Summary: We underestimate our leaders, confusing their skillful political engineering with folly. But their successful manipulation of us gives them the last laugh. For example, see the hot political rhetoric that keeps us fragmented and weak, hiding the consensus of the 1% that runs America.
Not the politics the Founders intended.
Many Americans rage at the dysfunctional polarization of our politics. How can our representatives agree upon necessary policy reforms when the two parties have such different positions and refuse to compromise. But are the American people becoming more politically polarized? No. But the rhetoric is getting hotter, which reveals an important thing about America.
Americans are not becoming polarized
Journalists and political gurus say that we have become more polarized. As so often the case these days, that is a fable made fact by their repetition.
By Delia Baldassarri and Andrew Gelman (both with Columbia)
in the American Journal of Sociology, September 2008 (ungated copy).
“In contrast, scholarly research on mass opinion polarization offers a more complex view. Scholars have shown that, over the last 40 years, American public opinion has remained stable or become even more moderate on a large set of political issues, while people have assumed more extreme positions only on some specific, hot issues, such as abortion, sexual morality and, lately, the war in Iraq.”
By Morris P. Fiorina (Stanford) and Samuel J. Abrams (Harvard),
in the Annual Review of Political Science, June 2008.
“This article surveys the literature on mass polarization. It begins with a discussion of the concept of polarization, then moves to a critical consideration of different kinds of evidence that have been used to study polarization, concluding that much of the evidence presents problems of inference that render conclusions problematic. The most direct evidence – citizens’ positions on public policy issues – shows little or no indication of increased mass polarization over the past two to three decades. Party sorting – an increased correlation between policy views and partisan identification – clearly has occurred, although the extent has sometimes been exaggerated.”
Another finding of the Baldassarri-Gelman paper: our elites are becoming more polarized – from the rest of us.
“Our work reinforces the findings of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal (Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, 2006) on the relation between elite polarization and inequality, by suggesting that substantial partisan and issue alignment has occurred within the resourceful and powerful group of rich Americans. The wealthier part of the political constituency knows well what it wants and it is likely, now more than in the past, to a affect the political process, thus potentially increasing inequality in interest representation, not only through lobbying activity and campaign financing, but also in the ballot (Bartels 2005: ‘Economic Inequality and Political Representation‘).”
Tom Jacobs gives us the bottom line in “American politics go tribal” at the Pacific Standard — “A political scientist explains the disconnect between our moderate policy views and our intense hatred for the other side.”
“Political scientist Lilliana Mason’s analysis is more subtle, and more disturbing. Her research suggests that, in terms of our attitudes towards issues, we are no more polarized than we were decades ago. But our emotions, and the behaviors they drive, have largely uncoupled from our actual analysis of the issues. Essentially, the Stony Brook University scholar argues, our identities have become increasingly intertwined with our political affiliation. As a result, we feel ever more certain that our party is right and the other is wrong – even in cases where their positions aren’t far apart.
“Our attitude towards the opposing party has become, basically, tribal: We detest them simply because they’re the other side.
“‘The American public can hold remarkably moderate and constant issue positions, while nonetheless becoming progressively more biased, active and angry when it comes to politics,’ she argues. ‘Even as we agree on most issues, we are becoming increasingly uncivil in our approach to politics.’”
Not the politics the Founders intended.
The real polarization
We see the real polarization all around us – in the political rhetoric used by both parties. Bush Jr was a fascist, probably a NAZI. Obama was a socialist Muslim pretending to be an American. Trump is worse than Satan.
There is a good reason for this. Our elites agree on an unusually large number of important areas of public policy. The political parties must conceal this in order to maintain party cohesion. The rank and file must believe the parties differ, and are more than two gangs seeking power.
So as policy differences narrow between the parties, policy differences are replaced by rhetoric. “You are evil” replaces “Your policies are bad.” Politics becomes a blood sport to entertain a passive and apathetic public. “Treason”, “fascist”, and “Nazi” become commonplace rhetoric.
There is no crippling polarization, just distracting music masking a bipartisan consensus on key points of economic and foreign policy. It serves the valuable secondary purpose of distracting the proles. It gives us mock battles to fight and tribal loyalties to adopt (dirty hippy commies vs. puritanical ignorant fascists). Preventing the discovery of common causes, mutual allegiances, and the need for fundamental reform.
America is well-governed. But it is not governed in our interests.
How to choose a political party
Today we get to choose a political party like cattle at the Chicago stockyards get to choose a chute. The cattle (being smarter than us) don’t bother with party identification. They don’t cheer the “left-side” pen, or admire the virtue of its prisoners, the beauty of its fence, the wisdom of their keepers, or the free food. Those in the “right-side” pen don’t wear logos or trumpet their superior intelligence over those in the other pen.
It need not be like this. Both parties belong to us. Both must and can be retaken. America needs a choice, not an echo (to borrow Phyllis Schlafy’s memorable phrase).
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Democratic Party, about the Left in American politics, about ways to reform America’s politics, and especially these…
- The good news: America’s politics are neither polarized nor dysfunctional. That’s also the bad news.
- 2016 revealed the true nature of America’s left & right. It’s bad news.
- Our Right & Left have lost their way. Saul Alinsky points to a better politics.
- The secret reason for America’s white-hot political rhetoric.
- Left and Right use race as a way to divide America.
- The Left embraces racism. The result could be ugly.
- Watch the Left and Right move against America.
- Democrats betray their principles & embrace the Deep State.
Books describing our broken politics, and how we got here
Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank.
The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics by Jefferson Cowie.