“Political Extremism in the US: A New Study” By Jordan Moss [Areo Magazine]

“Political Extremism in the US: A New Study

Jordan Moss
Jordan Moss has a research focus on personality and political attitudes. He is interested in individual differences, with particular interest in moral psychology.

https://areomagazine.com/2020/10/26/political-extremism-in-the-us-a-new-study/

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Political correctness and the alt-right: The development of extreme political attitudes

Jordan T. Moss ,
Peter J. O’Connor

PLOS ONE 15(10): e0239259

Published: October 7, 2020
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239259

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This study utilised a nationally representative sample to investigate the cultural divide on the political left and right. We found evidence of an ideological divide on both sides, with generational changes in social media and parenting styles contributing to an increase in authoritarian social attitudes. Traditional liberal attitudes were shown to be distinct from authoritarian political correctness, and traditional conservatism was shown to be distinct from the white identitarian attitudes of the alt-right. Adherents to classical political attitudes were distinguished from their authoritarian counterparts by differences in personality traits, upbringing, social media use and moral perspectives. This study provides evidence of a cultural divide, and reports that extreme political attitudes represent a significant minority of attitudes in the United States.

In recent years, US politics has been defined by polarization. Voters are more politically divided and partisan antipathy is deeper now than at any time in the last twenty years. As the major parties in the US separate, ideological fragmentation can be seen on both sides of the aisle, with political correctness (PC) on the regressive left and white identitarian attitudes on the alt-right. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have hypothesized that these movements reflect generational changes in parenting styles, resilience and social media use. However, no academic research has directly assessed these claims. To fill this gap, Peter O’Connor and I investigated the psychological predictors of these extreme political attitudes.

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What We Found: The Prevalence of the Extremes

Unsurprisingly, the largest portion (30.9%) of Americans identified as politically moderate, and were either indifferent to, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the extreme left and right. However, a significant minority identified with the extremes. On the left, 8.2% of participants held extreme PCL attitudes, whereas 6.1% held extreme PCA attitudes. On the right, 14.1% of white participants agreed or strongly agreed with the attitudes typical of the alt-right.

The Predictors of Extremism: The Effect of Social Media

The typical narrative explaining the increase in political polarization centers on the rise of social media. When online, people are more likely to engage with people who hold similar views to them and disengage from those who hold different opinions. This creates echo chambers that serve to reinforce one’s certainty in one’s attitudes, while allowing one to disregard the moral claims of others. We found that the effect of social media was different for the extreme left and right. While social media predicted both liberal and authoritarian political correctness, it did not predict white identitarian attitudes. This makes sense, as previous research has found a disproportionate amount of leftist content and number of liberal users on sites such as Facebook (most participants reported Facebook as their primary social media site).

(…)

Over-Protective Parenting and Low Resilience

As Lukianoff and Haidt have argued, the increase in political correctness could be, in part, attributed to generational changes in child rearing. More parents are acting on behalf of their children in difficult situations and are demanding an emotionally safe environment in school (e.g. one that includes the awarding of participation trophies). This means that younger generations are growing up in a more emotionally accommodating world than their parents did. Children are being taught that an external body is watching out for their welfare and is able to remove any obstacle that is too overwhelming. Without the opportunity to explore the world independently, children do not develop the resilience necessary to deal with problems on their own. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, these children grow into young adults who are less capable of dealing with adversity and are more likely to rely on an external authority to resolve their problems.

This study utilised a nationally representative sample to investigate the cultural divide on the political left and right. We found evidence of an ideological divide on both sides, with generational changes in social media and parenting styles contributing to an increase in authoritarian social attitudes. Traditional liberal attitudes were shown to be distinct from authoritarian political correctness, and traditional conservatism was shown to be distinct from the white identitarian attitudes of the alt-right. Adherents to classical political attitudes were distinguished from their authoritarian counterparts by differences in personality traits, upbringing, social media use and moral perspectives. This study provides evidence of a cultural divide, and reports that extreme political attitudes represent a significant minority of attitudes in the United States.

In recent years, US politics has been defined by polarization. Voters are more politically divided and partisan antipathy is deeper now than at any time in the last twenty years. As the major parties in the US separate, ideological fragmentation can be seen on both sides of the aisle, with political correctness (PC) on the regressive left and white identitarian attitudes on the alt-right. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have hypothesized that these movements reflect generational changes in parenting styles, resilience and social media use. However, no academic research has directly assessed these claims. To fill this gap, Peter O’Connor and I investigated the psychological predictors of these extreme political attitudes.

