"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Are We Really A Polarized Nation?

From my ‘progressive’ friends I always get the same off-kilter liberal screeds with links to MoveOn.org and other bleeding heart sites.  They love Rachel Madow, hate Rush Limbaugh, fawn over Bill Moyers and have their own pantheon of media heroes.  My conservative friends are no different, and prefer Fox News and the many websites which preach the coming apocalypse and the Obama Armageddon.  People have settled in to comfortable political niches, and while they are always irritable, irate, and incessantly hectoring about states rights or abortion rights, gun ownership or violence against women, they are not about to change their opinions.

Most people made up their minds about the Presidential election long before the first debate; few cared, finally, about Romney or Obama but about the political agenda that each proposed.  Few voters had the patience or ability to carefully analyze the candidates’ speeches, writings, and intellectual and political history to be able to verify their public statements and to predict what they would actually do once the dust from the campaign had settled.

Most voters spent the campaign confirming what they already believed.  Romney was the lackey of big banks, fat capitalists, monarchists, and captains of industry; the enemy of women, gays, the poor, and ‘people of color’.  Obama was a Socialist who was out to dismantle free enterprise, trample on individual rights and liberties, deprive hardworking Americans of their jobs, their guns, and their dogs. Rush Limbaugh knew that if any liberals were listening to him it was because they wanted an adrenaline rush to get the hatred levels back up to where they were – not to learn anything about conservative politics.  Bill Maher knew that he could toss red meat to his liberal audience by savaging the conservative guests who ventured on the show.  In other words, no one wanted or intended to learn anything new, just to consolidate what they already felt and if anything, to get reenergized for the long haul of the campaign.

It is not surprising that there were few swing voters in the election; nor that there were hardened positions on the Left and the Right.  Nor were there any surprises in the outcome if one only paid attention to Nate Silver and the data.

In an article by Molly Ball in The Atlantic (2.28.13) reviewing a recent article by Morris Fiorina, a political scientist, she dismisses the idea of polarity, partisanship, political divisions, and feels that the pundits were wrong to focus on divisiveness.  We are not so much of a divided nation, she claims.  Only the ‘experts’ think so.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

As Fiorina points out, the percentage of Americans who call themselves "moderate" is the same as it was in the 1970s (the American National Election Studies survey has put it at between 20 and 30 percent since 1972). Nor are we more divided when it comes to issues. In the words of a 2012 Pew study, "The way that the public thinks about poverty, opportunity, business, unions, religion, civic duty, foreign affairs, and many other subjects is, to a large extent, the same today as in 1987. The values that unified Americans 25 years ago remain areas of consensus today, while the values that evenly divide the nation remain split." The commonplace idea that Americans today are irrevocably divided into politically extreme camps just isn't the case.

The focus on ‘moderates’ is disingenuous.  It doesn’t matter that the percentage of this group has not changed in forty years.  What matters is that those in Left or Right camps have become more hardened, inflexible, insistent, and impervious to opposing arguments.  What Americans thought about religion in 1970 is most definitely not what we think about today after four decades of the rise of fundamentalism and the Religious Right, the blurring of lines between Church and State and politics and religion.  Nearly half the country espouses fundamental beliefs which govern the way they look at women’s rights, a liberal issue but one dominated by the fight over abortion; family values, a conservative issue about the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the nuclear family, but dominated by gay rights; and individual liberties, an issue with a profoundly religious center dating from the Enlightenment views of the Founding Fathers. 

Attitudes towards business have hardened as well as income inequality has increased since 1970; and since the regulatory environment on Wall Street and corporate America was drastically altered in the Reagan years of the 80s.  ‘Common values’ which might have had promise for uniting America forty years ago – community, faith, family, enterprise – have become politicized.  The role of the community is cast within the framework of individual responsibility, entitlement, and government interventionist programs. While America is one of the most religious countries on earth, there is little that unifies our faith, and the divide between fundamentalists and ‘progressive’ Unitarians or Episcopalians is vast. 

We have ‘sorted’ ourselves says Ball.  We are not so much partisan as logical organizers.  The Republican and Democratic party are now monolithic, and there are few if any Southern Democrats and or liberal Republicans, so our choices are clear but not polarized.  If only this were true.  One only needs to look at the Tea Party firebrands of the Republican Party and the never-say-die liberals of the Democrats to see that the increasingly polarized views represented in Washington mirror those in the hinterlands.  We and our representatives are on the same page.  We hate with the same intensity.

As a corollary, Ball says that we wouldn’t be so sorted or polarized if we had more choice, and she points to Ross Perot and how he attracted so many disaffected Americans.  No doubt, for as the Republican primaries showed, a lot of Americans wanted some of the most outrageously incendiary and far-out candidates the country could unearth.  If we had a parliamentary system like Italy, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have a Beppe Grillo, except that instead of being funny, he would be a demonic half-preacher, half snake-oil salesman. What’s the point? The two party system has a lot to say for itself given Italian gridlock, or Bangladeshi gridlock for that matter, and we are unlikely to change it.

Ball then turns to Independents, and suggests that there are really such people; and if there are, it proves that we are really not so partisan as others have suggested.  I don’t know any real Independents, and I suspect that they have affixed this wishy-washy label to their political shirts because of some intellectual pretense.  There is such a dramatic, profound, and fundamental difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, that it is just about impossible to view a campaign with open eyes, ears, and mind. 

Ball concludes that ‘division’ is overstated and suggests that given the nearly equal distribution of Republican and Democratic votes in the election (47 to 51), most people aren’t too particular:

Many people (as many as ever) are not strongly partisan, and might like both candidates almost equally, but in the voting booth, they have only two choices, and will choose the one they prefer, however slightly

I think this is far from the truth.  I think that voting in the booth was determined long before November 6th.  Most people went behind the curtain, checked the box, yanked the lever, got an ‘I Voted’ sticker and went to the office.  What data support this last minute, “Well, they’re both really OK guys” indecision?

America is very definitely partisan, and you only have to live in an extremely partisan part of the country (the Deep South in my case) for a short time to see how reasonable, dispassionate, patient, and tolerant political dialogue is about as common as a bull with teats.  Time to get out of Washington, Ms. Ball.

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