact, for our research, we began with the psychology of people who are our fans of things. One of the things that emerges when you think about something being important to you is time. Why would you spend time on something that's not important to you? Obviously. What makes this a particularly unique moment for these people, is now you actually can spend a tremendous amount of time on politics. You can basically wake up, you can unlock your phone, you can immediately start scrolling through the news, and you can basically be connected to politics for your entire day.

Shankar Vedantam: Another trait of the deeply involved on both sides of the political spectrum is that they're interested in minor political developments. They see deep significance in events that may or may not be important. One example is this reaction on CNN after President Trump tweeted a made-up word in the middle of the night.

Clip: The Covfefe tweet, that mercurial late night presidential sentence fragment with one of the best words stayed up with no explanation for hours and hours and hours, and then as dawn broke, the president suddenly deleted it and wrote quote, "Who can figure out the true meaning of Covfefe?"

Shankar Vedantam: I remember watching the story and getting a laugh out of it, but I also remember people going on about how the tweet might reflect a neurodegenerative disorder in the president. They were taking this really, really seriously.

Yanna Krupnikov: I think that is sort of profound. The Covfefe tweet is in some sense, I think a profound example of deep involvement. This thing happens, this thing that is ostensibly ridiculous, right? It's obviously a typo. But it becomes something that is of import to people. There are people who are anxious that they missed this tweet. There are people wondering what this tweet means. As people think about it more, especially people who are deeply engaged in politics, they start to make more and more connections to political events.

Yanna Krupnikov: Is it something meaningful? Is it something about the president? What's going to happen next? The reality about politics is that a lot of what happens in politics is, in fact, a matter of life and death. We've learned this in a fairly profound way this summer. But for the deeply involved, even typo tweets can become something that is actually very, very, very important. That sort of makes sense. If you spend so much time with politics, if you spend so much time following it, you know enough, where almost everything can be of profound importance, where the president making a typo could be a signal of just kind of what's to come, something about the political state of the world. For the deeply involved, the engagement with politics kind of contributes to the perception that any next event could be the event that changes everything.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, the deeply involved follow politics in the same way that some people follow a favorite sports team, or the twists and turns in a beloved TV show. Yanna draws an analogy between people who are deeply involved in politics and fans of the sci-fi show “Doctor Who.” Multiple actors have portrayed the doctor in the television show. For years, fans have argued obsessively about which actor is the best doctor.

Speaker 19: With the exception of the very bottom slot, which we'll get to in a second, I don't think there is a bad version of the doctor.

Shankar Vedantam: What's the connection between “Doctor Who” aficionados and politics, Yanna?

Yanna Krupnikov: “Doctor Who” I think is a really interesting kind of example, because in some sense, to have a favorite Doctor Who, you have to be a fan of the show.

Speaker 19: Because one of the beautiful things about “Doctor Who” is everyone gets to have their doctor. Your pick does not have to be anyone else's. You do not have to rank them the way anyone else does.

Yanna Krupnikov: Somebody who does not have a favorite Doctor Who is probably not a huge fan of the show, or maybe a more peripheral fan of the show. What your criticism is, when you criticize somebody's favorite doctor pick is that they are involved, but they're involved in the wrong way.

Speaker 19: So, starting at the bottom, Colin Baker.

Yanna Krupnikov: When we read research on this sort of support for the doctor, the psychology seemed almost similar to politics, of course, with much lower stakes, but there's the sense that somebody could be on your political side, but they could be on your political side in not exactly the right way. There is going to be something frustrating to somebody who is deeply involved, that this person is coming so close to getting it, but is actually not there.

Shankar Vedantam: There's another connection between “Doctor Who” fans and political fanatics. Neither can stop talking about their obsession. When we come back, how journalists favor the zealous voices of the deeply involved.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Political scientist Yanna Krupnikov argues that most Americans are not seeing the defining political thought line in the country. It's not Republican versus Democrat, but the gap between people who live, breathe and talk politics all the time, and those for whom politics is a small part of their lives. The deeply involved spend lots of time learning about politics, thinking about politics, but they also do one other thing that the less engaged rarely do. Yanna, you see the most defining feature of the people who are deeply involved in politics is something you call expression. What do you mean by that?

Yanna Krupnikov: When we think about expression, we mean the desire to communicate politics. We mean the desire to not just speak about information or speak about ways that you might change politics, but really expressing your own beliefs and feelings about politics. Really speaking your mind in the sense of something happens, and you immediately want to tell others how you felt about it, whether it was good, how it made you think, but it's the idea of essentially expressing your views, expressing what others should do. Just literally talking about what politics means to you.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, social media, you argue, is an important part of the story. How so?

