Tag Archives: polarization

Votes That Count…

Vox recently had a provocative article advocating “proportional voting,” and claiming that the institution of such a voting system would solve two of America’s thorniest political problems: partisan polarization and the number of “wasted” votes.

A bit of background: we currently have an electoral system in which–as the article says– your vote is far more likely to shape Congress if you live in Des Moines than if you live in San Francisco.(Rural votes also count more than urban ones for President, thanks to the Electoral College.) The system thus undermines accountability and vastly increases polarization.

Polarization is often described in terms of red states and blue states, but it is a significant problem at the Congressional-district level across all the states. It’s also a more complex story than is usually suggested: Gerrymandering, or the partisan redrawing of district lines — a frequent object of complaint on the left —- has undoubtedly helped make some districts more unshakably Republican. (Democrats play the gerrymandering game, too, but they have had less opportunity.)

This polarization could be addressed by moving more liberal city-dwellers to more rural areas of the country, or ridding ourselves of the Electoral College–remedies that will be instituted right after hell freezes and pigs fly.

On the other hand, we might be able to pass the Fair Representation Actintroduced by Democratic Representative Don Beyer of Virginia. If passed, that Act would change our current voting system to one of proportional representation.

Whatever the causes of polarization, there is a relatively straightforward solution to our current predicament that has been embraced by most advanced industrial democracies: proportional representation. There are many versions of this approach, but they all involve some way of electing multiple people, at once, to represent a region. In a proportional system, parties representing as little as 1 percent of the electorate can gain representation, though the most stable systems usually have a threshold percentage level to prevent truly marginal parties from gaining seats. The regions can be as large as an entire nation — but even when they are smaller they tend to be larger than the 435 tiny US congressional districts, each of which is run according to the “winner take all” principle.

Under a proportional system, if you want to live in a big, liberal city in a liberal state, you don’t give up the chance to make a difference with your vote. There is also very little possibility for consequential gerrymandering in proportional representation systems, since districts tend to be so big that there’s not much to gain from alternative line-drawings.

Proponents of this approach point out that it makes third parties more viable, which means that more parties are competing for voters. They also note that because voters feel that their votes actually matter, proportional representation systems tend to have higher voter turnout.

The problem this proposal aims to cure is very real: thanks to residential “sorting” and gerrymandering, in today’s America only about one in 20 of us lives in a place that is likely to have a competitive House election.

The reality of the problem is one thing; whether proportional voting–or multi-member districts–is the right solution is another. In my state, we moved away from multi-member districts in order to increase accountability; at the time, the argument was that larger districts and multiple representatives attenuated the relationship between representatives and those they served.

I’m not sure what changes are most likely to be effective, let alone able to be adopted. I do know that America is no longer either a democracy or a republic. We can’t go on much longer with a “system” this dysfunctional, and “band-aid” prescriptions are unlikely to be effective.

What to do?


Revisiting the Big Sort

A recent article posted to the website of the Niskanen Center  corroborated a depressing theory that I have entertained over the past several years.

The United States is not very united.

Americans have been sorting themselves along ideological lines into like-minded regions of the country, increasing polarization in congressional voting patterns, and creating a striking division in political preference and party loyalty between city-dwellers and the denizens of low-density exurban and rural counties.

Population patterns matter; they also defeat truly representative government. The United States has considerably more Democratic than Republican voters, but the Democrats are  concentrated in a handful of Democrat-heavy cities and states; Republicans, on the other hand, are spread relatively thinly but evenly across the non-urban regions of the country.

Add gerrymandering, and the Republican electoral advantage becomes overwhelming.

What does the urban/rural divide look like?

Because America’s highly-schooled creative, political, academic, and business classes tend to cluster in liberal cities, the town-and-country split corresponds to a rough class distinction between so-called “elites” and non-urban non-elites. Underline “rough” here.

People of color number heavily among urban non-elites, and tend to vote with (mostly white) urban elites, so it’s wrong to conflate the town-and-country divide with the elite/ordinary folks divide. Many, many millions of ordinary Americans aren’t white and live in big cities. That said, the United States will remain a white-majority, white-dominated country for another few decades. Populist anti-elitism, as it has manifested itself behind Trump, seems to me largely a reaction of non-city-dwelling whites against urban whites and the cosmopolitan, multicultural conception of American identity they affirm.

