How We Got Here

I was recently asked to “guest lecture”about political polarization to an undergraduate class.

I began by conceding that, from where I sit, it’s getting worse, not better. I noted that we now have businesses expressly catering to the Right-wing: social media platforms like Truth Social and Rumble, coffee sellers like Black Rifle, crypto start-ups like MAGA and Coin, and even investment funds–Strive is an anti-ESG fund created by Vivek Ramaswamy, the annoying presidential candidate, that has now exceeded a billion dollars in assets.

These are businesses specifically catering to people who want to ban books, shove gay people back in the closet, and return women and people of color to second-class citizenship. It pains me to say this, because I spent 35 years of my adult life as a very active Republican—I even won a Congressional Republican primary in 1980—but Republicans have devolved from a political party into a cult, and membership in that cult has become their core identity. As we saw during COVID, thousands of them were willing to forego vaccination and die in order to “own the libs.”

Before delving into some of the reasons for polarization, it’s important to distinguish between political polarization and other, far less stark differences between Americans. As one scholar recently noted, those political differences are between the Republicans who’ve gone full MAGA and most other Americans…Today’s Right is entirely focused on the interests and fears of white Christians, while the Democratic coalition is much more diverse.

Ezra Klein has observed that “Sorting has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogeneous.”

Research tells us that MAGA Republicans are disproportionately White Christian Nationalists who believe that only White Christians can be “real Americans.” That’s not a belief consistent with moderation or negotiation—or the Constitution.

Some on the far Left of the Democratic Party are also rabid, but today’s Democrats and Independents are ideologically diverse—they range from ex-Republicans like me to the Bernie Sanders/AOC branch of the party (which is still not nearly as “Left” as the Left in Europe). It’s a very troubling situation, because we really need two adult, rational political parties engaged in good-faith policy debate, and instead, as the antics in the current Congress demonstrate, we’re now at a point where actual governance seems impossible.

Reasonable people in both parties look at  the MAGA crazies in Congress and wonder how these people get elected. It’s a significant structural problem: Gerrymandering has moved the “real” election to the primaries in all but a very few Congressional districts—in safe districts, Republican incumbents move Right and Democratic ones move Left to protect against primary challenges, exacerbating the distance between Left and Right. It isn’t only gerrymandering; as the book “The Big Sort” demonstrated, Americans have been clustering–choosing to live in places where they’ll have like-minded neighbors—making cities Bluer and rural areas Redder, and diminishing the likelihood of regular intermingling with people who disagree with them.

Polarization is also promoted by propaganda outlets like Fox News, and by the collapse of local newspapers that reported on less ideological community issues.

We also can’t ignore the fact that a lot of people have lost touch with reality. Back in 2016, a Public Policy Polling survey found 12 million people in the US who believed that interstellar lizards in “people suits” rule our country. Around 66 million Americans believe  aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, and around 22 million believe that the government faked the moon landing. Then there are the various QAnon conspiracy theories, the people who believe Bill Gates put chips in Covid vaccines…it goes on and on.

Research tells us that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty trigger beliefs in conspiracies. People who feel powerless use those theories to regain a sense of control– to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless in the world they inhabit. Right now, thanks to the enormous gap between the rich and the rest of us, the increasing effects of climate change, and the speed of social and technological change, a lot of people are disoriented and fearful. They’re looking for explanations—and unfortunately, a lot of them are also looking for someone–some “other”or group of “others”– to blame.

We need to understand that these divisions aren’t about policy. They’ve become part of personal identity—for a certain subset of people, it’s all about who you are and who you and your group hate. And for too many of us other Americans, who aren’t all that polarized, politics has become just another kind of team sport—my guys versus your guys. Team loyalty.

I concluded by telling them “I hope your generation figures out how to bridge the gap my generation is leaving you, because I don’t have a clue.”


How To Save A Country

“How to save a country” is a podcast hosted by Felicia Wong, President of the Roosevelt Institute and Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic. I highly recommend it.

A recent episode featured a talk with Dr. Lilliana Mason, an expert in political psychology and group psychology. The podcast was lengthy–and meaty–and revolved around Mason’s contention that Americans’ political “tribes” have become “mega-identities”  that now “encompass where we go to church, where we went to school, our values, and our prejudices.”

