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Who Is Polarized and Un-Persuadable: Politicians or the Electorate?

Comedian and HBO Real Time Host Bill Maher declared on November 4th that the American electorate is unpersuadable. His reasoning is that the populace have formed their “tribes” and have taken their positions. He emphasizes the great polarization of US voters. On his 11/4/22 episode, this was the groupthink of Maher and his guests. One wonders.

Some political scientists call this phenomenon, “pernicious polarization,” a downward spiral of democracy.


1. It may be in the interest of the media to stress polarization. It is exciting. It attracts viewers and money. Washington Post columnist Dana Millbank recently declared that the media was the loser in the 2022 Midterm Election with their propensity to exaggerate using inaccuracies.

2. Politicians, both elected and running, may be polarized possibly because of the political selection process that places them out of sync with the American people.

3. The American people actually have great agreement or commonality on many key issues which could be called 70-30% issues, but are not represented in our elected politicians.

4. There are many other national issues on which the American Electorate is ready to discuss and be persuaded.

US Population or Elected Politicians: Which is the Frame?

One must wonder who is polarized? Is it the American people? Is it the elected and campaigning politicians? Is it the media ever-looking for excitement, the extremes, not necessarily the truth or facts? For the media, excitement translates into ratings and money.

How are US candidates selected? In the old days, the so-called party bosses in back rooms selected the candidates. Maybe “party bosses in smoke-filled rooms” is a negative way to frame. Maybe instead it was wise political leaders selecting the best candidate. Regardless of how it is framed, the US has moved on to the primaries.

Primary Elections: Regrettably, only about 15-25% of registered voters vote in most primaries. Most primaries allow only registered party-affiliated voters to vote. This means that the candidate is chosen by the supercharged voters, possibly the super extreme individual. So today, extreme candidates often win. Then they try to moderate in the general election.

Why is voting so minimal? It is challenging to persuade people to vote for a wide variety of reasons, including the difficulty of voting. These days, the roadblocks to voting are widespread. There are many state voter suppression laws. There is felony disenfranchisement, voter intimidation, and gerrymandering. Then, there are long lines and waits in big cities. Some cities, like DC, have voting sites in churches where some people refuse to mix government and religion. Lastly, if people could vote by phone or internet there would be a dramatic increase in young voters. Some jurisdictions believe that voting by mail is progressive but, the young are not familiar with mailboxes, etc.

All of this means that the US candidates may not be representative of the mass US population. They may not even recognize that many Americans essentially agree on many of the vital national issues.

Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe captures this sentiment:

If you need any more evidence that Washington is radicalized and disconnected from Americans, look no further than the debate over how to limit gun murders.

Just about every voter asked by pollsters since Newtown supports universal background checks. Ninety-two percent of voters in Virginia support that safety measure, as do 95% in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A recent CBS News poll showed that well over 90% of all Americans now support universal background checks.

But since the radical wing of an interest group opposes what almost every American supports, this small group of extremists could rule the day…

It is pathetic and one more reason why I believe Americans will soon begin rising up in protest against the major political parties and the extremism and partisanship they now promote.

There are some ads out to show the dangers of this polarization. An example:

This video showed facts about democratic erosion and footage of political violence in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Russia and Turkey, and then asked “Could it happen here?”

What About Polarization Plus, aka Calcification

Dr. Lynn Vavreck, UCLA political science professor, declares that US is experiencing “polarization plus” or calcification. She explains to Pod Save America host Jon Favreau the four characteristics of calcification:

1. Parties are further apart then ever (aka heterogeneous).

2. Within the parties, folks are more alike than ever (aka homogeneous).

3. There is a shifting of dimensions of the conflict between the parties. In the past, parties argued over New Deal or economic issues. Now, the conflicts are identify-reflected or personal based issues like abortion, immigration, and gay marriage which are much more divisive.

4. Today there is a balance between the parties, almost parity, meaning each party feels that victory is just within reach.

Much Vast Majority Agreement by Americans on National Issues.

Realizing that how the question is asked is pivotal to the answer, there is vast agreement on some of the key general topics. This agreement is so vast it might be called a consensus according to the definition of consensus.

-Fear that democracy is in peril. Ironically, according to a 2022 Quinnipiac poll, 69% of Americans believe that the US democracy is in peril; albeit, for very different reasons. Republicans believe that the Democrats are rigging the elections and the Democrats believe that the Republicans are stealing the elections. Of course, today, the number of unaffiliated voters may number up to 40-50%.

-Confidence in American elections: According to the NBC Poll of voters, 80% of voters have confidence in US Elections. Forty-seven percent felt “very confident” in the fairness and freedom in the process.

-Gun management: Common Sense Leadership Fund reports that 84% of Americans support a package of gun legislation that includes requiring more types of gun sellers to conduct background checks, making those checks comprehensive for people between the ages of 18 and 21, and providing more money for school security.