But let me repeat that “white people who don’t live in cities” is not remotely the same thing as “the people,” most of whom do live in densely populated metropolitan areas, and many of whom are African-American, Asian, and Hispanic. And it’s important to clarify further that “white people who don’t live in cities” is also not remotely the same thing as “the white working class,” as there are many millions of non-urban, white people with college degrees and upper-class incomes. The ruling political, business, and cultural classes in Republican-dominated places like to pretend that they’re “just folks,” too, but they aren’t. They’re elites.

The point being made is important, because many pundits continue to focus on economic distress as the reason for the urban/rural divide. The theory is that poor rural residents resent the comparative affluence of their urban counterparts. A number of studies conducted after the election, however, have reached the same conclusion as the author of this article–Trump voters actually were economically better off on average than Clinton voters. (They were not, however, from regions that were as economically productive–and as the article explains in the conclusion, that matters.)

The author notes a variety of efforts to explain the personality differences between liberals and conservatives, before concluding that evidence confirms the “big sort” first identified by Bill Bishop.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

To make matters worse, as Cass Sunstein’s work on group deliberation shows, we tend to radicalize in the direction of our predispositions when we’re surrounded by people who already agree with us. In short, we’re moving into bubbles of people who resemble us and an echo chamber effect pushes our opinions to extremes.

If this were the whole story, America’s future would be grim indeed, but as the author notes, entire cultures tend to become more liberal in their attitudes over time. The content of conservative ideology has changed–liberalized–over my own lifetime, and the article delves into the reasons for that phenomenon.

It also explains how and why improving economic productivity liberalizes social beliefs and values–and notes that, in the U.S. at this particular moment in time, “Clinton” counties are far more productive than “Trump” counties.

The United States may be dividing into two increasingly polarized cultures: an increasingly secular-rational and self-expression oriented “post-materialist” culture concentrated in big cities and the academic archipelago, and a largely rural and exurban culture that has been tilting in the opposite direction, toward zero-sum survival values, while trying to hold the line on traditional values…For a certain group of Americans, liberalizing post-materialist cultural change has been ongoing. For another, it has stalled or reversed.

To (partially) sum up:

A shrinking number of counties is accounting for a rising proportion of America’s wealth. Partisan affiliation is breaking along this population/productivity divide in a way that suggests that America’s moral and political culture has been polarizing along this divide, as well. Given the specific counter-majoritarian mechanisms in the U.S. constitution, this is a recipe for political dominance of the less economically productive conservative white minority, who control most of the country’s territory, over the liberal multicultural majority who live in increasingly concentrated urban centers of wealth. To the extent that increasing economic security is liberalizing and stagnation and decline tend toward an illiberal, zero-sum survival mindset, this amounts to a recipe for the political imposition of relatively illiberal policy on increasingly liberal and increasingly economically powerful cities. This is not a stable situation, and bodes ill for the future of American freedom.

The rest of the (very long) article considers why this is happening, and a subsequent article by the same author suggests policies that might ameliorate the divide. Both are well worth reading and considering–although I suggest accompanying that endeavor with a stiff drink.

Advice and Consent and Gerrymandering

Sometimes, it’s illuminating to connect the dots.

Senate Republicans are refusing to hold hearings to consider a nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, and I have been critical of that refusal (by “strict constructionists,” no less) to discharge their constitutional duty. A reader emailed to say the Democrats would probably do the same if the political roles were reversed; I replied that I hoped they would at least be more subtle about it—go ahead and have hearings, and then reject the nominee.

His essential point, of course, was that both parties’ excessive partisanship and the polarization that characterizes today’s politics threatens our ability to govern ourselves, and he’s right.

One of the reasons for that excessive partisanship is gerrymandering. (And yes, I know that Senate seats cannot be gerrymandered. Bear with me here.)

I have posted for years about the anti-democratic effects of gerrymandering. As I have repeatedly noted, gerrymandering contributes to political polarization and gridlock; in safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left.

Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively on the Republican side— an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

In a post to SCOTUSblog considering the current standoff and potential nominees, Tom Goldstein makes two points in passing that illuminate this toxic situation. Noting that the political parties are in “a deadly embrace from which neither will easily budge,” he says

The administration feels a constitutional responsibility to press for the confirmation of a nominee and every political advantage in doing so. Republicans cannot accede to that effort because their base will not permit it.

