William Howell
Big Brains podcst

Is the U.S. headed toward another civil war? with William Howell (Ep. 105)


Political scientists examine extreme polarization—and whether we’re more moderate than we think

William Howell
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

As we approach the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, we wanted to reflect on a few questions that many Americans are asking these days: Is democracy on the brink of the collapse? Why are U.S. politics so polarized? And are we headed for another civil war? These questions seem incredibly daunting, so we wanted to understand what the data really tell us.

William Howell, a University of Chicago professor and director of the Center for Effective Government, has been thinking about these questions, along with political scientists across the country. In this episode, Howell explains why claims of another civil war are overexaggerated, and instead, offers some correctives.

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(Episode published January 5, 2023)



Paul Rand: On January 6th, 2021, American politics experienced one of its darkest moments.

Tape: Events in Washington have taken a violent and tumultuous turn in the past few hours, as thousands of supporters of President Trump stormed the US Capitol Building.

Paul Rand: They were there to subvert the election of Joe Biden based on false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

Tape: The physical destruction of that day has since been cleaned up, but questions of how to repair the deeper damage to our democracy remain.

Paul Rand: Political commentators, journalists, and pundits all saw this moment as a symptom of a larger problem in American politics today, extreme polarization.

Tape: Survey after survey has shown that Republicans and Democrats now view each other not simply as wrong, but as malevolent, literally a danger to the republic.

Paul Rand: The picture that’s painted for us is of a country that’s on the brink of a civil war. In fact, some scholars and commentators are saying, we may be in for just that.

Tape: We are on a glide path at this point to having to look down the barrel of possible civil war.

Tape: More than 40% of Americans think a civil war is likely in the next decade. That’s a big number. Is this where history will say it began?

Paul Rand: If you watch cable news or you read the op-eds, you’re unlikely to find many people who disagree about the impending threat of a civil war in some form or another. That’s unless you talk to Professor Will Howell.

William Howell: I think we are decidedly not at the brink of a civil war.

Paul Rand: Howell is a political scientist at the University of Chicago and the co-host of another U Chicago podcast called Not Another Politics podcast. On that show, he and his co-hosts interview experts from across the country about the latest political science research, and he says that when you put all the data together, the picture isn’t as bleak as the media would lead you to believe.

William Howell: Ranked partisanship isn’t entirely the force in American politics that it’s often said to be.

Paul Rand: Oh, and by the way, he has a lot of data to back himself up.

William Howell: These observations that I’m offering are not just born of what I see from where I sit, but of a lot of efforts by a lot of scholars to try to make sense of where the electorate sits vis-a-vis political elites.

Paul Rand: With the anniversary of January 6th upon us, we sat down with Professor Howell to hear a contrarian view of the state of American politics and to give some hope about its future.

William Howell: There are studies out there that point towards the possibility for a corrective.

Paul Rand: What does that mean, a corrective?

William Howell: A corrective wherein you and I can speak plainly about our disagreement and find the possibility for action to move forward that we would both recognize as an improvement over the status quo.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and the pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, the political science of polarization. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

When it comes to an impending civil war, the first and most obvious piece of evidence people like the site is the increased level of polarization, but-

William Howell: I think we need to be clear about what we mean by polarization and exactly who we’re talking about when we say that we’re becoming more polarized. There’s a lot of work done in political science trying to characterize the level of disagreements among elected officials at the state level, at the federal level, and most of the evidence point towards that being so, that Republicans are significantly more conservative than they were in 1970, and Democrats are somewhat more liberal on average, but that’s among elected officials. It’s a different story when you talk about mass public average citizens and the extent to which they have polarized, whether or not people on the ground of polarized. And there, the evidence isn’t anywhere near so clear.

Paul Rand: So, the feeling is that, I guess as you’re saying it, that while the elected officials may seem more polarized, society a whole necessarily isn’t.

William Howell: That’s right. The historic levels of polarization between two major parties that we see at the elite level are not mirrored by the same levels of disagreement observed among democratic voters and republican voters.

Paul Rand: Okay. So on a fundamental basis, the concept of we are worried about the country tipping into another civil war, you’re pointing at and saying, even though you see and you hear poll after poll that talks about this level of polarization and the threats of that, the data just doesn’t support that that threat as a civil war is some thing that you’re concerned about?

William Howell: No. I think, so let’s talk about what those data look like that people point towards.

