Tag Archives: polarization

About “Those People” (Political Version)

Long one today…sorry. I’m nervous.

Time Magazine recently published an article exploring recent research on political polarization. It will surprise practically no one to find that the gulf between Republican and Democratic Americans is wide and our mutual animosities bitter, or that we harbor feelings of “distrust, dislike and disdain” for people who belong to the opposing political party.

Researchers point out that at least some of the animosity is based on factual errors: Democrats believe that Republicans are much richer than they really are; Republicans in one study thought that a full third of Democrats were LGBTQ.

The article ended with the usual concerns about the need to dispel the hostility, which the study attributed primarily to three things:  the rise of partisan and social media allowing people to live in information and opinion bubbles (making those with opposing views seem more abnormal); the tendency of political operatives and elites to emphasize “cudgel” social issues, such as abortion or LGBTQ rights, to make members of the other party seem inhumane; and the rise of the political “mega-identity,” where–rather than “big tents”– the parties have become philosophically distinct and internally aligned.

I get all this. We all do. We’ve all seen similar studies, opinion pieces and polls. They all engage in textual hand-wringing: this is an untenable situation, we need to listen to people outside our bubbles, and we need to be less judgmental of those with whom we disagree.

Well and good. But what if there’s another aspect of those current “mega-identities”? One that defies–or at least complicates– those pat admonitions?

Frank Bruni recently wrote a column that summed up my feelings perfectly. It was titled, “After Trump, How Will I Ever Look at America the Same Way?” You really need to read it in its entirety. Here’s his lede:

It’s always assumed that those of us who felt certain of Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016 were putting too much trust in polls.

I was putting too much trust in Americans.

I’d seen us err. I’d watched us stray. Still I didn’t think that enough of us would indulge a would-be leader as proudly hateful, patently fraudulent and flamboyantly dishonest as Donald Trump.

We had episodes of ugliness, but this? No way. We were better than Trump.

Except, it turned out, we weren’t.

Bruni is struggling with the question that has animated far too many of my posts and your comments over these last four years: how could large numbers of Americans, people I’d always considered open-hearted and possessed of decency and common sense, support this ignorant, hateful, utterly pathetic excuse for a man? Bruni says it was a populace he didn’t recognize, or at least didn’t want to recognize, and I had the same reaction.

In a sane and civil country, of the kind I long thought I lived in, his favorability ratings would have fallen to negative integers, a mathematical impossibility but a moral imperative. In this one, they never changed all that much.

Bruni reminds us that Trump didn’t create the people who support him–instead, he tapped into more pre-existing cynicism and nihilism and conspiratorialism “than this land of boundless tomorrows was supposed to contain.” It was already there, burbling beneath the surface.

He didn’t sire white supremacists. He didn’t script the dark fantasies of QAnon. He didn’t create all the Americans who rebelled against protective masks and mocked those who wore them, a selfish mind-set that helps explain our tragic lot. It just flourished under him.

A number of pundits have attributed continued support of Trump to a burning desire by a segment of the country to “own the libs” no matter how damaging to the country. According to National Review’s Rich Lowry, for many on the Right, Trump is “the only middle finger available.”

In a recent column, David Brooks considered the consequences of Trump’s norm-shattering indecencies:

Today, many Trump opponents look at the moral degradation Trump supporters tolerate, the bigotry they endorse or tolerate, and they conclude that such people are beyond the pale. Simultaneously, many Trump supporters conclude that Trump opponents have such viciously anti-American ideas, that they too lack legitimacy. We’ve long had polarization, but we now have in America a crisis of legitimacy, which is a different creature.

The political chasm, the mutual antagonism, and the threat this situation poses to a democratic system are all too real. But “healing” and mutual respect are hard to come by when the gulf really is moral as well as political.

Americans aren’t arguing about differing tax or trade policies. We are arguing about truly fundamental moral and ethical questions: should skin color or religion or gender privilege one’s civic status? Are poor people entitled to medical care? Is America part of a global community, and if so, what does that membership require? Do we have an obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a livable planet? 