  • Seventy-nine percent of Americans support giving states financial incentives to implement “red flag” laws which offer a route to temporarily take guns away from people who are threatening violence or experiencing a mental-health crisis.

  • Eighty-six percent favor closing the “boyfriend” loophole which makes it easier for unmarried, non-cohabitating domestic abusers to have access to guns.

  • According to the independent NORC research institution, 58% of those age 45 and older favor a ban on semiautomatic weapons, 31% oppose, and 11% neither favor nor oppose. Among Americans age 18-44, 43% support such a ban, 32% oppose, and 24% neither favor nor oppose.

- Role of government: Most people want less government. They realize that government can play some vital roles that individuals cannot, but government should be limited.

- Taxes: Most people want less taxes. They know that it takes some monies to run the government.

- Wealth Tax: Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a wealth tax of two percent on those holding more than $50 million in wealth and three percent for those holding more than $1 billion. Sixty-one percent of Americans favor this idea, according to Brookings.

- Abortion: Most people want the abortion decision to be between the woman and the doctor. They had grown comfortable with the Roe v. Wade approach to this sensitive area. Most folks wish there were no abortions, but instead adoptions for unwanted babies.

According to the Gallup poll:

  • Thirty-five percent of Americans believe abortion should be allowed under any circumstances

  • Fifty percent of Americans under certain circumstances

  • Only 8% believe abortion should be illegal.

- Policing: Most people want to fund legally operating police, especially in view of the rising crime rate over the past five years.

- Climate Change: Most people want the US to focus and worry about climate change, but not at any expense.

- Death Penalty: According to Pew Research Most people (61%) would rather there not be a death penalty but they realize there may be a few exceptions when a crime is so egregious, so violent that society would be better off without that person.

- LGBTQ+: Most people realize that the LGBTQ+ community is a minority and needs to be protected by the majority. This includes the right to have a family or to marry.

- Ukraine War: Most people believe that the Ukraine War is a war for democracy against an evil dictator.

- Immigration: Most people believe in Legal Immigration and might even want to expand it. They are against the wave after wave of Illegal Immigration. Further, they understand why the illegal immigrants want to flee their country and come to the US. They might also. Nonetheless, most feel that the border is out of control, lawless.

- Marijuana: Most people believe that marijuana is as harmful or harmless as alcohol so legalization makes sense, especially for medicinal purposes. Most people think the war on drugs was a bust. Also, most, believe marijuana should be reclassified. Right now, marijuana is classified as Schedule 1 along with LSD and heroin under the federal Controlled Substance Act . According to Pew, 31% of Americans favor medicinal use of marijuana; 60% medicinal and recreational; and only 8% believe it should not be legalized at all.

- Homeless/Poverty: Most Americans believe the War on Poverty was also a bust. Most believe that the homeless in public spaces is out of control. Those homeless with mental health or physical health issues need government assistance but what about others?

The 1964 War on Poverty spent over $5 trillion dollars of “giveaways” and “handouts” possibly creating an entrenched poverty class from generation to generation. The New York Times officially declared this war a failure in 1998. Albeit the US poverty rate has hovered between 11%-15.2% over the decades.

- Common Sense Ruling: Most want the US to be ruled with Common Sense. Most consider that wokeness has gone way too far, especially pronoun arguments, bathrooms, and sexuality, specifically in elementary schools.

- Most people want laws, rules and regulations to be enforced fairly or get rid of them.

- Most people believe in democracy where everyone gets a fair shot, a fair opportunity. Most do not favor socialistic government or authoritarian.

So, listed above are 14 of the most vital national issues and it is demonstrated that there is a 70-30% or 80-20% agreement. So, who is talking about the polarization? One is the media, who lives off excitement and the second is politicians who use fear to get elected. It is true that fear is a great motivator. The politicians are polarized and maybe not the electorate.

Dramatic Rise in the Independent (Unaffiliated) Voter.

Many are fed up with both political parties and the binary system.

The number of independent voters increasing nationwide coincides with a rise in the number of American voters who are frustrated with their national government. A recent study by the Partnership for Public Service found that 56% of survey respondents said they do not trust the federal government, and 65% believe the government does not listen to the public.

These folks blame the political parties for the polarization.

As a result, some estimate the percentage of independents may hover around 40-50% of the electorate. Gallup estimates that 30% may identify as Democrat and 30% Republican. This may be the lowest percentage of party affiliation in history.

According to candidate Adam Frisch, 3rd U.S. Congressional District-Colorado, unaffiliated voters equal 41% with 31% Republican and 25% Democrat. (Interview with Brian Tyler Cohen 11/12/22)

Independent voters are also referred to as registered unaffiliated voters. This may be the result of more complex and diversified news sources. A huge proportion of unaffiliated voters are millennials and Generation Z. They long to have many choices and to vote on the specific candidate rather than the party.

So, yes, these folks are persuadable.