Paul Rand: Okay.

William Howell: Much of it depends upon survey data. And so they go... The analyst will go out and issue a survey, get a response that says something like, 20% of the American public believes that under certain conditions force might be needed because the country has gone so far off track. And then they extrapolate from that and say, oh my God, 20% of the country is something on the order of 70 million people. And that’s problematic for a bunch of reasons.

First, many of the questions that are asked are really vague. I mean, they’re so vague. It’s not clear what the meaning of the answer is that you’re getting back. I’ll also say that when you ask questions, you can get a certain percentage of the American public to say almost anything. Almost any... 5% of the public will say the most outlandish thing that you can imagine, and that can just be borne of inattention, people are just pushing buttons on the surveys, any number of things. So, there’s a lot of work shown on that score. There are concerns about partisan cheerleading. That is, just because we ask you a question doesn’t mean that the answer that you offer is an unalloyed characterization of your assessment of that fact. Greg Huber at Yale did some really interesting work.

Greg Huber: When we ask people a survey question, the first thing we know is that people will answer. Even if they don’t actually have an opinion on things, we know people will answer a survey. The second thing that at least we intuited at the very beginning is that when people answer a survey question, they’re not just answering the question you ask them. They’re answering the question they want to answer. One can think of an analogy where you go to a restaurant and you have a wonderful meal and the service is terrible, and the next day I call you and say, “How was the food?” And you say it was terrible. And you’re not telling me what you thought of the food. You are telling me what you thought of the service.

William Howell: So when you think about the effects of rank partisanship, Democrats and Republicans don’t just disagree vis-a-vis policy, but they live in radically different worlds, a body of evidence that’s often put forward points towards people’s assessments of facts about the world differ dramatically across party lines. When you ask about what’s the inflation rate when Biden’s in office, Democrats reliably say something lower than Republicans do, and that’s meant to be read as evidence that are the divisions between the two parties are so vast that and irreconcilable that the possibilities for us to come together meaningfully are slim to none. And what Great Huber did is offered to pay people to give the correct answer. And what do you know? The differences in assessments about factual matters between Republicans and Democrats all but disappear. I mean, they just collapse.

Paul Rand: Interesting.

Greg Huber: At core, it suggests that people walk around with something like two sets of books in their head. They have a set of books that when they’re cheering on their team, they express those attitudes and opinions. But if they were actually going to make consequential decisions about their lives, about their investments, about high stakes things, they would behave differently.

William Howell: And so the argument that he’s offering here is not that we should go out and pay everybody to start speaking the truth, but rather we ought to look critically the survey data that we get,

Paul Rand: And I think there’s a paper by somebody, researcher by the name Mary McGrath that has talked about this. Can you expand a little bit on what she has studied?

William Howell: She’s talking about this notion that people are so rooted in their kind of partisan identities, they sit so squarely as democratic or republican that that informs not just their policy of views, but how they understand the outside world. So, there’s some really interesting work that showed that citizens around the country adopted what are called partisan perceptual screens, wherein if a member of my own party is elected president, it isn’t just that I’m excited because ah, somebody’s going to advance my policy agenda. It’s that I suddenly think that the economy’s doing great, and you who lost the most recent election look out at the world and say, “Oh, everything’s awful.”

Paul Rand: Gotcha.

William Howell: And it isn’t just that you think that, but that you act upon that. That informs our spending patterns in one way or another.

Paul Rand: So if you’re a republican and your party takes office, you’re likely not only to say on surveys that the economy is doing better, but if you’re really believe that, as proof of that belief, you’re also going to change your spending and saving choices.

William Howell: Which Mary McGrath stepped in and said, actually not so much, that when you extend the data and reanalyze what was done in this particular study, those findings go away. And this matters for the following reason. To the extent that we are divided, to the extent that there is distrust, and in important respects, we are, and there is distrust and anger, we need to find ways to engage one another about our differences. But if what we do is we look through the world through our partisan lens at every turn, it just shrinks the space for meaningful dialogue across difference, and it makes it all the more harder for us to bridge our divisions.

Paul Rand: Like with the Huber paper, once there are real stakes and consequences on the line, people tend to no longer cheerlead and act with blind faith in their chosen party. They moderate.

William Howell: And so her work comes out and says these perceptual screens are probably overstated as they relate to consumption behavior, to my mind is good news when we think about our ability as a democracy, small D democracy, to come together. It is a more hopeful message.