As one Republican defector put it, just after voting for Biden,

 I did not vote in this election based on policy. Neither should you. The election of 2020 is about the moral future of the American nation, and so I voted for a good man with whom I have some political disagreements over an evil man with whom I share not a single value as a human being. Trump is the most morally defective human being ever to hold the office of the presidency, worse by every measure than any of the rascals, satyrs or racists who have sat in the Oval Office. This is vastly more important than marginal tax rates or federal judges.

Yes. So–I’m torn.

I do want a country where people respect each other, are kind to each other, give opponents the benefit of the doubt. But I also want a country where most people deserve that respect. Try as I might, I am unable to summon respect for Americans who have lived through the last four years–who have read the tweets, heard the lies, seen the racism, the bizarre behavior, the corruption and ugliness– and still fervently support Donald Trump.

I’ll be worried about how many of those people there are while the votes are being counted.

 

 

Increasing Intensity–For Profit

Remember when Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known unknowns”? It was a clunky phrase, but in a weird way, it describes much of today’s world.

Take social media, for example. What we know is that pretty much everyone is on one or another (or many) social media platforms. What we don’t know is how the various algorithms those sites employ are affecting our opinions, our relationships and our politics. (Just one of the many reasons to be nervous about the reach of wacko conspiracies like QAnon, not to mention the upcoming election…)

A recent essay in the “subscriber only” section of Talking Points Memo focused on those algorithms, and especially on the effect of those used by Facebook. The analysis suggested that the algorithms were designed to increase users’ intensities and Facebook’s profits, designs that have contributed mightily to the current polarization of American voters.

The essay referenced recent peer-reviewed research confirming something we probably all could have guessed: the more time people spend on Facebook the more polarized their beliefs become. What most of us wouldn’t have guessed is the finding that the effect is  five times greater for conservatives than for liberals–an effect that was not found for other social media sites.

The study looked at the effect on conservatives of Facebook usage and Reddit usage. The gist is that when conservatives binge on Facebook the concentration of opinion-affirming content goes up (more consistently conservative content) but on Reddit it goes down significantly. This is basically a measure of an echo chamber. And remember too that these are both algorithmic, automated sites. Reddit isn’t curated by editors. It’s another social network in which user actions, both collectively and individually, determine what you see. If you’ve never visited Reddit let’s also just say it’s not all for the faint of heart. There’s stuff there every bit as crazy and offensive as anything you’ll find on Facebook.

The difference is in the algorithms and what the two sites privilege in content. Read the article for the details but the gist is that Reddit focuses more on interest areas and viewers’ subjective evaluations of quality and interesting-ness whereas Facebook focuses on intensity of response.

Why the difference? Reddit is primarily a “social” site; Facebook is an advertising site. Its interest in stoking intensity is in service of that advertising–the longer you are engaged with the platform, the more time you spend on it, and especially how intensely you are engaged, all translate into increased profit.

Facebook argues that the platform is akin to the telephone; no one blames telephone when people use them to spread extremist views. It argues that the site is simply facilitating communication. But–as the essay points out– that’s clearly not true. Facebook’s search engine is designed to encourage and amplify some emotions and responses–something your telephone doesn’t do.  It’s a “polarization/extremism generating machine.”

The essay ends with an intriguing–and apt–analogy to the economic description of externalities:

Producing nuclear energy is insanely profitable if you sell the energy, take no safety precautions and dump the radioactive waste into the local river. In other words, if the profits remain private and the costs are socialized. What makes nuclear energy an iffy financial proposition is the massive financial costs associated with doing otherwise. Facebook is like a scofflaw nuclear power company that makes insane profits because it runs its reactor in the open and dumps the waste in the bog behind the local high school.

Facebook’s externality is political polarization.

The question–as always–is “what should we do about it?”

 

Are States Outmoded?