Yanna Krupnikov: Well, in the past, if I wanted to talk to somebody about politics, I would have to find a person to literally talk about politics to. Maybe I couldn't find somebody to talk about politics to that day, and so I just wouldn't get to talk about it. Or maybe I found a friend and I just told them all about my political feelings and they just didn't really care. But now, if I can go to Twitter, and I can type a political opinion ...

Speaker 20: I just changed the channel from Trump town hall to the Biden town hall and immediately fell asleep.

Yanna Krupnikov: There is a high probability that a number of people will chime in.

Speaker 21: Oh my God, it was so boring.

Speaker 22: We need to support Trump 100%.

Yanna Krupnikov: And potentially a lot of them might tell me that I'm right.

Speaker 23: Seriously, it was like listening to grandpa after he takes his [crosstalk 00:23:28].

Speaker 24: It takes Biden's town hall to help you fall asleep.

Yanna Krupnikov: Certainly, because it's Twitter, it's possible that a bunch of people will also chime in and tell me that I am a terrible person.

Speaker 25: I'm pretty sure America could do with the [crosstalk 00:23:38].

Speaker 26: I cast my ballot for Joe Biden.

Speaker 27: Is it the role of government to entertain its people or to protect them?

Yanna Krupnikov: But at least there will be somebody who allows me that expression.

Shankar Vedantam: You have a story about social media from your own life that isn't about politics, but it says so much about how many of us, I think, engage with politics. Can you tell me the story of your toddler and the plane trip?

Yanna Krupnikov: Yes. My daughter and I were on a flight, and my husband was there as well. My daughter was about one and a half at the time. It was a seven-hour flight. My daughter was basically being herself. She was being a one and a half year old. Into this flight, I started noticing this woman ahead of us would constantly just turn every time my daughter would make a slight noise, and this frustrated me. This made me quite upset. It's this feeling of, ‘Am I doing a terrible job? Am I a terrible parent? Why does this woman keep turning around? Is my kid being this bad?’ I did the first thing that came to my mind, I paid for internet so I could go to Twitter. I tweeted about the fact that I'm on this flight and this woman keeps turning around and just looking at my daughter. The thing is, I want to emphasize here, that it was pretty safe for me to tweet that. I knew pretty much what my network was like. Immediately, the replies kept pouring in telling me that it was definitely not me, that it was definitely her. In fact, I think it was one of my most engaged tweets. I don't get that much engagement when I tweet about my research. In that moment, two things happened. First, I felt really good. It was actually very good to have this social support from a bunch of internet people. The second thing is that it made me just much angrier at this woman because it was this kind of feeling of, ‘All these people on the internet think that you're wrong, airplane lady, and they're telling me that I am right.’

Shankar Vedantam: Eventually, the seven-hour flight is over. The plane lands, and Yanna's husband takes his phone off airplane mode and goes to Twitter, where he sees his wife's tweet storm.

Yanna Krupnikov: He was actually really surprised. He did not notice the woman, even though she was actually more in his eyesight than mine. He did not see her turning around at any point. He thought everything had gone really well, and it was a sort of a notable moment. I had had this moment, I went to Twitter. By virtue of going to Twitter, it all got a bit exacerbated, and yet, here is somebody sitting next to me who had no idea what I was talking about. He didn't notice anything at all.

Shankar Vedantam: I can see the really wonderful metaphor here with the way our politics unfolds on social media and the way so many of us engage with politics on social media. But there's also something of a mystery here. You say that the people who are deeply involved are a minority of all Americans. Why is it, Yanna, that we feel like we hear their voices all the time?

Yanna Krupnikov: We hear the deeply involved because they're actually very loud. I don't mean that they're necessarily screaming, but I mean that in the sense that they are more likely to occupy our social media feeds. Their voices are more likely to be talking about politics, so it seems like they're everywhere, because whenever we encounter politics, it is quite often the voices of these people who are very, very deeply involved. If you're constantly seeing these posts about politics, you might not realize that they are from a very small set of people, or you might think to yourself, well, I guess I'm the odd person out. I never talk about politics, but I guess everyone else is. So, you come to this idea that the politically involved are much more around us and they actually are in numbers.

Shankar Vedantam: Yanna, you also make the case that one reason we hear the voices of the deeply involved everywhere is because journalists have a deep affinity for the voices of the deeply involved. Why is this?