Paul Rand: Okay. We may have these thoughts and some hopeful thinking and messages that go into it, but somehow the idea that we are all stuck in our own individual in some form or another media echo chambers, and that society as a whole may not be going in that direction, but our media is telling us, well, you’re missing it because the world is shaping up that way. Is that accurate or is that, again, a perceptual issue with what we’re just hearing through the media?

William Howell: There also is some good evidence on things like fact checking by Ethan Porter and Tom Wood who are graduates of the University of Chicago, and that shows that democrats and republicans alike, when their views about the world are corrected, when their factual views are corrected, that they routinely update their views. They don’t just steadfastly reject them out of hand. I’ve got some work with my colleague Anthony Fowler, that shows that when people are exposed to arguments from the opposition party that they often... They don’t sort of recoil from it and reject it out of hand, there actually is a fair bit of evidence that they update.

Josh Kalla out at Yale, along with his regular co-author, David Broockman, who’s at UC Berkeley, they did this really interesting experiment wherein they paid people who were avid consumers of Fox News to watch CNN for a month. And we actually talked to David on our podcast.

David Broockman: The average person I think was watching about six hours of CNN. They could select up to seven. We sent out quizzes that asked them about really superficial aspects of the coverage, and then we would pay them if they kind of got those questions right.

William Howell: But then he wants to track their changes in their views about a whole set of policy, relevant issues, and their views about the opposition party. And what he shows is that the people who switched from Fox News over to CNN moderate their views in lots of ways in the short term.

David Broockman: I do think there’s some people out there that, again, make strong claims that partisans would just simply never acknowledge or completely resist changing up updating their beliefs at all. I think our results are clearly inconsistent with that.

Paul Rand: Did he flip it around the other way of having CNN viewers watch Fox News.

William Howell: You know what, that was the first question I asked him, and he did not, but only because of budgetary constraints. It would be a great thing to do. You want to see-

Paul Rand: If it would be.

William Howell: Exactly. What happens to liberals when they switch over and they watch Fox News? So, there are little points of hope that when you can shift people’s media attention, when they expose them to new arguments and new facts, that there is still the possibility for updating and persuasion, which strikes me as all to the good when you think about the health of a democracy.

Paul Rand: I guess that goes in with the hope or the promise that there’s some way to allow minds and opportunities to be opened up a little bit, but is there anything telling us that people are actively looking to find ways of gaining additional perspectives, or even open to it?

William Howell: So, there are some... There’s some really interesting work by Andy Guess out of Princeton, and he’s looking at news consumption patterns, online news consumption patterns, and to see whether or not people sit squarely and consume exclusively stuff that just confirms their ideological priors.

Tape: By directly measuring the visits to websites on people’s devices, so desktop laptops and more available on their mobile devices, I come up with a very simple summary of the ideological slant of people’s overall political media diets. So, basically I take all of these web visits and I distill them down to a single number for each person, and then I simply look at the distribution of these numbers between mostly two groups, democrats and republicans. So, the idea is that if you know the “echo chambers” are real, you’re going to get democrats clustered on the left of this hypothetical ideological continuum of media consumption, and republicans are clustered on the right, and there’s not a lot of overlap between the two.

William Howell: And he suggests not so much. So, there actually is a lot of effort by people to go across different boundaries.

Tape: A surprising share of people’s visits to politics or news relevant pages in the data seem to go to large mainstream portal or aggregator type sites. So, aol.com really pops out as a huge source of traffic, was a default homepage setting for lots of people in their browsers. It has tons of news content. Same for msn.com, and things like Google and Yahoo. So, they loom very large in people’s consumption behavior, best as I can tell. It’s important to remember that... We’re political scientists. Presumably, we’re both very interested in politics and probably consume a lot of political media, but most people aren’t like that.

Paul Rand: So far, we’ve talked about why polarization may not be as dire as the media suggests, because the people on extreme ends of the spectrum may not be as extreme as they appear. But Howell says there’s another reason. Most people, the majority of Americans, aren’t extreme to begin with. They’re actually moderate. Well, that’s after the break.