Indiana residents who follow state economic trends probably know the name Morton Marcus. Marcus–who sometimes comments here– used to head up a business school think tank at Indiana University, and even though he’s retired, remains a popular public speaker–not just because he is very knowledgable, but because he’s always been willing to speak his mind and share his often “unorthodox” opinions.

When I first joined the faculty at IUPUI, Morton’s office was down the hall, and he would sometimes pop in to discuss those opinions. I still remember a conversation in which he argued that states–whose boundaries have always been artificial–no longer made sense. Instead, he thought the U.S. should be governed through designated areas of economic influence: the Chicago region, the Boston region, etc.

I thought back to that conversation when I read a recent paper issued by the Brookings Institution. Many years later, Brookings scholars have evidently come to the same conclusion.

The paper began by noting the country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by the failure to coordinate governance across local and state lines.

There are a number of ways in which the patchwork of state responses–and the tendency of many Republican governors and legislators to treat the pandemic as a political and economic problem rather than a public health crisis–is leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. The recent majority decision by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court justices to the effect that the state’s Democratic governor lacked the authority to order a uniform state response is just an extreme example of the chaos caused by internal state political struggles.

Even without the politicization of Covid-19, however, state lines complicate government’s response. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the problem during a  briefing about plans to deploy contact tracing:

“If I turn up positive, yeah, my residence is in Westchester County, but I work in New York City, and I would have contacted many more people in New York City than I did in Westchester…If you’re going to do these tracing operations, you can’t do it within just your own county, because you will quickly run into people who are cross-jurisdictional.”

The paper pointed out that the multiple governance dysfunctions caused by state lines aren’t limited to those highlighted by the pandemic:

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, our planning processes formalized many inequities within and across regions, ranging from hospital bed availability to housing inventory to environmental racism…

Before the coronavirus arrived, both established metropolitan regions and “megaregions”—combinations of two or more metro areas—were consolidating at unprecedented levels. This brief presents evidence documenting these trends, and makes the case for new state and federal policy frameworks to address cross-jurisdictional equity problems that emerge when everyday activities happen in a mega-region.

The paper describes the changes in residential and commercial activity over the past decades, resulting in the creation of what the authors call “large polycentric regions, or a “megapolitan America.” Jobs, housing, and consumption now occur across multiple state and municipal jurisdictions. Significant numbers of people commute between cities or town centers. Etc.

The paper describes several of these regions, and the inequities within them, and I encourage those of you who are interested in the data to click through and read the entire paper. But living in Indiana, I was particularly struck by this description of one problem caused by the mismatch between legal jurisdictions and contemporary realities:

The lack of regional governance institutions is particularly problematic for addressing equity problems within regions. For example, a worker may live in a lower-cost municipality and work in a wealthier one. The revenues generated in the wealthy area will not normally support the services available in the worker’s lower-cost neighborhood if it is in a different county.

We have the opposite situation in the Indianapolis region: workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis (where state government agencies and nonprofit statewide organizations occupy roughly 25% of the real estate and are exempt from property taxation), but their taxes go to their already flush home counties.

The Brookings paper provides one more example of an over-arching and increasingly dire problem–the failure of America’s governing institutions to keep pace with contemporary realities. Structures like the Electoral College, the filibuster, the way we conduct and finance elections, and the way we allocate governance responsibilities among local, state and federal authorities are just a few of the systems that no longer serve their intended purposes.

A blue wave in November is an absolutely essential first step toward addressing America’s creaky governing infrastructure.  Given the percentage of voters who remain in the cult that was once the GOP, however, I don’t have high hopes for the thoroughgoing reforms we need.

American Polarization

I have been attending a conference on American Political History, for which I prepared a paper. The following is my (abbreviated) presentation of that paper–still considerably longer than my daily posts, so be forewarned….

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America’s first motto was e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” That motto has always been more aspirational than descriptive, but thanks to a number of factors– from residential sorting to the hardening of racial and religious attitudes– America now faces fissures in the body politic that call even the aspiration into question.