A quota-based sample of 512 American participants was studied. The subjects were representative of the demography of the United States in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, employment status and education level. Participants responded to questionnaires that measure personality traits, black-and-white moral thinking, resilience, perceptions of the parenting they received as children and social media use. Three sets of political attitudes were also assessed: political correctness-liberalism, political correctness-authoritarianism and white identitarianism.

Liberal and authoritarian political correctness are the two main variants of political correctness. Liberal proponents of political correctness are primarily concerned with individual welfare and represent the classically liberal effort to promote socially disadvantaged groups. To identify this group, we asked participants to assess statements like “Retail stores should avoid using the word ‘Christmas’ in their November and December advertising campaigns.”

Authoritarian proponents of political correctness focus on purity and safety and endorse the efforts of cancel culture to censor emotionally upsetting content. To assess authoritarian political correctness, we asked participants to rate their levels of agreement with statements such as “when a charge of sexual assault is brought forth, the alleged perpetrator should have to prove his or her innocence.” While both liberal and authoritarian proponents of political correctness protest the use of non-inclusive speech, authoritarians show a greater tendency toward violent, immediate and autocratic methods.

White identitarianism represent the racialist attitudes typical of the apparently (see below) far-right subculture known as the alt-right. To assess these attitudes, participants were asked to respond to statements like “race is the foundation of identity” and “whites are being forgotten and replaced by minorities in this country.”

What We Found: The Prevalence of the Extremes

Unsurprisingly, the largest portion (30.9%) of Americans identified as politically moderate, and were either indifferent to, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the extreme left and right. However, a significant minority identified with the extremes. On the left, 8.2% of participants held extreme PCL attitudes, whereas 6.1% held extreme PCA attitudes. On the right, 14.1% of white participants agreed or strongly agreed with the attitudes typical of the alt-right.

The Predictors of Extremism: The Effect of Social Media

The typical narrative explaining the increase in political polarization centers on the rise of social media. When online, people are more likely to engage with people who hold similar views to them and disengage from those who hold different opinions. This creates echo chambers that serve to reinforce one’s certainty in one’s attitudes, while allowing one to disregard the moral claims of others. We found that the effect of social media was different for the extreme left and right. While social media predicted both liberal and authoritarian political correctness, it did not predict white identitarian attitudes. This makes sense, as previous research has found a disproportionate amount of leftist content and number of liberal users on sites such as Facebook (most participants reported Facebook as their primary social media site). However, as this study did not look into the ways in which different social media sites affect the development of extreme political attitudes, we cannot speak to the effect of individual online platforms (Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Reddit, etc).

Over-Protective Parenting and Low Resilience

As Lukianoff and Haidt have argued, the increase in political correctness could be, in part, attributed to generational changes in child rearing. More parents are acting on behalf of their children in difficult situations and are demanding an emotionally safe environment in school (e.g. one that includes the awarding of participation trophies). This means that younger generations are growing up in a more emotionally accommodating world than their parents did. Children are being taught that an external body is watching out for their welfare and is able to remove any obstacle that is too overwhelming. Without the opportunity to explore the world independently, children do not develop the resilience necessary to deal with problems on their own. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, these children grow into young adults who are less capable of dealing with adversity and are more likely to rely on an external authority to resolve their problems.

In accordance with this hypothesis, the study found evidence that generational changes in parenting styles have contributed to extreme left attitudes. Younger participants reported having more overprotective parents and lower levels of resilience, and both these factors were shown to contribute to authoritarian political correctness. That is, the people who are calling for the shutdown of events that host speakers with whom they disagree are more likely to have been coddled and over-protected as children and are now less able to bounce back after facing hardship. It is important to note that these factors did not predict liberal political correctness, which shows a clear distinction in the emotionality of people from these two subgroups.

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Why Does This Matter?

The first thing that we should take away from this study is that these movements are real. While previous political commentary has largely relied on anecdotes, this study provides scientific basis for the argument that movements promoting cancel culture and white identitarianism have taken hold of political discourse. This means that—despite leftist claims that the PC police are a product of the conservative imagination—cancel culture is a real influence on today’s politics. Also, despite the right’s claim that alarm at growing racialism in the US is the result of paranoia, white identitarians (although seemingly quiet) do represent a small part of the American political scene.

Second, this study supports the hypothesis of Lukianoff and Haidt that generational changes have contributed to the movement towards the far-left. According to their book The Coddling of the American Mind, increased adult intervention protects children in the short-term but has long-term developmental consequences. Overprotective parenting creates individuals who have not developed the resilience to deal with the problems that we all face in life. As these children grow into young adults of voting age, they seek the same emotionally accommodating interventions that they received from their parents, in the form of the government. In contemporary politics, we can see this in adherence to cancel culture.”

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