If you’re getting a lot out of the important research shared on Big Brains, there’s another University of Chicago podcast network show you should check out. It’s called Not Another Politics Podcast. Not Another Politics Podcast provides a fresh perspective on the biggest political stories, not through opinions and anecdotes, but through rigorous scholarship, massive data sets, and a deep knowledge of theory. If you want to understand the political science behind the political headlines, then listen to Not Another Politics Podcast, part of the University of Chicago podcast network. There certainly is dialogue and research that says part of this is that even though we keep hearing how bad the polarization is, in actuality, the majority of Americans would classify as moderates, is an accurate review?

William Howell: It is, and it raises a deep puzzle, which I think we should talk about. But let’s start with the finding. I mean, we talked at some length about how political leaps... There’s widespread recognition that political elites decidedly are polarized. The question is, is the electorate itself more polarized? We have quite a bit of evidence that most American citizens are reasonably moderate. It’s certainly the case that extremists exists, and that extremists, person by person, attract a disproportionate share of attention. But when you try to actually calculate the policy views of most citizens, they come out reasonably moderate. And maybe the best piece of evidence in favor of this comes from a recent paper, actually a forthcoming paper in the American Political Science Review written by Anthony Fowler, who is here at the University of Chicago and works with alongside me on Not Another Politics Podcast.

And he’s got a paper, along with a bunch of colleagues, called Moderates. And what the paper does is it looks at a whole bunch of survey evidence wherein in the surveys, they ask people lots and lots and lots of questions about their policy views. And what Anthony’s co-authors observe is that respondents regularly offer answers that in one instance would appear conservative, and the other instance might appear liberal. And then they try to make sense of what that might mean. So for instance, when asked whether or not the minimum wage ought to be increased to $15 an hour, somebody might say no. And then when asked on another issue whether or not we ought to expand the number of things that ought to qualify for the death penalty, they may also say no. And what you might hear from that is that, look, on the first question, they might sound sort of conservative, but in the second question, they sound liberal. What do we make of that?

And what they do is they say, well, there’s at least three possibilities. One is that people are just flipping coins. When they’re asked these questions, they’re not paying much attention, and they’re just sometimes answering one way, sometimes another way. Alternatively, it could be that people’s policy views aren’t well represented by a single dimension. That is what their views are doesn’t clearly map onto a liberal conservative dimension at all, in which case, it’s not clear what it might mean to be moderate liberal or conservative at all because there’s multiple dimensions that characterize our politics. And alternatively, what they might say saying is that, no, actually, people are what they call spatial or downsy respondents. That is they really do sit at the kind of center of the political spectrum, and it is the case then that their views are reasonably moderate, in which case we would expect them to offer a set of both liberal and conservative answers when you look across policy, different policy items. And they estimate a whole bunch of statistical models, these what are called mixture models, in order to disentangle these three possibilities.

And what they find is that the evidence overwhelmingly points towards people being moderate in their ideological orientation, that they are in fact downsy and spatial respondents. They have policy views that can be mapped onto a single dimension. They’re not just flipping coins but that are reasonably moderate. What they find is that somewhere between 60 and 80% of the American public, depending upon which survey that they look at, can be characterized in this way. And there’s really good work coming out that Andy Hall and [inaudible 00:21:35] and others have done that show that when moderates run in the general election, they do better than do people who are extremists.

Andy Hall: I think a lot of more moderate people have been just bombarded with New York Times and Vox explainer pieces about how everyone’s so polarized, and a lot of it’s not true. There’s a lot of voters out there who are not that extreme.

William Howell: So, when there’s a moderate on the ballot all else equal, they’re going to secure a larger portion of the vote share than when there’s an extremist.

Paul Rand: Well, let’s push on that part a little bit, because we may be still moderates as a society in a majority of cases. It certainly doesn’t feel that way at the legislative level, where it’s really the more extreme voices that get a lot of the attention. And it almost seems like those are the candidates who are running for office or getting elected to office.

William Howell: And that’s the puzzle. How did that come to be? If there are rewards, electoral rewards from moderation, we ought to see plenty of moderates occupying seats in Congress, and yet we don’t. So, how is that? Andy Hall’s story has to do with who actually decides to run. It’s that moderates by and large aren’t running.

Andy Hall: And so you might be in a situation where voters actually want to support more moderate candidates, but they’re just not getting the chance to. It’s not that different from thinking in economics about supply and demand.

William Howell: And then the question is why. To that, you could point towards this politics just being a less and less attractive job. It requires-

Paul Rand: Right.