Humans are hard-wired to be tribal—to prefer those we see as our “own kind” to members of groups that register as “other.” Recognition of this aspect of human nature is hardly new; multiple studies deal with aspects of human tribalism, and there’s an equally large number detailing the various mechanisms through which humans express, reinforce and justify tribal prejudices. History records the frequently horrifying consequences of dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” during wars and other conflicts, and the equally appalling behaviors that stem from the demonizing of targeted minority populations by dominant majorities within a single country.

The term tribalism is shorthand for this human predisposition to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. There is considerable evidence that some degree of in-group favoritism is an inescapable attribute of group membership. It is the favoritism that is problematic; the human need to be part of a family, clan or tribe is not in itself a negative. Just as our families and more extended clans provide us with emotional and material support, membership in a larger group with which one identifies has its benefits. The presence of what sociologists call bonding social capital provides people within the relevant groups with cultural norms, and (at least within one’s group) supports increased levels of interpersonal trust and reciprocity, assets that facilitate collaborative action.

It’s when identification with a tribe operates to exclude and demean anyone who isn’t a member—when it creates a world peopled by “us” (good) and “them” (bad)—that it becomes destructive. It becomes especially dangerous when the definition of “us” is narrow, dependent upon immutable characteristics or upon rigid adherence to a particular ideology or religious belief that excludes and distrusts others. When negative stereotypes of an out-group are endorsed by celebrities or political authority figures, the damage can be substantial; for example,  researchers have linked Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets to spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Identity
Although the terms “identity” or “identity politics” can mean different things depending on the context, for purposes of this analysis, the terms reference an individual’s group affiliation, or social identity. As noted, identification with others in a particular group or category can confer feelings of acceptance and provide role models: this is how “we” behave. When individuals conclude that “I am like the other people in this group” and I am unlike “those people in other groups,” that recognition can lead to a sense of belonging and a recognition of interdependence with others in the relevant “tribe.” That said, membership in a tribe is usually accompanied by some degree of suspicion of those who fall outside that tribe. Trouble starts when that suspicion is heightened, and members of other groups are seen as competitors, enemies, or threats that must be subdued or eliminated. When “we” are God’s chosen, and “they” are by definition abominations, tolerance of difference is simply not possible.

The United States has not been immune from tribal conflicts, and today’s citizens continue to struggle with their legacies. America may have abolished slavery, but racism has proved much harder to eradicate. Religious conflicts and anti-Semitism have been—and remain—a constant. Women continue to struggle against an attitudinal “glass ceiling” that works against genuine equality in both the home and workplace. It wasn’t until the 1960s that LGBTQ citizens began emerging from the closet in significant numbers, and homophobia, like racism, continues to characterize much of American culture. And the country is experiencing yet another eruption of the hostility with which we have repeatedly greeted successive waves of immigrants.

In much of America’s admittedly contentious past, except for individuals who were automatically categorized as “other” by virtue of an immutable characteristic like race or gender, American affiliations have tended to be cross-cutting, meaning that people often identified as a member of several different communities having limited overlap. Individuals with such heterogeneous affiliations are likely to interact on a regular basis with fellow citizens holding views contrary to their own, and less likely to stereotype and malign people with whom they disagree as a result. In his seminal study The Social Requisites of Democracy, Seymour Martin Lipset concluded that that democratic stability is enhanced when individuals and groups have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations. As a 2018 article in The Guardian noted, “[R]esearch has lined cross-cutting cleavages with toleration, moderation and conflict prevention.”

For a number of reasons, America’s “tribes” have become far more overlapping, meaning that people’s various identities have coalesced in ways that reinforce each other. As a result, and thanks also to the residential “sorting” documented by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, most Americans have much less interaction with people who have opinions different from those of their tribes, and are less likely to engage with ideas and beliefs different from their own.