Yanna Krupnikov: If we think about what media coverage includes, it's a lot of conflict, and the deeply involved are kind of readily there to provide the conflict. They're going to be the people who can be most critical of the other side. They're going to be the people who are going to talk most passionately about politics. It sort of follows that journalists are going to be heavily drawn to people who are deeply involved. Part and parcel of this coverage is actually coverage of political polarization. If journalists are drawn to coverage of political polarization, then they are almost, by definition, going to be drawn to the voices of the deeply involved. So, they come to dominate these stories as examples of just how terrible partisan relations are.

Shankar Vedantam: Yanna has done studies with hundreds of journalists across the United States. She has asked them the marriage question we discussed earlier: how many Americans would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposing political party?

Yanna Krupnikov: What we found is that journalists vastly overestimated this level of polarization. They believe that something like half of Americans would be quite profoundly polarized, when that is actually not the case. When we look over our sample, it was a tremendous difference between what journalists suspected was the case and what actually was the case in our sample.

Shankar Vedantam: Many journalists also have a love affair with Twitter. What do they see when they get on their feeds? The people who love to talk about politics.

Yanna Krupnikov: There's this fascinating work by scholar Shannon McGregor that shows the journalists are often turning to Twitter as a gauge of public opinion. Well, if the deeply involved are much more likely to express themselves on Twitter, and if journalists are looking to Twitter for stories, for public opinion, they're certainly having a higher probability of landing on the opinions of the deeply involved and then elevating those perceptions to stories on polarization, of stories of discord, of stories of violence.

Shankar Vedantam: Does the fact that many journalists themselves live and work in communities of deep involvement in politics play a role in this as well? I mean, I'm thinking of journalists, certainly within the Washington beltway. They're embedded in communities and neighborhoods where lots of their friends and neighbors are probably among the ranks of the deeply involved.

Yanna Krupnikov: I would think that it does. When I think of myself, for example, when I log on to Twitter, I am in a network of people who are deeply involved in politics. Often, it's almost difficult for me to remember that there are all these people in my own survey data for whom politics is actually much, much less important. I imagine for journalists, it actually must be exacerbated. They're also in these kinds of networks, they're often in networks with other journalists. Essentially, there's constantly somebody there reinforcing your view of what is important and what politics looks like and what the world looks like.

Yanna Krupnikov: In that sense, it is a perspective of the world that is actually completely in line with the world you see around you, but the world you see around you may not necessarily be reflective of a large group of people.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the most troubling things I took away from your work is how privilege might intersect with political involvement. The person working three jobs to make ends meet is probably not the person who really cares that the president was up at night tweeting made-up words. Many working parents, they might be too exhausted with work and childcare to be up in arms about the latest brouhaha on Twitter. When we privilege the voices of the deeply involved, at some level, are we also privileging the voices of the privileged?

Yanna Krupnikov: I think there are two ways to look at it. On the one hand, I think there is a certain privilege to not following politics, where you sort of feel so comfortable about your state in the country that you don't necessarily care who wins, but I think there's another privilege, and that is spending a lot of time following politics. I feel like I have a tremendous amount of privilege in my job that I can check in and see what's happening on the news, that I'm afforded the flexibility to do so, that I can follow a debate or that I can follow a congressional hearing, for example, if I so chose.

Yanna Krupnikov: But when I think about kind of the world of people who are working hourly jobs, who are single parents, who are basically living paycheck to paycheck, politics may not be something they'd just have time for. Spending a lot of time figuring out the latest presidential tweet is not necessarily going to be something that when they have downtime, they're going to be able to do. They'd probably rather spend time with their kids or their families. I think there is certainly a privilege to actually being able to spend the time on politics that I think a lot of people in this country just don't have.

Shankar Vedantam: What effects do people who are deeply involved in politics have on our larger discourse, on our ability to find solutions and make compromises? That's when we come back.

Shankar Vedantam: People who are deeply involved in politics have strong convictions. They talk about politics all the time, because they are worried about the state of the country, the economy. They care. They believe that if they can only get other Americans to care as much as they do, we would all be better off. Are they succeeding? Yanna, people who are deeply involved in politics want to engage people who are not involved because they want to effect change. They want others to see the importance of political issues and political causes. Are they effective at doing this?