“Before the social sorting occurred, the status of our party was the only thing at risk in every election,” Dr. Mason says. “But now that we have all of these other important identities linked to the status of our party, every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group and our racial group, and our culture and where we live, and who we grew up with.”

The phenomenon Mason identifies rebuts an often-voiced progressive complaint that poorer Republicans “don’t vote their interests” “Interests,”—a complaint that assumes that interests are economic. That isn’t the case.  As Wong says, “We know that we don’t make decisions only based on our material interests or our material conditions.”

Mason agrees.

The classic understanding of what politics should be and how voters should participate in politics is that we assume that we are all rational actors, and by rational, we tend to mean we are economically rational. We are trying to maximize our own economic well-being or the economic well-being of the people around us or the people that matter to us. This is something that political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels called the folk theory of democracy: this idealized version, mythological version of what we think Americans and citizens of any democracy should be. The reality is more complicated…

A “status defense” seems to be hardwired into most of us. Mason shared a fascinating experiment about our tribal/status instincts.

In the 1950s, researchers recruited a group of fifth grade boys in the Oklahoma City area and invited them to a summer camp. They were chosen to be as similar to each other as possible, not just in terms of race and religion, but also academic progress, social well-being and family situations.

They were separated into two camps: Rattlers and Eagles. When the groups were told about each other,

the boys immediately wanted to engage in competition with the other camp. They started calling the boys from the other camp bad names. Once they met them and started having competitions with them—not serious competitions, but baseball games or board games or whatever low-stakes games—they began to accuse people on the other team of sabotaging them, of cheating. They were consistently privileging their own team. Ultimately, these competitions became so intense that they had to stop the experiment early because they had started throwing rocks and engaging in fist fights and getting violent.

The main takeaway was that this type of animosity between these two very similar groups of kids was easily engineered. All that it took was for them to be separate from each other to form a bond with their own teammates and to form an identity with those teammates. In psychology, we call that their ‘in-group’. Just learning that there was an ‘out-group’ made them want to have conflict. They actually craved it.

Efforts to bridge our political differences must contend with this very basic human trait. And identity-based polarization is worse now than in the past.

We all have countless identities. We identify as different things depending on the situation or who we’re talking to or what is salient for us in that one moment… We always have these limitless numbers of identities. Some of them are more powerful than others. Our party identity can be quite powerful, especially during elections. Our racial identities are almost always quite powerful. Our religious identities are powerful. One of the things that we saw change over the last few decades is that the Democratic and Republican parties were basically racially and religiously relatively similar to each before the ’60s.

Over the last few decades, Americans have lost what political scientists call “cross-cutting cleavages.” People might  vote for different parties, but go to the same church, volunteer for the same nonprofit, have kids in the same school or  shop at the same grocery store. They would see each other not just as partisans but as basically similar humans. Now, we’ve sorted, and the Republican Party has become the party of white Christian rural people. Now, every election feels like (and arguably is) a contest about the status of our  identities–religious, racial, cultural, educational…

And we wonder why bipartisanship has become so hard…..


Trading Places

A recent Vox article made an excellent point about identity politics. Although those on the Right use the term to label and dismiss what they scorn as special pleading by minorities, Vox’s definition is far more accurate.

Virtually all politics is identity politics, and the most powerful political identities are the biggest political identities — Democrat and Republican, which are increasingly merging with our racial, geographic, religious, and cultural groups to create what the political scientist Lilliana Mason calls “mega-identities.”

As political scientists all attest, those identities are not only stronger than they have previously been, they are also significantly different than they used to be. Thomas Edsall has taken to the New York Times opinion page to confirm those differences.

Edsell cites several research studies that show America politically divided “by levels of diversity; the emergence of an ideologically consistent liberal Democratic Party matching the consistent conservatism of the Republican Party, for the first time in recent history; and a striking discrepancy in the median household income of white-majority House districts held by Democrats and Republicans.”

Those of us of “a certain age” remember when it was the Democratic Party, then strong in the South, that resisted racial integration and civil rights. Back then, the GOP took pride in being the party of Lincoln and emancipation. Today, the parties have traded places sociologically, philosophically and geographically. As Michael Podhorzer has noted, during the first half of the 20th century, Democrats were solidly the party of the bottom of the income distribution, and Republicans were solidly the party of the top half of the income distribution.

