Tag Archives: political polarization

Can We Talk?

A reader of this blog recently shared a column from the Washington Post.   It warned that the most significant threats to democracy come from the internal inconsistencies of democratic ideology.

At least, I think that is a fair summary of the argument/analysis being put forward.

America’s democratic structure is indeed shuddering — but it is shuddering under its own weight. The threat to democracy isn’t (for now) a usurper system, but democratic ideology itself. At least that’s one way to read a significant new study on democratic attitudes published in the American Political Science Review by Danish academic Suthan Krishnarajan.

Talk of the “defense of democracy” in the United States evokes a conveniently sharp division between citizens who favor democracy and those who don’t. Krishnarajan takes a more subtle approach. He shows that citizens who self-consciously support democracy can simultaneously support undemocratic actions on a large scale when it suits their political interests — and not recognize the contradiction.

The author was disturbed to discover that foolish consistency isn’t the hobgoblin of American minds….

Partisanship, unsurprisingly, tended to distort respondents’ views of what is and isn’t “democratic.”

Democracy, of course, is a process defined by elements such as fair elections and free speech. Liberal or conservative outcomes — more or less immigration, or more or less social spending — can both emerge from the democratic process. In 2020 and 2021, Krishnarajan used a carefully constructed survey with “vignettes” designed to tease out how Americans’ views on democracy interacted with their partisanship. The result: Most people conflate the democratic process with their favored political outcomes.

Respondents “tend to delegitimize opposing views by perceiving them as undemocratic — even when they are not,” Krishnarajan found. “When confronted with a perfectly regular left-wing behavior” — such as implementing Obamacare — “48% of the right-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic,’ ” the paper says. “Conversely, when confronted with regular right-wing behavior” — such as repealing Obamacare — “46% of the left-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic.’ ”

There is considerably more, and if you find this “analysis” (note quotation marks) illuminating, click through and read the entire essay.  My own opinion is that it belongs with the very large pile of irrelevancies regularly produced by what Molly Ivins called the “chattering classes”–and that pile contains an embarrassing number of supposedly scholarly publications. 

Here’s my (admittedly crabby) complaint.
 
 We Americans misuse and abuse terminology in ways that make it difficult to talk to each other. (There’s a great Facebook meme to the effect that “most people wouldn’t recognize socialism if it deposited a monthly Social Security check in their bank accounts.”) The imprecision of language–both “liberal” and “conservative” mean very different things to those employing the labels–makes “studies” of the sort reported in this column considerably less than useful.

What the respondents to the survey meant by “democracy” undoubtedly varied widely, but most of them probably use the term to mean the structure of America’s governance—including constitutional principles and democratic norms. Technically, of course, democracy simply means majority rule, although in the US, democratic processes are restrained /limited by the anti-majoritarian Bill of Rights.

It’s pretty clear from the examples in the column that the survey respondents didn’t limit their understanding of the term to its dictionary meaning.

The following paragraph is an example:

 Norm-breaking behavior, in other words, gets justified within a democratic frame, not outside it. That finding is consistent with how U.S. politics is practiced today: To take one example, presidents of both parties tend to claim the mantle of popular authorization when they sideline Congress and expand executive power.

Is the expanded use of executive power “anti-democratic”? Yes, when it falls outside longstanding constitutional constraints imposed by separation of powers, no when it doesn’t. Yes, when executive power is used to impose a rule with which a majority of Americans disagree; no when it is employed to further the clearly expressed preferences of that majority. 

 Americans are fighting over competing visions of democratic governance. It’s an epiphany!

So the fight in America right now isn’t between democracy and non-democracy, but between two opposing visions of popular sovereignty. The concept of democracy, broadly agreed upon but fiercely contested in its particulars, never came with fixed guardrails. And the higher the perceived stakes rise, the more tempting the invitation to destroy political norms — and to rationalize their destruction as necessary for democracy.

In other words, it depends–and it’s both simpler and far more complicated than the author of the essay (and presumably, of the study he references) wants to acknowledge. Does the  realization that Americans have different ideas about what democracy looks like really merit an anguished disquisition in the Washington Post?

But then, I told you I was crabby…..

 

 

A Depressing Analysis

Despite overwhelming relief at the victory of the Biden/Harris ticket, those of us horrified by Donald Trump and his enablers are still coming to terms with the fact that some 70 million people voted for four more years of the disaster we’ve just experienced.