Other National Issues Where There May Not Be Consensus

-Daylight Savings Time: Is this concept a relic of a bygone era? Does this disrupt the circadian rhythm of life according to some scientists? Is this saving energy? Does this make people safer?

-The lottery: Is a national lottery a form of gambling? Should the national government sponsor gambling? Are the proceeds really going to the schools as was marketed in the beginning?

-Sports gambling: The electorate does seem to be persuadable on this issue.

Sports betting is the activity of predicting sports results and placing a wager on the outcome. The frequency of sports bet upon varies by culture, with the vast majority of bets being placed on association football, American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, track cycling, auto racing, mixed martial arts, and boxing at both the amateur and professional levels. Sports betting can also extend to non-athletic events, such as reality show contests and political elections, and non-human contests such as horse racing, greyhound racing, and cockfighting. It is not uncommon for sports betting websites to offer wagers for entertainment events such as the Grammy Awards, the Oscars, and the Emmy Awards.

Note that California in 2022 resoundingly defeated this idea, but the revenues are alluring.

- Voting: Should undocumented immigrants be allowed to vote? What about teenagers? What about convicted felons who have done their time?

- Updating voting mechanics: Most Americans are open to discussing ranked-choice voting, rethinking the primaries, expanding the House of Representatives, or creating multi-member house districts. (The Washington Post Magazine, 11/6/2022)

Recently, one DC politician received 63,000 votes and was named Council At Large. So this person got 9% of the DC population of 690,000. That seems illogical?

- Policing: Should police be required to have at least 2 years in college?

- Drug legalization: Should US decriminalize all drugs as Portugal did, 21 years ago?

Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it – Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one.

The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program – not jail time and a criminal record.

Today, Portugal has 6 “drug induced deaths per million” versus U.S. equaling 183 per year.

Ineffective Persuasion Tips

People are not persuaded by:

- Arguing

- Silly examples

- Extreme examples. (Remember all the references to the Ohio 14 year-old rape victim who traveled to Indiana for an abortion.)

- Sarcasm or being sardonic.

- Talking loudly or long.

- Lecturing using terms like “You must,” “You should.”

- Being illogical.

Effective Persuasion Tips

The magic formula for effective persuasion is to:

-Appeal to values

-Appeal to logic

-Appeal to emotions

These appeals are then flexed according to the person being persuaded and the subject matter.

Persuaders need to put themselves in the other person’s shoes to discern what would move that person; what would cause that person to flex their views.

The Bono/Senator Jessie Helms example. This is a great persuasion story. Rock singer millionaire Bono took on the US aid to Africa for AIDS issue. He became an expert on data involving this issue. The one person standing in the way of Congressional funding for AIDS in Africa was conservative U.S. Senator Republican Jessie Helms.

Bono met with Helms to persuade him. Bono began with lots of stats. Helms’s eyes glazed over. Bono realized that he needed to flex. He wondered aloud, "What do they have in common?" The love of the Bible. So Bono and Helms began talking about the Bible. Bono compared AIDS to the biblical leprosy. This comparison broke through the wall. At the next Congressional vote, Helms did not block this funding.

What were the persuasion lessons?

-Be creative. Be flexible.

-Remember almost no issue is a right or wrong issue.

-Explore the interests beyond the positions.

-Appeal to commonalities.

-Use metaphors. Use storytelling. Use examples.


Yes, there is polarization and “tribes.” This is primarily viewed with political candidates and elected politicians for a wide variety of reasons. The media with a very low trust level promotes excitement, and polarization is exciting.

John Haidt, Author of Coddling the American Mind claims that the extremists really only constitute 7-8% of the parties and yet garner 90% of the attention. First Term 33 year old Congress Member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez representing the Bronx, NYC, may be a prime example of this disproportionate media focus. She has extraordinary social media presence with more than 7.8 million Twitter followers, more than any other congressional member!

The vast American electorate have vast general agreement on many national issues. With the increasing rise of the unaffiliated voter, there are many other national issues where they can be persuaded.

Former President Barak Obama speech writer Jon Favreau concluded his Pod Save America interview with Dr. Lynn Vavreck, UCLA Political Science Professor.

JF: Persuasion is part of my personality. Persuasion is the only way out of this predicament of division or calcification.

LV: Persuasion is hard and often not sustainable. People who are initially persuaded often return home, feeling more comfortable there. Persuasion may be possible only on the margins, the unaffiliated. An easier way than persuasion is to change the issues over which we fight from identity issues to economic/international issues.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu.

How Identity & Calcification Drove Voters to the Polls | Offline Podcast

Dr. Lynn Vavreck, Professor of Political Science at UCLA, and contributing columnist to The Upshot at The New York Times, sits down with Jon Favreau to talk about 2022 midterms. After 2020, Lynn and her colleagues interviewed over 500,000 voters, leading them to conclude that our politics aren’t just polarized, but calcified. She argues that calcification has placed our politics on a knife’s edge, raising the stakes of every election, and that 2022 was the biggest case of calcification we’ve seen yet.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.


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