Tag Archives: polarization

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….


Polarized Perspectives

When Margaret Thatcher died earlier this week, articles on her legacy reflected the very different political filters of those doing the reflecting. Much as Reagan’s legacy has been distorted by highly selective recollections of his tenure by critics and worshippers alike, the real Thatcher got buried somewhere between “she saved Capitalism” and “she screwed the poor.” Both perspectives begin with a belief that Thatcherism was equivalent to current Republican philosophy, with its insistence on reducing both taxes and spending. However, as Bruce Bartlett noted a few months ago in the New York Times,

Although she cut the top personal income tax rate to 60 percent from 83 percent immediately upon taking office, the basic tax rate was only reduced to 30 percent from 33 percent. And in 1980, the 25 percent lower rate of taxation was eliminated so that 30 percent became the lowest tax rate.

More importantly, Mrs. Thatcher paid for her 1979 tax cut by nearly doubling the value-added tax to 15 percent, from 8 percent. Among those who thought Mrs. Thatcher was making a dreadful mistake was the American economist Arthur Laffer. Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 20, 1979, he excoriated her for taking with the one hand while giving with the other.

“The Thatcher budget lowers tax rates where they have little economic consequence and raises tax rates where they affect economic activity directly,” he complained.

In the 1982 forward to the British edition of his American best-seller, “Wealth and Poverty,” George Gilder was also highly critical of Mrs. Thatcher for failing to cut either taxes or spending: “The net effect of the Thatcher program has been a substantial increase in taxation on virtually all taxpayers.”

The “fiscal conservatives” who exhalt Reagan are similarly loathe to mention the fact that the Gipper raised taxes. Several times.

In fact, Americans are so polarized that they sanitize and cherry-pick real history–the messy realities in which real people had to operate, make compromises and mistakes, and in which they often championed contradictory policies. The same people who read the bible and the Constitution selectively bring that idiosyncratic approach to history–highlighting that which confirms their pre-existing biases and ignoring inconvenient inconsistencies.

The extent of our contemporary polarization is a matter of some debate. It is certainly true that we have historical precedents for American divisions and our very different world views.(Civil War, anyone?)  But a recent report at the blog Daily Kos is sobering. The site announced that it had computed voting results by Congressional District, and was making that information available to anyone interested in congressional-level analysis.

Perhaps the most notable statistic to emerge from this endeavor is just how few “crossover” districts there now are—that is to say, seats represented by a Democrat in the House but carried by Mitt Romney on the presidential level, and vice versa for Republicans sitting in seats won by Barack Obama. There are just nine of the former variety and 17 of the latter, for 26 crossover seats in total. Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics says that this is the smallest number since 1920, which underscores how polarized elections have become in recent years in the United States.

There’s an old saying to the effect that the victor writes history. It’s hard to say who will write ours, but the odds are that the results will be skewed.