The sirens have gotten pretty hard to ignore.
Wildfires are raging across the Western United States and Canada, spreading smoke so widely that the sun turned red and people’s eyes and throats stung as far east as New York. One of the fires is so large that it’s generating its own weather. The West has been suffering through its fourth heat wave in less than two months. Coronavirus case numbers are rising again nationally, mostly among unvaccinated people, and states like Florida and Missouri are experiencing devastating and deadly surges.
But, despite the raging crises, the gears of American government seem as stuck as ever — partly because of the intensity of Americans’ polarization, and partly because Republican members of Congress have remained opposed even to some measures that polls show bipartisan majorities of voters support, like stricter limits on power plant and vehicle emissions.
Significant action on climate change is imaginable only through executive action by President Biden and a party-line budget reconciliation bill, as Coral Davenport, a climate reporter for The Times, told me this month, and even such measures may not be ambitious enough to meet the nation’s climate goals.
Many millions of Republicans are still declining to get coronavirus vaccines, and condemning the Biden administration’s vaccination push. They have done so even as vivid accounts from medical workers in the hardest-hit states make clear how terrible a toll the Delta variant is taking on unvaccinated people.
The trouble is that, in a polarized era, “political elites have every incentive to politicize these things early on, and so people who are paying attention to politics pick up on the frame elected officials and the media are using,” said Jaime E. Settle, an associate professor of government and director of the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab at the College of William & Mary.
Even catastrophic and highly visible events like the wildfires and the heat waves don’t necessarily move the needle, because “what happens is that people interpret these events from the framework they started with,” Settle said. So if a person starts out disbelieving the established science of human-driven climate change, they are likely to look at the recent evidence of climate change “and say, ‘Well, that’s not evidence’ or, ‘It is evidence but humans are not to blame for it.’”
Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale who studies political polarization and political violence, said today’s environment felt reminiscent of previous eras of extreme division, including the 1790s, the 1850s and the 1960s.
“Something those periods share is when things are that polarized, there’s a lack of trust in pretty much anything — a lack of trust in information, a lack of trust of each side in the other, a lack of trust in national institutions and their ability to handle things,” Freeman said. “Even though these things are happening right in front of us, so many people are distrustful of the information they get. You can’t get past that fundamental distrust to get to facts or even to get to things of extreme urgency.”
She added, “If you don’t trust lawmakers and you don’t trust the press and you don’t trust people in positions of authority outside of the little sphere in which they’re acting, how in the world can you pull people together to address something bigger?”
As my colleague Alex Burns wrote this month, seismic events that would almost certainly have changed American politics in past eras are simply not making a dent now. We may soon find out “whether the American electorate is still capable of large-scale shifts in opinion.”
As for the possibility of changing a person’s views — or acceptance of facts — through personal conversations, Settle said the challenge is that we tend to base our arguments on what would change our minds, not on what would change someone else’s. And we don’t even have good forums in which to have these conversations.
“There’s a small but growing body of research on how you might be able to set up online interactions to make them better,” she said, “but the kind of organic options we currently have on social media and comment threads are just a disaster.”
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