Unlike those Republicans who continue to insist that up is down and Trump was somehow cheated out of a win, we live in the real world. We recognize that those 70 million votes were cast. The question is: why?  Trump’s hardcore base is demonstrably racist, but surely, America isn’t home to seventy million racists willing to dispense with functional governance so long as dark-skinned people and “foreign elements” are kept in their place.

Will Wilkinson considered that question in a recent column in the New York Times. He identified three factors that made the election difficult for the Democrats: partisan polarization, obscured by the inaccurate polling; the strength of what he labeled the “juiced” pre-Covid-19 economy; and the success of Mr. Trump’s denialist, open-everything-up nonresponse to the pandemic.

How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.

Wilkinson looked at Trump’s war of words against governors and mayors — especially Democratic ones — who refused to risk their citizens’ lives by allowing economic and social activity to resume, and to Republican messaging that defined the contrast between the parties’ approaches to the pandemic as a battle between individual freedom and over-reaching government.

The Republican message couldn’t have been clearer: Workers should be able to show up, clock in, earn a normal paycheck, pay the rent and feed their kids. Democrats were telling the same workers that we need to listen to science, reopening is premature, and the economy can’t be fully restored until we beat the virus. Correct! But how does that help when rent was due last week?

Make no mistake, it was unforgivably cruel of Republicans to force blue-collar and service workers to risk death for grocery money. Yet their disinformation campaign persuaded many millions of Americans that the risk was minimal and that Democrats were keeping their workplaces and schools closed, their customers and kids at home, and their wallets empty and cupboards bare for bogus reasons.

Democrats fell into the trap Republicans set with their dogged refusal to do anything about the uncontained pandemic. Wilkinson concluded that the “spell of polarization” turns every issue into a clash of political identities. As a result, “real” Republicans largely dismissed the pandemic as a hoax, a dismissal that conveniently excused the President’s manifest failure to deal with it.

This rings true to me–so far as it goes. But political polarization alone does not and cannot explain why millions of Americans chose to occupy an alternate reality and to dismiss evidence that was staring them in the face.

Constructing a world where the deaths of one’s neighbors are attributed to something–anything– other than COVID, a world in which a President’s too-obvious-to-ignore lack of competence is a sign that he’s being hobbled by the “deep state,”a world  in which that President’s lack of humanity is explained away as “telling it like it is,” a world where science is “elitist” and warnings from doctors are politically-motivated efforts to diminish the President–such a  world requires a media infrastructure.

There are multitudes of alternate reality purveyors:  websites and cable channels and talk radio hosts willing to confirm the accuracy of your preferred “facts” and the superiority of your chosen tribe.  Trump will go, but that media infrastructure will stay.

I think I need a drink.

 

 

 

How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go Now?

This semester, I am teaching an elective course that I “invented” some years ago; it is called “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” and the readings and class discussions center on the proper role of the state, and the optimal balance between respect for individual autonomy and the needs/interests of the society.

Because it is an elective, the students who choose to enroll tend to be engaged, and the discussions have generally been thoughtful and substantive.

The class meets on Tuesday nights, and Tuesday–today– is election day. In consideration of that fact (and, admittedly, the probability that several of them would skip class in order to watch the returns), I decided to forego our usual class meeting in favor of an effort to connect the more abstract principles we have been discussing with the very immediate realities of America’s political environment.

Here is the assignment I gave them. What would your answers be?

________________________

The 2016 election campaigns have been among the most contentious in our history, and have displayed wide—perhaps unbridgeable–disagreements among Americans not just about the comparative merits of individual candidates, but about the proper role of government and the nature of the common good.

Our next class is scheduled for election day. As these campaigns conclude, and in lieu of holding that class, I am asking you to consider the opposing views and attitudes that have been revealed during the course of these campaigns, and to write a 2-3 page essay addressing the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the Presidential candidates’ visions of the common good/national interest?
  • How would you describe their respective approaches to balancing protections of individual rights against the interests of the country as a whole?
  • In the wake of the election, how do you see Americans resolving our very different perspectives and deep disagreements? (In other words, given the incredibly acrimonious nature of the campaigns, do you see efforts at reconciliation or continued animosity, and in either case, with what result?)
  • In your opinion, what is driving Americans’ current partisan polarization and anger?

Media Matters

If there is one observation about American politics that everyone agrees on–whether they are left, right or center–  it’s that the electorate is deeply polarized.

There are a number of theories about why political actors are unable to agree on even the most pedestrian and formerly uncontroversial issues. A recent study suggests that our fragmented media environment has a lot to do with it.

