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December 30, 2021 Articles

America’s Polarized Landscape and Juries

Our research underscores the importance of looking at variables such as social trust, willingness to compromise, and the priority assigned to values such as empathy, authority, and loyalty.

By Daniel Vallone

In the past several years, political polarization has gone from an abstract issue debated by political scientists to a kitchen table issue millions of Americans experience on a regular basis. From disputes over masks to disagreements over what to teach in school, it can feel at times that Americans are divided into two camps that have irreconcilable differences on every issue. With such intense divisions, the notion that a diverse group of American citizens could work together on a jury to render an impartial decision seems daunting, if not impossible.

Fortunately, the reality is not quite so bleak. Although many Americans hold deeply polarized views and attitudes, most continue to hold more flexible, less ideological orientations toward politics and society in general. A critical challenge for those involved in collective endeavors, such as the jury process, is to engage people in ways that better navigate the realities of polarization and make it more likely that Americans can constructively work together.

Why We Think We Are a 50-50 Country

More in Common, the nonprofit where I work, has been studying polarization in America for the past three years. In 2018, we published a national report, Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, where we used a large (8,000-person) national survey to segment Americans into seven distinct groups. We used a unique segmentation approach in that we clustered Americans based on how they responded to about 40 questions that asked about their core beliefs—the values, identities, and beliefs that most strongly influence their overall orientation toward society and people in general.

The seven segments each have a unique persona; however, we also identified a stark distinction between what we call the “wings” and the “Exhausted Majority.” The wing segments (one with a more liberal orientation and two with more conservative orientations) are highly engaged in politics and hold strong views with little willingness to compromise. They are vocal and active on social media, and their views are the ones most evident in major news coverage of any given issue.

In contrast, the Exhausted Majority—encompassing roughly two-thirds of Americans—hold less rigid views and are more willing to compromise. The four segments that constitute the Exhausted Majority are ideologically and demographically diverse, and they are not centrists; however, they share a common sense of frustration with the division in society. Unlike the wing segments, the Exhausted Majority are eager for a politics that is more anchored in common ground and compromise.

The Exhausted Majority and the wing segments also differ in how they see their political opponents. In 2019, More in Common published a second report, Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart. In a national survey, we asked individuals what they believed on a range of issues and then what they thought their political opposites believed on those issues. We then calculated the gap between what people actually believe and what people think others believe, which we call the perception gap. For example, the data showed that on average Republicans believe that only 44 percent of Democrats support the right to bear arms when in fact 68 percent of Democrats hold this view, a perception gap of 24 percentage points. The research showed the members of the wing segments have the largest perception gaps, meaning they most significantly overestimate the proportion of their political opposites who hold extreme views—the wing segments have an average perception gap of 29 percentage points, whereas the Exhausted Majority segments have an average perception gap of only 16 points.

Implications for the Jury Process

Although there are many elements of the jury process that are unique, there are also several implications from More in Common’s research for those involved in the process.

The first insight is that it is important to seek a deeper understanding of individuals’ values and beliefs. It is common today to assume that if we know how someone voted or where they are from geographically, for example, that we understand them as people. Our research underscores the importance of breaking from these habits and looking at variables such as social trust, willingness to compromise, and the priority assigned to values such as empathy, authority, and loyalty. The segmentation typology found in our Hidden Tribes report is a helpful guide for applying this sort of lens, which helps to see nuance where we might otherwise cluster people into ideological camps.

The second insight is that to mitigate polarization, it is important to cultivate the conditions that enable the Exhausted Majority to play a larger role in the process. In any collective setting, members of the wing segments are more inclined to speak up and assert their perspective. Encouraging and enabling members of the other segments to participate and set the tone for the group can create a healthier environment for thoughtful deliberation.

There is no simple formula for mitigating the influence of polarization on any collective endeavor. A place to start, however, is by seeking a more nuanced understanding of people’s identities and views.

Finding Nuance among the Noise During Jury Selection

As highlighted in our Perception Gap report, one of the features of societal polarization is the tendency for individuals to develop narrow, often inaccurate pictures of people who are different from them. This underscores the importance of gathering information during jury selection that brings to the surface more complex profiles of potential jurors. Such information could include elements of people’s core beliefs such as group identity, sense of threat, parenting styles, and sense of personal agency and responsibility. Questions that seek such information—for example, asking individuals whether they feel the world is primarily a safe place with pockets of instability or primarily an unsafe place with pockets of stability—can help provide much greater insight into underlying drivers of attitudes and behaviors. The answers to such questions will also reveal much more nuance than answers to questions that get at surface-level thoughts, such as their opinions on contemporary political issues.

Another important domain of information to consider for jury selection is trust. In our 2021 study, Two Stories of Distrust in America, we found that only 37 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “most people can be trusted.” Conversely, 74 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “I feel like we can’t count on the people around as much as we used to.” A majority (55 percent) even agreed with the statement that “other Americans are either with me or against me.” These top lines indicate the magnitude of the general crisis in trust that America faces; however, our research identified two distinct stories of distrust: ideological and social.

The story of ideological distrust primarily involves highly political Americans—More in Common’s wing segments. These segments of the population tend to be better educated, have higher incomes, and in general report stronger ties to community relative to less political Americans. However, highly political Americans exhibit stark levels of distrust along ideological lines. For example, among Progressive Activists (the most liberal, highly politically engaged segment of Americans profiled in Hidden Tribes), 68 percent feel that MSNBC, CNN, and the New York Times “tell the full story,” but only 2 percent feel this way about Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Daily Wire. For such Americans, trust tends to shift based on where an institution or individual is located on the ideological spectrum.

In contrast, the story of social distrust more strongly describes the experiences of less politically engaged Americans. This story is much less about ideology and is rooted in experiences of belonging, dignity, and equality (or lack thereof). For example, 34 percent of Americans say, “there is no community to which I feel a strong sense of belonging.” This feeling of a lack of belonging strongly predicted trust levels toward the federal government, underscoring the connections between social distrust and trust toward institutions more generally. Given that a threshold level of trust is critical for cooperative behavior, these findings highlight the value of understanding potential jurors’ baseline orientation on trust.

The specific lines of inquiry most relevant for jury selection will vary depending on the situation; however, the underlying principle is that in a highly polarized society, it is critical to craft questions that generate more nuanced personas for potential jurors. By bringing to light more of an individual’s core beliefs and how that individual experiences trust, it is possible to cut through some of the noise generated by polarization. Such an approach may also make it more feasible to identify themes that cut across people of diverse backgrounds and views—threads that might help form a more cohesive group able to discuss, debate, and deliberate in a healthy, thoughtful manner.

Daniel Vallone is a director with More in Common in New York City, New York.

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