A second process that can polarize groups is persuasive argumentation. When a majority of the group or powerful individuals in the group hold a moderate viewpoint, they will choose to present certain selective arguments for their point of view and will often choose not to present any opposing arguments. Further thoughts on and discussion of the particular opinion will bring about additional persuasive arguments, which will then move the group in a more extreme direction. This can have an escalating effect, as extreme viewpoints tend to be less tractable and more confidently held, so the group eventually ends up with considerably more extreme collective opinion compared to the opinions each of the group members initially held. Persuasive arguments, of course, need not be sound arguments and could even be arguments infiltrated by threats, propaganda or lobbyism. As the term indicates, arguments are persuasive when we perceive them as sound or as salient in a memorable or vivid way.
Events preceding the 2013 Government shutdown serve as a good example of persuasive argumentation processes. The Constitution requires that Congress approve Government spendings in legislation (appropriations legislation). When the opposing chambers of Congress fail to agree to the distribution of funds for an upcoming fiscal year, it is common to extend existing laws (a so-called continuing resolution). However, if Congress fails to reach an agreement about extending the existing law about Government spending at the end of the fiscal year on September 30, there is a so-called “funding gap,” and the Constitution requires that the government shuts down to avoid defaulting on public debt.
As early as in 2010 Republican activists and politicians were planning a Government shutdown as a strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and cut Government spendings. After a failure to reach that result on several occasions, concerted efforts were made toward making it happen starting in January 2013. Billionaire Koch brothers funded conservative activists to work with tea party members of Congress in order to advertise an appropriation bill that would defund Obamacare.
This sort of funded political activism is a quintessential case of persuasive argumentation that occurs as a result of repetition, emphasis, propaganda and lobbyism. When people are exposed to persuasive argumentation for what is considered a desirable outcome, their viewpoint is likely to move in that general direction, resulting in an overall more extreme group opinion. This was exactly what happened in the events preceding the 2013 Government shutdown. For example, tea party affiliated politicians managed to use persuasive argumentation to convince nineteen Senators to sign a letter calling for defunding of Obamacare prior to the Government shutdown.
In my final post tomorrow I will address the differences between group polarization in face-to-face groups and Internet groups.