In “Income Inequality, Media Fragmentation, and Increased Political Polarization,” published in Contemporary Economic Policy, August 2016, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas looked for evidence that media fragmentation plays a bigger role in polarization than income inequality. They looked at variables across six decades: indexes of polarization in the U.S. House and in the Senate, family income data from the Census Bureau and the percentage of Americans with cable or satellite television. The data confirmed that polarization has increased rapidly since the 1980s, but did not point to a cause.

Two of their findings:

  • The growing plurality of news sources as well as the increasing access to cable television made the greatest contribution to political polarization. Two phenomena, or a combination of the two, are responsible: Individuals seek out “self-reinforcing viewpoints rather than be exposed to a common ‘nightly news’ broadcast” — this is sometimes called siloing. Also, individuals are jettisoning news programming for entertainment, “thereby reducing incidental or by-product learning about politics.”
  • The decreasing exposure to alternative views and the increasing buttressing of one’s own views has combined to create less sympathy for others’ views and less of an ability to understand others’ views. “This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding.”

Other research has reached similar conclusions.The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014, including five key takeaways. In 2016, Pew also looked at ideological gaps between people with different education backgrounds.

As the Journalists’ Resource notes,

Harvard University Professor Thomas Patterson’s book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage 2013), describes, among other things, how in 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rescinded the Fairness Doctrine, giving rise to extremely slanted radio and then cable news talk shows. The Fairness Doctrine, Patterson writes, “had discouraged the airing of partisan talk shows by requiring stations that did so to offer a balanced lineup of liberal and conservative programs. Once the requirement was eliminated, hundreds of stations launched talk shows of their choosing, the most successful of which had a conservative slant.”

People who consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to believe the truth even when they are presented with clear evidence they are wrong, according to research published in 2016 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and flagged by the Poynter Institute.

When America is going through a particularly nasty period, it’s often comforting to remind ourselves that “we’ve been here before.” (Think civil war, the 60s, etc.) But we haven’t had social media and the internet during previous rough patches. We haven’t been able to choose our realities, insulate ourselves in our preferred “bubbles” and shut out inconvenient facts.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think that makes a big difference….

 

 

The Dangerous “Big Sort”

Ben Bernanke wrote an interesting article for the Brookings Institution recently, exploring public sentiments about the economy. Overall, he found little support for the thesis that the public anger and frustration that are thought to be important to Donald Trump’s campaign are rooted in economic issues. Instead, views of the economy seem to be correlated with political ideology.

I suspect that greater social and political polarization itself has a role to play in explaining reported levels of dissatisfaction. To an increasing extent, Americans are self-selecting into non-overlapping communities (real and virtual) of differing demographics and ideologies, served by a fragmented and partisan media. We see, for example, a sharply widening partisan gap in presidential approval ratings (Figure 5). As the figure shows, to a greater extent than in the past, people tend to have strongly positive views of a president of their own party and strongly negative views of a president of the opposite party.

As Bernanke notes, our “echo-chamber media” and shrill political debates give commentators and advocates strong incentives to argue that the country’s future is bleak unless their party gains control.

In this environment, it seems plausible that people will respond more intensely and negatively to open-ended questions about the general state of the country, while questions in a survey focused narrowly on economic conditions elicit more moderate responses. Without doubt, the economic problems facing the country are real, and require serious and sustained responses. But while perceptions of economic stress are certainly roiling our national politics, it may also be that our roiled politics are worsening how we collectively perceive the economy.

Bernanke’s observations are yet another data point in the thesis–first highlighted by Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort–that Americans are moving into enclaves of the like-minded. This movement is both physical and informational, political and ideological. We are increasingly walling ourselves off from contact with people who do not share our values, opinions and lifestyles.

It may be comfortable to walk my neighborhood and see the other “Pence Must Go” signs; to log into Facebook and read posts with which I agree; and to go to parties where we all shake our heads over the same news items. But living in a voluntary ghetto does not prepare anyone for reality.

When we don’t need to defend our points of view against different perspectives, we get intellectually lazy. When we don’t consider ideas we may not have previously encountered, we  can remain lodged in narrow perspectives.

Actually, my own lack of experience with people who don’t share my worldview gives me a recurring nightmare: what if there really are more people than I think–more people than the polls reflect–who will vote for Donald Trump? ( I remember the law school buddy who was absolutely convinced that McGovern would win easily; he lived in Greenwich Village.)

Tribalism may be tempting, but it isn’t good for our souls or our intellects. And taken too far, it’s terrible for democracy.