Yanna Krupnikov: I think the goals of the deeply involved are actually coming from a good place. If you are looking over the spectrum of politics and you see things happening in front of you that you think are horrifying and terrible and problematic, you want other people to know about this. You want other people to know that they should be, and they should be afraid, and bad things could be coming. But I think there is the sense of deep involvement that may not necessarily translate to others. When others see somebody who is profoundly involved in politics, it might send the message that to be at all engaged, that is how you should behave. That it's not enough to just kind of sporadically follow the news or to pay attention during elections, but you have to sort of live and breathe politics, and that's how you become somebody who is politically engaged or knows anything political. I think that's tough for people. I think for people who may not necessarily have the time or the strong interest, believing that this is how political engagement works may be kind of a tough example to swallow, which I think can undermine the effectiveness of those who are politically involved, encouraging others to become more engaged as well.

Shankar Vedantam: There's a very interesting psychological theory that you're advancing here. In some ways, you're saying the deeply involved in some ways have become role models of how it is to be involved in politics. When we look at the deeply involved, when we turn on cable news in the evenings and we hear them, if we turn on Twitter and we watch sort of the debates raging on Twitter, we think this is how, if you're interested in politics, this is how you have to be involved in politics. Then we ask ourselves the question, do I want to be that kind of person? What you're saying is, for many people, the answer might be no.

Yanna Krupnikov: Yeah. A lot of times when we categorize ourselves, as research and psychology suggests, we compare ourselves to other people and we sort of say, am I like this person? Am I similar to this person? In what ways that I'm different? I think in some sense, when people compare themselves to the deeply involved, they're obviously going to see that they are quite different. Maybe they're going to think, I don't feel quite as strongly, or I vote in these national elections, but I can't bring myself to vote in these local elections. I just don't know enough. That contributes to our self-categorization as somebody who is ostensibly nonpolitical, which is, I think a descriptor I actually hear quite a lot from people. I'm not political. I think an interesting question there becomes, are you not political or are you not deeply involved? Are you actually entirely disengaged from politics, or do you just not believe that you have any capacity to be part of politics because you don't think you can look like the people you see on your television screen?

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if there's another effect here, which is that, if I'm a Democrat and I'm watching television, and I'm seeing people who are deeply involved in politics who are Republicans on television, it's reasonable almost for me to draw the impression that all Republicans must be like the Republicans that I see on television.

Yanna Krupnikov: In fact, some research I've recently done suggests that very point. Along with co-authors Samara Klar, John Ryan, Jamie Druckman and Matt Levendusky, we actually asked people what they believe the most common member of the opposing party looks like. Then we actually measured what people from both parties look like. What we found is that people imagined that those from the other party were constantly talking about politics and that they were very extreme. But in fact, that's not the case at all. The sort of most common member of a party, a person on a survey who says they're a Democrat or Republican, is somebody who doesn't talk about politics all that much and somebody who is not all that extreme. The difference between what the partisans actually look like and what people imagined the partisans actually look like was quite jarring. But it's not as jarring when you think about the partisans that you see on Twitter, the partisans that you see on television, the partisans you see in the news of people who are reasonable and dispassionate, don't necessarily make for the best political news, especially if you want to illustrate polarization. When we see people who are quite angry, it forms our idea of what a partisan is and what somebody who is political actually looks like.

Shankar Vedantam: When I look at the voter turnout in recent elections, the biggest party by far might not be the Republican party or the Democratic party, it might be the party of what you might call, please leave me out of it. Among all Americans of voting age, about two in five, about 40 percent, typically don't vote. Now, this has been true for a long time. It probably precedes the growth and popularity of social media, but is there a connection between the story you tell about this new fault line and people who are completely disengaging from politics?

Yanna Krupnikov: Well, this is a worry of mine when I think about deep involvement. If we sort of communicate to people that politics is about being angry, that politics is about essentially ... I don't just mean being angry about the events we see around us, because I think people should, in a lot of cases, be very angry about the political events we see around us. But essentially, that politics is constantly about fighting and spending a lot of time expressing this. It might suggest to people that they don't have what it takes to be a part of politics. When we think about people essentially disengaging, part of it might be people sort of saying, I don't necessarily want to be part of this. I don't want to be like partisans. I don't necessarily want to be in a group with these people I see around me.

Shankar Vedantam: Yanna's research finds that these people are not just reluctant to get involved in politics. They feel less confident in their ability to do so.

Yanna Krupnikov: If you think that you're nonpolitical because you're different from those you see in the news, it might suggest to you that your voice is just not as worthwhile, and you might actually even start to believe that you don't know enough to be part of the political world. You don't know enough to actually participate, which I think could lead to people exiting out of the process.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, you cite a story that was once published in the New York Times about a woman who decided to sit out a recent election. She decided not to vote. She had I believe friends or siblings who had very different feelings about what happened. Tell me that story.

