Attitudes, Advocacy and Polarization: The New Iron Triangle of American Public Policy

43 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2009 Last revised: 10 Jun 2010

See all articles by Roger L. Conner

Roger L. Conner

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Patricia J. Jordan

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: October 12, 2009


This article suggests a new explanation for the growth of polarization in U.S. public policy disputes - the increasing tendency for disagreements over policy (as distinguished from elections) to escalate to the point that competing groups talk past each other, unwilling (or unable) to listen or to concede that “They” might have a point.

The authors suggest that excessive polarization is the result of a sub-optimal solution to a Schelling “convention problem.” Due to changes in the structure and extent of public participation in policy debates, the conventions (informal, tacit rules) that define how “decent” people “should” carry on public policy advocacy are to the body politic as lightening is to a drought-stricken forest.

The article arrives at this surprising conclusion by analyzing research from two different fields. From social psychology it finds that negative and positive “attitudes,” when they become strong, distort cognition in ways that generate extreme and entrenched thinking about the “other” side. Attitudes are a primary cause of polarized thinking, not merely an effect. Such attitudes are far more likely to develop when conversations occur primarily among like-minded people. Unfortunately, according to scholars from public policy studies, while the number of people involved in policy advocacy has grown to historically unprecedented levels in recent years, conversations increasingly occur within “advocacy coalitions,” vast, superficially diverse networks of people and groups with similar world views, policy beliefs and value priorities.

Under these conditions the dominant conventions for policy advocacy dating back to the 1970s - name them, blame them, shame them - inherently, systematically generate polarization among involved citizens. In the immortal words of Pogo, “We have found the enemy, and he is us.” This analysis, if correct, requires scholars and practitioners to reassess what is now understood as “good” or “effective” public policy advocacy.

Keywords: polarization, attittudes, attitude, advocacy, policy, public policy, conflict, conflict resolution, civility, incivility, division, divisiveness, politics, group, neuroscience, social psychology, psychology, interest groups, faction

JEL Classification: D63, D70, D71, D74, D78, H10, H11, L30, L31, L39, Z10

Suggested Citation

Conner, Roger L. and Jordan, Patricia J., Attitudes, Advocacy and Polarization: The New Iron Triangle of American Public Policy (October 12, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Roger L. Conner (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615-343-3207 (Phone)
615-469-3207 (Fax)

Patricia J. Jordan

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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