Tag Archives: partisan polarization

May Your Tribe Decrease

In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:

Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates.

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.

The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.

In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelagothe editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.

According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.

Real World Choices

In 1980, I was the Republican candidate running for Congress against Andy Jacobs, Jr..

Andy was an enormously likable and popular guy, who consistently won in a Republican district.  I never failed to make the point that the most important vote he cast was for Speaker of the House. If voters preferred that the GOP (which then included lots of fiscally-conservative, socially moderate, sane folks) control Congress, they needed to cast their votes accordingly.

It wasn’t a very persuasive argument. People like to believe that individual lawmakers (and Presidents, for that matter) can make more of a difference than they really can. And in all fairness, in 1980 there were a lot of officeholders in both parties who worked across the aisle.

That was then. Paul Krugman recently summarized where we are now.

There has never been a time in American history when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

Krugman goes on to list the vastly different political priorities of today’s Republicans and Democrats, and to offer some reasons for what he calls the greatest partisan polarization since the Civil War.

My own shorthand–my own “litmus test” is simple: I’ve given up voting for the “best candidate,” or even for the “lesser of two evils.”  I vote for the candidate whose party is currently pandering to the least dangerous special interests.

We know who calls the shots in the party of Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. Even if a slightly less rabid nominee emerges, he (it is very unlikely to be a she) will owe his soul to the theocrats and plutocrats of the very far right.

That’s damaging enough in Indiana, as we’ve seen. But it’s truly unthinkable at the national level; among other things, the next President is likely to fill several Supreme Court vacancies.

You don’t have to be thrilled with the Democrats, or a fan of Hillary Clinton (to be candid, I’m neither), to understand your real-world options.