William Howell: ... you to spend all your time raising funds. It requires you to be subject to all kinds of scrutiny and contempt. And in our politics, which are as largely dysfunctional, where it’s hard to get anything meaningful done, pragmatic centrist, don’t look upon this and think this is how I want to spend my days. And so because of that, the only people or disproportionally the people who then step forward are extremists, and that’s who the electorate has to choose between.

Andy Hall: I think all of this rhetoric coming out of political science in the policy world that massively overstates how polarized Americans are, I think that’s having its own effects on the decisions of people to run.

William Howell: The story here is not that we all agree. The story rather is that, boy, there are a lot more moderates in the mass public than there is among elites, one. And two, even across difference among the mass public, it’s possible to lift up facts that are commonly recognized. And the loss of moderates international politics that can conserve this function of translation and bridge building across difference in the service of actual action is missing from our politics, and that concerns me greatly.

Paul Rand: And Howell says that this in many ways is the crux of what’s driving all the friction in American politics. If most people are moderate, but their elected officials are all on the extreme ends of the spectrum, it causes gridlock and cynicism and anger. It allows the extremists to take up all the oxygen in the room, and it makes our situation seem bleaker, then maybe it needs to be.

William Howell: If the problem we’re trying to solve is that we’ve got extremists occupying our legislatures around the country and a whole lot of moderates who feel unrepresented, that seems pretty key. It seems pretty key, both in terms of lowering the temperature in the room, putting moderates in, allowing for the possibility of Congress actually get something done, right? When you have high levels of polarization and bare majorities, who’s going to be the majority is up for grabs in any given election, the incentives of politicians to bargain and negotiate in good faith go down and gridlock takes hold. Distrust is exacerbated. And we were right. So, how do we break this? When you look up... And you have people who say, well, shoot, I’m going to elect the crazy person, because look, nothing’s going to happen anyway, but at least it’ll be entertaining. At least they’ll stick it to the opposition. That’s not the stuff of a healthy politics.

Andy Hall: If tomorrow, we woke up in a ton of really highly qualified, more modern people started, decided to enter primaries, the people who turn out to vote in primaries could change. The whole system could change in a really noticeable way that would be hard for us to predict.

Paul Rand: Solving that problem though is a tall order, and if Howell is right, it would require a massive restructuring of our political infrastructure.

William Howell: So to the extent that our institutions are set at odds with one another, such that the possibilities for meaningful change are slim to none, we can’t get anything done given how Congress and the President interact with one another. You can’t get anything done. Then centrists who are more pragmatic in orientation look up at that and say, “Why would I be interested in running for that office? Why would I be interested in paying all the costs, both in the form of trying to raise the money for it and all the scrutiny that me and my family is going to be subject to? Why would I do that?” Whereas the extremists say, “Hey, that’s a great platform.”

Paul Rand: Right.

William Howell: “I’m not interested in actually getting anything done. I just want to scream and holler.” And so they’re perfectly willing to run, that the work then of institutional reform, of building institutions that allow for action may be in the service of attracting more moderate, more pragmatic people to run for office at all levels of government.

Paul Rand: So, we’re no means out of the woods, but at least for today, and at least what the data is telling us is there’s a little noise out there, but the threats of, at least in the short and medium term, of its spilling into a broader problem for us, i.e., a civil war is not something that that’s worrying to any overarching degree.

William Howell: That’s what I’m concerned about, and I’m concerned a whole lot about our democracy.

Paul Rand: Yeah.

William Howell: I mean, the concern... I mean, I get the concern for saying... And part of what sits behind the concern about well, we might be going down the road to a civil war or mass violence is meant to be kind of a wake up call for us all. Hey, something-

Paul Rand: Right.

William Howell: Don’t sit on your heels. And I get that and identify with it, but I don’t think it’s helpful over the long haul. It may actually be just the opposite, because insofar as I think that my political opponents are taking up arms, I’ve got greater incentives to take up arms myself. And in this sense, that kind of rhetoric, which even when it’s meant to say, “Hey, let’s take stock of this moment and do something about it,” it could lead us to spiral into a very bad place. And it doesn’t leave space for the hard work of restoring trust in government, which remains very low, of attending to institutional reforms so that they perform better so that the incapacity of our government to solve basic problems strike me as all real threats to democracy, long-term threats for democracy. And that overheated rhetoric, which is not in keeping with the actual threats to our democracy, ultimately doesn’t just distract, it does harm.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is the production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and review. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp and Lea Ceasrine. Thanks for listening.


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