Nudging Polarization

March 24th, 2023
In a polarized political environment like the US, ideas that start out neutral often end up aligned with one side or the other. In cases where there's an important idea or policy that's currently neutral, and multiple potential implementations that are also neutral, it would be much better to get polarization around which implementation to choose than on the core idea. Is there anything we can do to make this more likely?

Let's look at an example where this didn't happen: covid vaccination in the US ended mostly liberal-aligned. This was pretty unfortunate: the vaccines are very effective against death, and a lot of people died essentially because they had the bad luck to be part of a constituency that ended up opposed to them. This could have gone the other way: Operation Warp Speed came very close to getting out a vaccine before the 2020 election, there was a lot of talk among liberals about how they didn't trust a rushed Trump vaccine. If vaccination had ended up conservative-aligned instead, though, we'd have had the same downsides in the other direction; not an improvement.

But what if somehow we'd ended up with the mRNA vaccines (new, progress) as liberal-aligned and the adenovirus ones (traditional, reliable) as conservative-aligned? With vaccines for both sides of the political spectrum we'd likely have seen a lot more adoption and fewer deaths.

Or consider germicidal UV-C light, which is potentially valuable in reducing risk from future pandemics because it can purify air without noisy fans. There are two main approaches:

  • Upper room: shine it well above people's heads. Since it's not hitting people it's ok to use frequencies and levels that would be bad if they. This is the traditional approach, which pre-covid was mostly only still used in special-purpose medical settings like TB wards. Sometimes called "254" because that's the peak frequency low-pressure mercury lights produce, though if we were deploying this widely we'd probably use LEDs around 265nm.

  • Whole room: shine it down from the ceiling. You can't do this with 254nm, but with higher frequency light like 222nm (from KrCl) it should be safe to shine on people. Needs more research, but very promising.

It would be unfortunate if UV-C in general ended up politically aligned, where a large portion of the country wouldn't use it. But if, say, upper-room ended up conservative-coded (cost-effective, reliable, strong track record) and whole-room ended up liberal-coded (innovative, strategic investment will bring down cost, marginalized groups are more likely to have lower ceilings where 254 doesn't work) that would be a lot better. I'd love to see the debate:

D: Recent advances in science have given us a new weapon in the fight against disease: 222nm. This promising new technology can safely and effectively inactivate viruses and bacteria in the air and on surfaces. Putting 222nm to work in our schools, restaurants, businesses, and churches can help ensure we're ready for the next pandemic while protecting us from the seasonal infections that kill far too many of our vulnerable every year. By investing in innovation and the technologies of tomorrow, we stand poised to revolutionize public health for the better.

R: My opponent would rather sell you on science fiction fantasies than deploy the practical solutions we have right now, preferring utopian dreams over hard facts. They want to invest your money the pie-in-the-sky vaporware of 222nm, when 254nm is ready to fight for us today. The truth is 254nm is cheap, it's safe when used properly, and it's proven to work.

Or imagine if nuclear power had liberals advocating for large-scale thorium molten salt reactors (lower risk than currently operating plants, less waste, don't produce material usable for weapons) while conservatives advocated for small modular reactors (flexible, resilient, building them in low cost-of-living areas means more jobs in red states).

Now, you can't just choose how issues end up aligned; politics isn't an entertainment program where the same script writers are choosing what each side will push, or a system where the leaders of each side secretly meet to decide who'll get to advocate what. But if there are things you can do that make this kind of alignment more likely I think this is worth thinking about.

The main thing that comes to mind is leaving openings for your opponents to agree with you on the main issue while strongly opposing you on the specifics. You pick the solution you think is best and push it hard. Don't talk about how other solutions might also be good, and of you're asked about them point out they ways they're not as good. Leave the field open and people on the other side may see their opportunity. Or they may not, or may disagree for other reasons: this doesn't seem like the kind of strategy you can count on.

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