Historically, American tribal conflicts have centered upon identities and affiliations that were difficult or impossible to change: the ethnic, racial and religious differences that have been a source of human conflict for centuries. Those differences remain potent today. Racism, in particular, has re-emerged with a vengeance, and it isn’t limited to the White Nationalist movements that have become active across much of Europe and the United States. Longstanding racial and religious fault-lines have been deepened by the emergence of newer ideological and cultural cleavages, many of which are exacerbated by geography: in today’s U.S., for example, the worldviews of urban and rural inhabitants are frequently incommensurate. Research has documented deep differences in values and outlook between Americans who are well-to-do (or at least economically comfortable) and the poor, and between white people with a college education and white people without. Americans’ affiliations have become increasingly reinforcing rather than cross-cutting, enabling the growth of a toxic partisanship that sees the world in stark terms of black and white and right versus wrong. These world-views demand winners and losers.

Thanks to a variety of factors, significant numbers of Americans currently occupy “bubbles” populated largely by people who share and fortify their preferred worldviews. Even a cursory examination of the 21st Century media and policy environment allows  identification of several of those worldviews, as well as the environments that created and nurture them.  A caveat: the following list is not exhaustive—and due to time constraints, the categories are described in far more depth in the paper.

  • Cosmopolitan and Parochial.  Cosmopolitanism challenges the primacy citizens place onattachments to the nation-state and other parochial shared cultures. The cosmopolitan/parochial divide shares many attributes with classism.
  • Richer and Poorer.The economic divide between America’s rich and poor is now as damaging as it was during the Gilded Age.  This dangerous and growing gap between struggling Americans and the well-to-do means they have increasingly disparate life experiences and live increasingly segregated lives.
  • College Educated and Not. In the 2016 election, white voters divided sharply based upon their levels of education. Clinton carried counties with high numbers of educated voters, and even high income low education counties voted for Trump.
  • Urban versus Rural.Urban Americans are more than three times more likely than their rural counterparts to say that religion isn’t particularly important to them, and attitudes on social issues reflect that difference. They are also far more likely to be Republican.
  • Republican versus Democrat, Liberal versus Conservative.An individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Lilliana Mason notes that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”  Partisan identity has become a shorthand encompassing racial, professional and religious identities. Party identification now outweighs ideological commitments, as can be seen by the acquiescence of Republican lawmakers to Trump’s tariffs that are wildly at odds with longtime Republican positions.
  • Black, White, Brown. It is impossible to talk about tribalism, of course, without addressing the stubborn persistence of racism. Age-old racial hatreds have been fed by economic anxieties and by demographic changes that threaten white Christian Americans with loss of their long-time social dominance and privilege. The  election of America’s first African-American President exacerbated long-simmering racial resentments, giving rise to the so-called “birther” movement, while Donald Trump’s overt appeals to racist sentiments have unleashed a sharp increase in racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant assaults.

America’s cultural and political polarization has been facilitated by the Internet and the reduced reach of so-called “legacy” media that previously provided the country with (relatively homogenized) information. The current media landscape allows Americans to consult a multitude of news and opinion sites of widely varying credibility and to choose the “news” that accords with their partisan preferences. Social media has encouraged the sharing of dubious assertions and unfounded accusations. One result has been a widespread loss of confidence in our ability to know what is factual and what is not—to distinguish between journalism and propaganda. The widespread availability of disinformation is especially troubling because the American public has abysmally low levels of civic literacy.

Economic insecurity, the threatened loss of jobs to global trade and especially automation, and the rapidity of social and technological change have contributed to widespread fear and uncertainty. Too many political figures have appealed to those fears rather than trying to ameliorate them. There is also the increasing complexity of the national and international issues we face, and the failure to reform antiquated government structures that are increasingly inadequate to meet the challenges posed by changes in where and how today’s Americans live.

