CAS Blog

Affective Polarization

Hannah Read, 19 April 2023

Strong antipathy for political outgroup members – also called “affective polarization” (Iyengar & Westwood, 2015) – is a pressing contemporary concern. All too often, affective polarization negatively affects individuals' ability to cooperate, engage in minimally constructive or respectful ways with one another, as well as learn from and respond appropriately to valuable individual and group differences (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2018). In response to these issues, politicians from both sides of the political spectrum have pointed out the importance of finding common ground. For example, upon being elected, US President Biden called for Americans to “put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again.” “To make progress,” Biden claimed, “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”1

Even notoriously divisive US President Trump’s first State of the Union Address emphasized the importance of finding commonalities across political differences: “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”2

The need to find common ground has also been noted by philosophers and political theorists. For instance, Hannon (2020) writes that “we must change our basic attitudes towards each other in order to find the common ground on which collective flourishing depends” (597-8). In a similar spirit, Madva (2020) emphasizes the importance of adopting a “common-ground mindset” when interacting with outgroup members as a means of counteracting tendencies to negatively fixate on group-related differences.

Empathy can be especially valuable for helping us find common ground as a depolarization strategy. This is because empathy – a complex multidimensional response that enables us to share the mental lives of others (Read, 2019) – is a powerful means of understanding, resonating with, and relating to others' experiences. This deep understanding, resonating, and relating can help uncover existing common ground in the form of experiences and emotions that one person draws on in order to empathize with another; and it can also help us create new common ground consisting in the shared empathic experience itself (Read, 2021).

Despite its potential benefits in many important cases, however, individuals seeking to empathize and find common ground across polarized divides can incur real risks, including the risks of: (1) obscuring valuable differences between oneself and a polarized opponent, thereby inhibiting appropriate responsiveness to such differences; (2) submitting oneself to unnecessary (physical and psychological) harm; and (3) fueling intergroup hostility and antagonism when finding common ground across one group divide involves two groups uniting against a common enemy and third group of individuals. To the extent that they are real, these risks provide individuals with strong (albeit defeasible) reasons against finding common ground with polarized opponents.

Consider first the risk of (1) obscuring valuable differences between oneself and a polarized opponent. Emphasizing commonalities as opposed to differences can, in some cases, inhibit appropriate responsiveness to such differences and may even obscure important unjust disparities that correlate with these differences. For example, consider coalition building across race or gender divides that obscures key injustices associated with those racial or gender differences amongst members of the group and in turn prevents group members from responding appropriately. Indeed, ongoing work by Dovidio and colleagues finds that highlighting a common identity between individuals from groups with asymmetrical power relations (e.g. white and Black Americans) can contribute to increased acceptance of the unjust status quo, particularly on the part of the marginalized individuals, but these results did not obtain in cases where subgroup identities were also preserved (Dovidio, et al., 2016; Glasford & Dovidio, 2011). Given these considerations, it may therefore be critical that polarized opponents find common ground that is at the same time sensitive to any significant differences between them.

Consider next the risk of (2) submitting oneself to unnecessary (physical and psychological) harm. To put it simply, interactions with some polarized opponents may be too dangerous to justify any attempt to find common ground. For example, it may be too physically and psychologically unsafe for members of targeted marginalized groups to approach the members of certain violent hate groups, with the aim of empathizing and finding common ground with them or at all. Such efforts could also devolve into so-called epistemic exploitation, which involves the “unrecognized, uncompensated, emotionally taxing, coerced epistemic labor” of minority-group members who become saddled with the task of educating dominantly situated others about their oppression (Berenstain, 2016: 569).

Consider finally the risk of (3) fueling intergroup hostility and antagonism when finding common ground across one group divide involves two groups uniting against a common enemy and third group of individuals. As Hannah Arendt (1970) rightly points out, many of the strong and motivating attitudes that come with group membership and partisanship, such as those associated with solidarity – e.g. empathy, camaraderie, and even love – undermine constructive discourse between free and equal individuals, which is itself a key part of life in any healthy political community. In fact, recent findings suggest that this can happen with empathy in particular: increased empathy for political ingroup members appears to exacerbate affective polarization for political outgroup members (Simas, Clifford, & Kirkland, 2020). It may therefore be that newfound empathy and common ground across one particular group divide comes at the cost of some other group or outgroup member – for example, in cases where two or more opposed groups unite against some common (at least perceived) enemy, as in cases of scapegoating.

Of course, these risks do not negate the value of empathizing and finding common ground altogether. In fact, empathizing and finding common ground of different kinds may play a crucial role in mitigating the harms caused by toxic relations between polarized opponents in a variety of different ways. For example, finding common ground that is pertinent to the point of disagreement or conflict may help opponents reach a resolution by uncovering points of agreement or shared concern. And when common ground that is directly pertinent to the point of disagreement cannot be found, finding common ground regarding something else – e.g., another shared value, concern, or experience – that is also of sufficiently significant personal importance to both parties may have positive consequences, including promoting cooperation toward other shared goals, as well as helping to forge and sustain morally significant positive relationships (Gilligan, 1993; Pettit, 2015; Walker, 1989; Wong, 2006). In fact, efforts to find such common ground can even demonstrate a particularly robust form of care, as well as respect in the form of “willingness to learn” from the other – important parts of bell hooks’ (2018) ethic of love. Similarly, finding common ground will also often be required for acting in ways that avoid causing further damage to the relationship with one’s opponent – crucial for acting on a moral principle of accommodation (Gutmann & Thompson, 1990; Wong, 1992).

"All about Love: New Visions" by bell hooks (2018).

There may even be some benefit to empathizing and finding common ground in cases where one continues to disagree with an opponent. For instance, making the effort to empathize and find common ground with an opponent might put one in a better position to change their mind regarding the point of disagreement, or at least to appeal to them as someone who shares some of the same concerns. One might also come to have a clearer sense of what is important about one’s own view, how to present the view in ways that are more convincing to a wider range of people, which sorts of beliefs, practices, or values conflict with one’s view and which don’t, etc.

All of this suggests that efforts to empathize and find common ground are worthy of serious and careful consideration. After all, as I’ve suggested, there are strong (yet defeasible) reasons both for and against making this effort. And individuals must do the difficult work of weighing these reasons against one another in order to decide how to act in particular situations. It may be, for example, that in one particular situation speaking up for what one believes to be right, or refusing to accommodate another person's or group's behavior, is more important – i.e., provides a weightier reason – than the various positive outcomes that finding common ground with others can generate, while in another situation the benefits of finding common ground far outweigh the risks.

Given the moral and political seriousness of these issues, efforts to determine whether, when, and how to find common ground are likely to be well worth the trouble. (For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see: Read (2022).)


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Hannah Read, Affective Polarization, CAS LMU Blog, 19 April 2023,
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