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Across the Great Divide: Political Science Professor Tackles Dueling Facts

Marietta Says Unity Lies in Recognizing Common Goals of Democracy

Assoc. Prof. Morgan Marietta teaches political science at UMass Lowell Photo by Courtesy
Morgan Marietta answers some timely questions on the consequences on belief and the depth of the national divide.

01/27/2021
By David Perry

We are a nation divided. Democrats. Republicans. Polarized. Cleaved.

On everything from race to climate change, from how to repair the economy to how to handle the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are in sharp disagreement.

A study by Pew Research Center showed the depth of the divide a month before November’s election, when roughly eight in 10 registered Trump and Biden voters said a victory by the other candidate would cause “lasting harm” to the nation. 

Morgan Marietta, an associate professor of political science in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, has studied these divides. He specializes in American political rhetoric, political psychology and ideology, and what he calls “the political consequences of belief.” His most recent book, “One Nation, Two Realities,” is a study of dueling fact perceptions, including their causes and consequences. 

We caught up with Marietta recently to discuss our country’s divided body politic and whether unity is possible.  

Q. Over the past four years, we have seen a society cleaved not so much by disagreements on opinions over policies or issues, but by disputes about the very facts themselves. Has our country ever been divided in this way? What is different about this time?

A. The Capitol riots demonstrated the depth of our divided perceptions. In my view, the events of January 6 were in large part driven by dueling fact perceptions — especially about the fairness of the election, but also about whose voices are being suppressed, who is advantaged or disadvantaged in our society, and many other deeply divided perceptions of reality driving the rise of populism.

The fact that people really do see prevailing realities differently has taken some time to sink in. Both the left and the right are recognizing the influence of divided perceptions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, remarked that the Capitol rioters were attempting to “repeal reality,” and Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House, wrote that “conservatives are not disagreeing with the left within a commonly understood world. We live in alternative worlds.”

We have suffered through periods of dueling fact perceptions before. We don’t have to go back to the Civil War, but just to the competing Cold War perceptions of the Soviet Union. But I do think it is different now. Our polarization is more multifaceted and thorough, stretching across culture, religion, political party, information sources, wealth, education, entertainment and now perceived facts. 

We can be utterly separated in nearly every way from someone who lives next door. The power of technology to allow us to communicate only with the like-minded has never been this advanced. And even in the Civil War and Cold War, Americans across the divide still trusted the institutions of knowledge — especially universities — to reveal realities in which they could all trust. That is no longer true and is perhaps one of the least-recognized sources of dueling fact perceptions. 

Q. You’ve researched what you call “the political consequences of belief.” What does that mean?

A. Simply put, ideas have consequences. The beliefs — values and identities, ideologies and perceptions — can be identified, and the consequences — cooperation and conflict, engagement and decline — can be anticipated.

I studied a lot about competing ideologies and values before turning to perceptions of facts. The research summarized in “One Nation, Two Realities” suggests that our perceived facts are often the product of our preferred values. The more confident we are in those values, the more certain we are about facts, even when we should not be.

The available evidence also suggests that dueling fact perceptions are not easily corrected. Fact-checking is generally ineffective in changing factual perceptions. Education more often provides the skills to project our values onto our facts more efficiently. 

Q. President Biden has urged Americans to embrace unity over division. But how does a divided nation achieve unity?

A. I don’t see much future unity around cultural similarity, because we are increasingly culturally distinct in terms of diverse ethnicities, religious beliefs, political values, partisan identities, heroes and scapegoats. So we have to do something quite difficult and rare in human history: achieve unity of purpose in a multiethnic, multireligious, increasingly diverse society. Unity under those conditions can come from a larger shared belief, a more binding identity. 

Historically, that has been an American identity grounded in the concepts that have set us apart from a more totalitarian world: the belief in individual rights, inherent equality, an open society, and maintaining personal liberty while upholding responsibilities and service to the nation.

I believe that recognizing our commonality in American democracy, regardless of other differences, is our strongest path to unity. That means rejecting all forms of extremism, all anti-democratic impulses to deny rights to others or silence our opponents, all forms of violence over voting. 

You asked about Biden in particular. His advantage is that he is universally perceived as a decent man, on which left and right agree even if they don’t like his policies. He must maintain his reputation as a democratic person more than Democrat — constitutional more than partisan — and we may recognize a unity beyond partisanship, above disagreement over facts. 

Q. What happens if we continue on the road we’re traveling?

A. Nothing good. I fear much more separation into distinct camps within American society, which will make us poorer, less empathetic, less willing to sacrifice for the nation. If our internal division, translated into weakness, invites military challenge from a culturally united, confident, and ambitious rising country, then we may be forced to see our commonality through a common enemy. That kind of unity may have great power, as it has before. It has always been democracy that unites us, and it has always been antidemocratic enemies of the Constitution — “all enemies, foreign and domestic” — that have driven us to remember its value.