Yanna Krupnikov: This story was quite interesting to us, and it was in the back of our minds as we were working through our theoretic work, and it's this woman who talked about deciding that she wasn't going to turn out to vote. She had these two close friends who basically started texting her repeatedly, almost trying to shame her into turning out and voting. In the end, she didn't vote, so it was not effective, but it was effective in her essentially stopping being friends with these people. People who she reports actually having been friends with for a long time, I think. The other thing that she reports that was especially kind of sad in some ways is that she actually never really engaged with politics again. It was such a poor experience for her, that it led her to exit out of politics entirely. You can see this story, I think, from both sides. I think the people who were trying to convince her to vote genuinely wanted to see this person engaged in politics. They genuinely believe politics is important. They genuinely want people to vote, but what happened was an entirely opposing reaction, which sort of speaks to this idea of how we communicate the importance of politics to others.

Shankar Vedantam: There's something deeply ironic here, because as you said, the deeply involved are deeply involved because they care so much. They have deep ideals very often about what's right and what's wrong and how to make things better, but paradoxically, in terms of actual effectiveness, they might not actually be getting their way, not just because they are driving disengagement amongst some people, but also because as you point out, the deeply engaged are also the ones who are least interested in compromise. Compromise is a dirty word when it comes to the people who are the most deeply engaged in politics. What does it mean for a democracy, Yanna, when the people who are in the fray who stay in the fray are the ones who say any compromise with the other side is effectively betrayal and treason? And we are driving out the people who might in some ways be more amenable to compromise?

Yanna Krupnikov: I think there are sort of two ways to look at this. I think one is, more and more people who are less involved are driven out of politics. We see more of these people who are deeply involved, basically engaging with each other fully convinced of their own level of interest, basically just reinforcing each other's views. Then you have another half of your electorate who is becoming less and less and less engaged. What are we losing in this case? Are we losing certain voices that could essentially be represented? Are we changing who is being represented? Are we essentially altering the extent to which government can be responsible? I think these are all things that we should think about when we think about what it means when we give the deeply involved so much voice.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the most surprising things about your thesis, as I was reading your work, is how many Americans think of people who belong to their own political party who are deeply involved. Obviously, many Americans dislike partisans on the other side who are deeply involved, but how do people think about people on their own side who are deeply involved?

Yanna Krupnikov: Certainly, people like those on their own side who are deeply involved a lot better than they like those on the other side who are deeply involved. But there is also some sense that people aren't necessarily all that excited about people who are deeply involved on their own side as well. People who are not deeply involved don't exactly love people who tweet about politics even from their own side. Certainly, I think if we kind of truth serumed people, they would say, "Well, if you're going to tweet about politics, at least do it from my side." But they don't necessarily love that either.

Shankar Vedantam: I sense, in some ways, that there is an irony in your work, Yanna, because you've mentioned in a couple of different ways that you yourself might belong to the ranks of the people who are deeply involved. You talked about it briefly in the context of many of your friends on social media being deeply involved. You have a critique of the deeply involved in sort of the effect they're having on politics. At some level, are you also critiquing your own life and your own approach to politics?

Yanna Krupnikov: By my definition, I probably am quite deeply involved. In fact, I do in fact check the news in the morning when I wake up. In that sense, I do think that I am critiquing my own life in a way. I found, at a number of points actually, having to remind myself, this is Twitter. This is not the world. There are people out there who are much more concerned about where their next paycheck is going to come from, whether they have time to spend with their kids than with the latest thing the president has tweeted. I think working on this has been a helpful reminder of this constant voice that I should hear in my head of, this is Twitter. This is not real life.

Shankar Vedantam: Yanna Krupnikov is a political scientist at Stony Brook University. Her upcoming book written with her fellow political scientists, John Barry Ryan, is called “The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics.” Yanna, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Yanna Krupnikov: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Special thanks this week to our former producers Parth Shah and Thomas Lu, who played a vital role in building this episode. Our unsung hero today is Kara McGuirk-Allison. Longtime listeners to the show may know her name from the first year of Hidden Brain. She was one of five founding producers and carried much of the weight in getting the podcast up and running. More recently, she has provided me with essential advice and support as we launched our new production company, from suggesting a payroll provider, to connecting us with several members of our current team, Kara has helped to shape Hidden Brain in significant ways. We are so grateful for her kind and generous spirit. For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Get more information about us at If you like this episode and like our show, please remember to tell your friends. If they don't know how to subscribe to our podcast, please show them. Thanks for listening, I'm Shankar Vedantam.


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