No longer.

Podhorzer finds the parties have become “mirror images” of themselves. At the same time, America has seen a deepening of the urban-rural partisan schism.

“As recently as 2008,” Podhorzer writes, “40 percent of the Democratic caucus represented either rural or sparse suburban districts, and about a fifth of the Republican caucus represented majority-minority, urban or dense suburban districts. Now, the caucuses are sorted nearly perfectly.”

At the same time, divergent economic trends are compounding the urban-rural split.

In 1996, Democrats represented 30 percent of the majority-white districts in the most educated and most affluent category; by 2020, they represented 86 percent. At the other end, in 1996, Democrats represented 38 and 42 percent of the districts in the bottom two categories; by 2020, those percentages fell to 12 and 18 percent.

In examining these trends, political analysts have cited a growing educational divide, with better-educated — and thus more affluent — white voters moving in a liberal Democratic direction while white voters without college have moved toward the right.

Despite the significant educational divide, scholars persuasively argue that education is not the reason for our polarization. Racism is. The data shows that, as Podhorzer puts it, “racial resentment, does a much, much better job of explaining our current political divisions than education polarization.”

Podhorzer provides data showing that from 2000 to 2020, the Democratic margin among white people with and without college degrees who score high on racial resentment scales has fallen from minus 26 percent to minus 62 percent for racially resentful non-college white people and from minus 14 percent to minus 53 percent among racially resentful college-educated white people.

At the same time, the Democratic margin rose from plus 12 to 70 percent over those 20 years among non-college white people low in racial resentment and from 50 to 82 percent among college-educated white people low in racial resentment.

In other words, in contradiction to the education divide thesis, non-college white people who are not racially resentful have become more Democratic, while college-educated white people who are racially resentful have become more Republican.

Today, Republican districts are among the least ethnically diverse, despite the fact that   voters within those districts are quite diverse when it comes to policy preferences–especially economic views. Democratic districts tend to be ethnically diverse–but with voters who mostly agree on social and economic issues.

In today’s GOP, the remaining members of the older, pro-business elite share the Republican label with a white working class that is disproportionately rural and racially resentful. The question is, how long can that uncomfortable partnership last?

Everyone who harbors “racial resentment” doesn’t identify as a White Supremacist (which is fortunate, since 80% of ideologically-motivated mass murders last year were committed by White Supremicsts.)

)In the absence of other shared goals, how strong are the bonds forged only by hating the same people? 

I guess we’ll find out.


Krugman Nails It

Paul Krugman wants to know how many of their fellow Americans Republicans are willing to kill in order to “own the libs.” In the wake of actions by Governors in  Texas and Mississippi–essentially eliminating anti-COVID requirements– it’s a fair question.

Krugman also points out–graphically–why mask edicts are not an abrogation of American freedom.

Relieving yourself in public is illegal in every state. I assume that few readers are surprised to hear this; I also assume that many readers wonder why I feel the need to bring up this distasteful subject. But bear with me: There’s a moral here, and it’s one that has disturbing implications for our nation’s future.

Although we take these restrictions for granted, they can sometimes be inconvenient, as anyone out and about after having had too many cups of coffee can attest. But the inconvenience is trivial, and the case for such rules is compelling, both in terms of protecting public health and as a way to avoid causing public offense. And as far as I know there aren’t angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business wherever they want.

As Krugman goes on to point out, the dangerous posturing by self-described defenders of “liberty” is the essence of identity politics.  Although Republicans politicians like to accuse Democrats of playing that game, they limit the definition of “identity” to issues of race and religion–it’s their way of reminding their White Supremicist base that Democrats represent   a citizenry that includes “those people.”

What is motivating this rush to unmask isn’t economics–Krugman points out that the costs of mask-wearing are trivial, and that controlling externalities–taking into account  costs being imposed on others–is Econ 101. As he says,  “if potentially exposing those you meet to a deadly disease isn’t an “externality,” I don’t know what is.”

