Over the last few decades, the divide between the two major political parties in the United States has deepened. Studies of Congressional voting patterns show that politicians take increasingly polarized positions, and that those positions drift farther and farther apart over time. Not voters, though. Since the 1960s, voters have stayed in the middle, usually preferring centrist or moderate policy
positions over extremes.

This contrast gives rise to a paradox: If voters gravitate toward the center of the political spectrum, why are the parties drifting farther apart? 

At the latest meeting of SFI’s Virtual Science Club on Sept. 16, Vicky Chuqiao Yang, an SFI Omidyar Fellow and Peters Hurst Scholar, showed 40 attendees how dynamic mathematical models can help us make sense of this and other puzzles of politics and voting.

“As part of a growing body of SFI work related to belief dynamics, Vicky uses mathematics to model the impact of different learning, decision-making, and group formation rules on emergent, political outcomes” says Will Tracy, SFI’s Vice President for Applied Complexity. “She also explores predictive models that connect polarization at different levels of political granularity; a topic that is particularly relevant on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.” 

Following the presentation, SFI External Professor Sean Carroll (Caltech) asked about an interesting intersection between Yang’s current projects on group formation and learning rules. Other participants posed questions and conversed on topics related to Yang’s unpublished research on how “us vs. them” dynamics impact moderate voters, and what happens when the majority of voters “follow the crowd.” 

Membership in the Science Club is one of several benefits extended to SFI’s financial supporters at the Emergence Circle level ($1,000) and up. In 2020, meetings moved to a virtual platform, which organizer Alanna Faust, SFI Applied Complexity Associate, says has increased engagement well beyond the immediate Santa Fe community.  

Politics is just one of many topics Science Club members grapple with in direct conversation with leading complexity researchers. Past meetings have delved into climate records, quantum computing, the science of cities, maladaptive medical beliefs, and other captivating regions where science meets society. 

To be part of the conversation and the next scientific advances, go to www.santafe.edu/support.

Read the paper, "Why Are U.S. Parties So Polarized? A 'Satisficing' Dynamical Model" in SIAM Review (August 6, 2020)

Listen to the interview on KSFR public radio (September 1, 2020)

Read the article in The Wall Street Journal (October 19, 2020)