After suggesting that the GOP will eventually choose to pursue the “slow walk and reject” option, he predicts that Senate Republicans will vote to reject “essentially as a block. Any other course than a decisive vote against the nominee invites a certain primary challenge from conservatives in the next election.” (emphasis mine)

What gerrymandering has done is radicalize the political bases. It is naive to assume that the consequences of that radicalization are confined to carefully-drawn, noncompetitive state legislative districts and House Districts.

Making matters worse, many of the most impassioned members of those radicalized bases—in both parties—have very tenuous understandings of  how American government actually works, let alone the country’s history or constitutional principles. They are ripe for demagoguery and bumper-sticker slogans.

They are the electorate that gerrymandering has helped to create, and they are the electorate to which Senate Republicans are pandering.

Connect the dots.






Are You a Member of My Tribe?

There’s a lot of research confirming the human tendency to sort other humans into tribes–to distinguish between those who are “us” and those who are “them.” Historically, those categories have primarily–albeit not exclusively–been based on race and religion.

Now, evidently, many of us are basing our tribal identities on partisan affiliation. According to a recent article at Vox,

In 1960, Americans were asked whether they would be pleased, displeased, or unmoved if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party.

Respondents reacted with a shrug. Only 5 percent of Republicans, and only 4 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset by the cross-party union. On the list of things you might care about in child’s partner — are they kind, smart, successful, supportive? — which political party they voted for just didn’t rate.

Fast forward to 2008. The polling firm YouGov asked Democrats and Republicans the same question — and got very different results. This time, 27 percent of Republicans, and 20 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party. In 2010, YouGov asked the question again; this time, 49 percent of Republicans, and 33 percent of Democrats, professed concern at interparty marriage.

What makes this partisan tribalism puzzling is the fact that public opinion on the various issues that confront us are not particularly polarized; opinion surveys show most Americans remaining firmly centrist (depending upon how one defines that term) when asked their positions on  specific issues.  And yet, party affiliation has become a form of personal identity that divides “us” from “them.”

[P]arty affiliation wasn’t simply an expression of our disagreements; it was also becoming the cause of them. If Democrats thought of other Democrats as their tribe and of Republicans as a hostile tribe, and vice versa, then the consequences would stretch far beyond politics — into things like, say, marriage.

And the data was everywhere. Polls looking at the difference between how Republicans viewed Democrats and how Democrats viewed Republicans now showed that partisans were less accepting of each other than white people were of black people or than black people were of white people.

The Vox article describes several experiments that confirmed this partisan bias, some in ways that were deeply troubling. (People awarded jobs or scholarships to less-qualified applicants who shared their partisan affiliation, for example.)

What is driving this phenomenon? Obviously, there is no single cause, but the article does note the role of media:

There are no major cable channels devoted to making people of other races look bad. But there are cable channels that seem devoted to making members of the other party look bad. “The media has become tribal leaders,” he says. “They’re telling the tribe how to identify and behave, and we’re following along.”

Evidently, most of us have a need to despise some “other,” and if the culture frowns upon using race or religion as the operative distinction, some number of us will substitute party.

Others, of course (Trump, Cruz, Pence, et al) will stick with the old standbys of race, religion and national origin.

Evidently, we humans aren’t hard-wired to see other people simply as individuals.

Turning Over the Rocks?

In response to yesterday’s blog post about residential “sorting,” one of this blog’s regular readers sent me a report about a study that confirmed that sorting, but also confirmed a disquieting element of contemporary American life:

According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.

“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. “

The study’s conclusions mirror my own research, and I’m persuaded that they are accurate, but I think the quoted paragraphs raise a different–and even more troubling– question.

Is our brave new world of Internet interactivity and social media eroding those “social norms”?

I recently had this discussion with the editor of a local “niche” paper. He was bemoaning the tone and content of comments left on the publication’s website, and posited that the ability to speak without having to identify oneself–the ability to remain anonymous or at least feel that you are shielded by the medium–has weakened those social norms, and thus our reluctance to share unpopular and socially disfavored opinions.  The expression of bigotries has become less constrained. (The recent Facebook rant by Charlotte Lucas is just one of hundreds of examples.)

There’s no doubt that online nastiness is at its worst when the discussion is political, but it is also increasingly–and distressingly– common to come across racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic sentiments as well.

The real question, I suppose, is: has the Internet simply operated to shine a light on the nastiness? Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?

Or has the ability to go online and find fellow bigots who will confirm your resentments and displaced hostilities actually increased their numbers?

I don’t know. But I worry….