Dr. Sam Abrams is out to disrupt politics — with data. His findings? We may not be as divided as the national news media tells us we are.
As a Professor of Political Science at Sarah Lawrence College, a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Abrams is well-versed in the political catastrophe that is befalling the American electorate. But, he is also uniquely positioned to find the trends, hidden in plain sight, which never make it into the news.
Abrams is not your run-of-the-mill academic — his experience far surpasses his years. One of his key goals is to blend academic ideas into non-academic settings in order to better spread critical ideas to those who can actually champion them. Abrams sat down with IVY magazine to discuss which ideas will matter most to the next generation of voters. Here are his top four insights.
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We’re not as different as we think, and the data is here to prove it.
As an undergraduate at Stanford University in 2000, Abrams questioned the narrative of “blue states versus red states”, and challenged the perspective that we were engulfed in an American culture war between liberals and conservatives. Abrams sums up this generalization:
“We are told that red state residents are more likely to be evangelicals, gun owners, country music devotees, beer drinkers, and NASCAR fans, whereas blue-state residents are more likely to be agnostics or atheists, Volvo drivers, supporters of the fine arts, chardonnay sippers, and people who sail.”
Working with Dr. Morris Fiorina, he explored a simple question: “Are we as deeply divided as the media claims?” After crunching the data he found there was very little, if any, disagreement on topics like abortion in both conservative and liberal states. He found that these differences amounted to as little as 10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.053106.153836">one percentage point on a scale of political affiliation, from liberal to conservative.
“Initially, I didn’t believe it,” he explained, as his findings went against everything major news outlets claimed. But the data doesn’t lie. This experiment was the catalyst for a much greater project, one that now seeks to explore the questions: “What are the actual numbers behind what Americans think? Can data then change our decision-making?”
Avoid the dangers of the Echo Chamber.
Media is always hungry for the next story. As a result, issues are often blown out of proportion, giving the appearance of deep political divisions.
“Narratives and stories… are how you move mountains,” Abrams observed. “It’s how you move armies. A story and a converging myth can coalesce groups around passions and goals. But the press never deals with the data.” He added, “Negative campaigns work; positive ones don’t. As a result, we’ve encouraged a sense of narcissism and a lack of perspective among politicians and voters.”
An article Abrams penned for the Washington Post offers this sobering trend:
“Americans can choose from hundreds of partisan news sources, many of which care more about arousing emotions than hewing to journalistic standards. This proliferation of sources interacts with the most notorious problem in human cognition: the confirmation bias. People rarely seek out evidence on both sides before making a decision on moral and political matters. Rather, they begin with their initial belief and then seek out evidence to confirm it.”
You MUST seek out new perspectives.
One of Abrams’ greatest fears is a growing trend of “never-ending disengagement” by new generations of potential voters. It turns out that only 30% of the electorate is intimately involved in politics and has an outsized influence on its tone and direction.
“Liking something on social media doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “You still have to vote to engage.” How then can we counter growing disengagement from politics? His answer, “Seek out as many different perspectives as you can.”
“I take my students to Trump and Sanders rallies to push them to question their assumptions,” Abrams noted. His hope is that this will help shift their perspectives, since America’s youth are key to breaking the cycle.
“Things need to get worse before Americans wake up,” he added ominously. “It has to be a blow to our standing in the world. Never has dissatisfaction with the government been so high, and that’s quite shocking.”
Most importantly, by exposing ourselves to many points of view, we can avoid these tendencies.
Be aware of context.
Events such as 9/11 and the rise of Trump have pushed us to reassess who we are and what role we intend to play in the world.
“Throughout our history as a nation, we’ve been trying for centuries to figure out how different people, different creeds can live together,” Abrams explained. “ “What we can do as leaders and educators is remind Americans that there is a context, that these political ideas and passions are not new.”
An interesting exercise that he repeatedly uses in his courses is to look at census forms from the 1940s, when major immigrant populations were established in cities like New York. During that era, “You wouldn’t be white, you’d be Hungarian, Jewish, Irish, or Bulgarian.” These terms showed that even then we struggled to define what it meant to be an “American.” This was one example of a process of figuring how different peoples, creeds, and ideas could coexist with each other.
He points out, “We are still part of the Grand American Experiment,” and the fact that our country is still trying to question itself is a sign of hope and optimism for a different future.
Political Segregation: The Big Sort – The Economist
The Big Sort (Book Review) – The New York Times
Americans Aren’t Polarized, Just Better Sorted – Washington Post
Why Are Your Neighbors Just Like You – The Atlantic
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