Of course, we know what’s actually going on here: politics. Refusing to wear a mask has become a badge of political identity, a barefaced declaration that you reject liberal values like civic responsibility and belief in science. (Those didn’t used to be liberal values, but that’s what they are in America 2021.)

This medical version of identity politics seems to trump everything, up to and including belief in the sacred rights of property owners. When organizers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference asked attendees to wear masks — not as a matter of policy, but simply to abide by the rules of the hotel hosting the meeting — they were met by boos and cries of “Freedom!” Do people shriek about rights when they see a shop sign declaring, “No shoes, no shirt, no service”?

But arguably we shouldn’t be surprised. These days conservatives don’t seem to care about anything except identity politics, often expressed over the pettiest of issues.

There are plenty of problems with mischaracterizing mask wearing as a “freedom” issue, and one of those problems ties back into my constant rants about the country’s low levels of civic literacy.

The United States Constitution does not give anti-maskers the “liberty” they claim.

I will readily admit to being a hard-core civil libertarian.  (I ran Indiana’s ACLU for six years and was routinely criticized when our affiliate sued to protect citizens’ rights to pursue their own moral or personal ends.) But as Krugman’s introductory paragraphs illustrate, and the ACLU has always acknowledged, government retains considerable authority to require or prohibit certain behaviors. We can’t urinate (or worse) in public, or  run around our neighborhoods nude. We can be ticketed for failing to buckle our seatbelts. We can be prohibited from exposing others to the passive smoke emitted by our cigarettes. Governments not only have the right but the affirmative obligation to impose quarantines to protect public health, and they have done so historically to control the spread of diseases like smallpox.

I agree with Krugman that the anti-maskers are playing identity politics. I wonder if they realize that the identity they are claiming is “selfish and ignorant.”


Reconsidering “Cultural Appropriation”

Speaking of tribalism, as I was yesterday….

As the discussions on this blog amply reveal, the United States is currently experiencing wrenching–even existential–social and governance problems. Most of those problems can be seen as a result of the transformation of the GOP from a traditional political party to an extremist organization I’ve likened to a cult, but you will forgive me if I find some of the preoccupations of the left equally “unnuanced” (aka rabid) and unhelpful.

I recently read about a controversy in Utah over–wait for it–a prom dress.

The high-school student in question had posted a photo modeling her choice of a prom dress–a Chinese cheongsam– to social media. A storm of criticism erupted, with accusations of “cultural appropriation.”

Keziah Daum said she won’t give in to pressure and delete an April 22 Twitter post showing her posing with her prom date in the red cheongsam, or qipao.

“To everyone causing so much negativity,” she tweeted. “I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a f***ing dress. And it’s beautiful.”

Daum told the Washington Post she found the dress in a vintage store in Salt Lake City and found it “absolutely beautiful” adding it gave her a “sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty.”

The critics of her choice insisted that, not being Chinese, she should not wear a recognizably Chinese dress, that doing so would amount to “cultural appropriation.”

According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture adopts elements of a minority culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange when there is the presence of a “colonial element” and an imbalance of power–in other words, when the adoption is for purposes of denigrating or mocking the original culture.

As the Guardian pointed out, in an article about the blowup, donning a Chinese prom dress hardly meets that criterion.

The original complainant’s instinct– to draw a line at a time when Chinese people are under siege from Trump-inspired China-bashers – is understandable, but in this case, completely mistargeted. If anything, the qipao represents power and class, not race, and certainly not the culture of some exploited underclass.

Criticisms of “cultural appropriation” raise some fairly profound issues. Have our politics become so tribal that any “crossover” is viewed as an attack, rather than a sign of appreciation? When is the adoption of an element of minority culture by members of the majority culture a compliment, and when is it an insult? When does such adoption advance intergroup understanding, and under what circumstances does it diminish appreciation of and respect for the “appropriated” culture?

I’m sure the White supremacists (aka Nazi sympathizers) who have become increasingly vocal since Herr Trump’s election disapprove of any adoption of any aspect of minority culture; for them,  it’s “mongrelization.” How is their call for “racial purity” any different from the criticisms that attended this teenager’s choice of a prom dress?

I don’t get it.

What ever happened to the old axiom that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

And what the hell happened to a sense of proportion?