Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Politics of Political Polarization

Evan Thomas has a fascinating new essay over at Newsweek, "The Closing of the American Mind."

He's looking at the question of political polarization: Is politics nastier today than was true for earlier eras? It's a common perception, and Thomas provides an interesting analysis:

There are, as they say, two Americas. There is the America of the rich and the America of the poor, as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards likes to point out. There is the America of Red States and Blue States, populated, as columnist Dave Barry likes to joke, by "ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying road-kill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks" and "godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving leftwing Communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts."

These divisions seem to grow, and to grow more antagonistic, by the year. But the real divide, the separation that may matter more to the future of American democracy, is between the political junkies and everyone else. The junkies watch endless cable-TV news shows and listen to angry talk radio and feel passionate about their political views. They number roughly 20 percent of the population, according to Princeton professor Markus Prior, who tracks political preferences and the media. Then there's all the rest: the people who prefer ESPN or old movies or videogames or Facebook or almost anything on the air or online to politics. Once upon a time, these people tended to be political moderates; now they are turned off or tuned out. Aside from an uptick in the 2004 presidential election, voter turnout has drifted downward since its modern peak in 1960 (from 63 percent to the low 50s), despite much easier rules on voter registration and expensive efforts to get out voters, writes Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "The Vanishing Voter." For all the press hoopla over the coming presidential primaries, turnout rates are likely to dip way below 30 percent, he predicts.

It's axiomatic that democracies need an informed and engaged citizenry. But America's is indifferent or angry. Washington has entered an age of what Ken Mehlman, President Bush's campaign manager in 2004, calls "hyperpartisanship." Partisanship is nothing new, or necessarily bad—after all, it can offer voters clear choices. But it has become poisonous. In "How Divided Are We?," a 2006 essay in the journal Commentary, conservative thinker James Q. Wilson writes about candidates who regard their competitors "not simply as wrong but as corrupt and wicked." There is in modern political polarization a strong whiff of the old paranoid style of American politics: the left imagines big corporations plotting with neocons to protect Big Oil, while the right imagines a conspiracy of big media, Hollywood and academe to subvert traditional values.

What happened to the "vital center," the necessary glue to getting anything done in a system that is premised on checks and balances? It's hard to imagine the leaders of the two parties sitting down at the end of the day to share a drink and a joke, as President Reagan was able to do with Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill in the 1980s or President Johnson was able to do with Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen in the 1960s. Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has referred to President Bush as a "liar" and a "loser." The popular debate is no more civilized: just read the comments posted by ordinary citizens on the Web sites of the mainstream media (much less partisan blogs). They often run along the lines of "Hillary is the Devil" and "Bush is a baby killer."

The causes of this divide—between the angry and the indifferent, the news junkies and the politically disaffected—are varied, deep-seated and, unfortunately, hard to cure. The evolution of the two parties has hardened ideological divisions and driven away moderates.

The historically minded tend to dismiss, or at least downplay, such observations about the present, arguing that it has been ever thus. Jefferson and Adams fought over religion; Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton; on the floor of Congress members occasionally struck each other with fists and canes. All true, but just because the past had its dismal chapters does not mean the division of the moment is any less important, and it is the case that we are in a particularly bleak phase of partisanship.
But how do know we're in "a particularly bleak phase of partisanship"?

As seen in the passage above, Thomas cites the research of political scientist Markus Prior, who has a new book out,
Post-Broadcast Democracy.

Prior's thesis holds that the dramatic diversification of the mass media marketplace has created a small but extremely polarized class of political junkies who feed on the endless stream of political news, and subsequently participate in the political system with a substantially more combative style of partisan competition.

It's an interesting notion. I haven't read Prior's book, although his work both challenges and supplements some established research in public opinion which questions the idea of a newer, more profound degree of political polarization in the electorate.

For example, Morris Fiorina's book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, argues that we're not in the midst of a broad-scale culture war in American politics. We do have more intensity in the political system, Fiorina argues, but such intense polarization is found among small minorities - indeed, extremists - and thus such views are not characteristic of the larger mass American electorate.

I might add, however, that (1) Fiorina concedes his analysis is of the traditional, narrow academic variety (and thus might not fully capture the contemporary "political" nature of partisan conflict; and (2) the degree to which the new media - and especially the political blogosphere - influences politics and public policy remains an empirical question.

I'm of the belief that Prior's research points to some deeper conclusions about political dialog and participation in the 21st century. The internet, for example, is new, but as a political medium it has the effect of distributing and amplifying a wide variety of intense views, be they ideological, racist, religious-fundmentalist, sexist, you name it.

In this sense I think we are in a new era, although
the scope and significance for the broader American electorate still remains to be seen.