All of these developments and many others have been consequential. That said, it is impossible to analyze the ways in which these changes have been experienced and various tribes have been formed without recognizing the degree to which America’s historic struggle with racism has exacerbated the salience of all of them.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism” today, it behooves us to recognize that the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, the rights of individuals were largely dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant political order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.) Your rights vis a vis your government depended largely upon who you were—your religion, your race, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, any white male born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history. All of what we think of as core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not treat people differently based solely upon their identity. Eventually (and for many people, very reluctantly) America extended that founding principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation. Racism is thus a rejection of a civic equality that is integral to genuinely American identity.

When the nation’s leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. The political divisions that are so stark in our polarized time represent, at least in part, a clash between those who fear we are departing from that essential (if imperfectly recognized) commitment to equality and those who want to “return” to an imagined White Christian America.

Religious Liberty?

As America becomes more diverse, and White Christians face the loss of cultural hegemony, they have increasingly turned to the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to make arguments about their right to an expansive and ahistorical “religious liberty.”

A bit of history for this history conference: What the phrase “Religious liberty” meant to the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock was the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could even be separated would have been incomprehensible to the Puritans; the liberty they wanted was freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and to live under a government that would impose that religion on their neighbors.

The Puritans defined liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” to impose the correct religion.

A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted our Constitution had a very different understanding of liberty. The philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science and empiricism, privileged reason over superstition, and caused philosophers to reconsider the purpose and proper role of government.

Liberty had come to mean the individual’s right to self-government, the right to decide for oneself what beliefs to embrace. Liberty now meant the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of both state coercion and what the founders called “the passions of the majority,” so long as they did not harm others, and the Bill of Rights limited what government could require even when a majority of citizens approved.

The problem is that, although America’s Constitution and legal framework were products of the Enlightenment, many American citizens remain philosophical Puritans.

Many of the fundamentalist Christians fearing loss of cultural hegemony are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. They are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth, and like the original Puritans, absolutely convinced that a proper understanding of “religious liberty” should give them the right to make rules for everyone else.

Under the Constitution, Americans have the right to believe anything they want. They do not have an absolute right to act on those beliefs. (You can sincerely believe God wants you to sacrifice your first-born, but the law doesn’t let you do that.) Many people have trouble understanding that distinction.

Opponents of civil rights for LGBTQ citizens argue that rules preventing businesses from refusing to hire employees who offend their religious beliefs, or from firing or otherwise discriminating against such individuals, denies them religious liberty. (This is a variant of the argument that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech rights” of those doing the bullying.) They argue that they should be able to discriminate against gay people—or black people, or women, or Muslims–if they claim a religious motivation. Of course, an exemption for discrimination based upon “religious motivation” would eviscerate civil rights laws.

This is the same argument that erupted when Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Opponents argued that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their liberty to act upon a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted women to be subordinate and the races to be separate. And it did limit their liberty. In a civilized society, the right to do whatever one wants is constrained in all sorts of ways: I don’t have the liberty to play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down city streets. And so on.

Civil rights laws are an outgrowth of the social contract. The citizen who opens a bakery– or a shoe store or a bank or any other business–- expects local police and fire departments to protect her store, expects local government to maintain the streets and sidewalks that enable people to get there, expects state and federal agencies to protect the country, to issue and back the currency used to pay for his products, and to ensure that other businesses and institutions are playing by the rules and not engaging in predatory behaviors that would put him out of business. People of all races, religions, genders and sexualities pay the taxes that support those government responsibilities, and in return, have a right to expect those who are “open for business” to provide cakes or shoes or other goods to any member of the public willing and able to pay for them.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment give religious folks the right to exclude those they consider “sinners” from their churches, their private clubs and their living rooms. That right does not extend to their hardware stores.

Today’s Americans live with over 330 million others, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from their own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respects those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives. Only a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is able to safeguard anyone’s religious liberty.

History teaches us that social change that threatens the privileged status of dominant groups will be ferociously opposed by those groups. Throughout American history, when previously subordinated populations have demanded a seat at the civic table, those whose hegemony was threatened have resisted. That resistance may not completely explain today’s polarization, but it has massively contributed to  it.

As Mark Twain is said to have observed, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

We live in rhyme time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?