Monday, May 12, 2008

You mean Americans are still polarized?

Remember all that talk of "political polarization" that was all the rage earlier this decade? Americans were supposedly dividing into bitterly opposed camps, reading one set of political books to the exclusion of opposing ideas and socializing only with like-minded acquaintances. That's all gone now that we're in a postpartisan age in which--

Oh bullshit. Polarization is back.

Say William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola of the Brookings Institution in the New York Times:

The share of Democrats who could be called conservative has shrunk, and so has the share of liberal Republicans. The American National Election Studies asks voters a series of issues-based questions and then arrays respondents along a 15-point scale from -7 (the most liberal) to +7 (the most conservative). These data indicate that 41 percent of the voters in 1984 were located at or near the midpoint of the ideological spectrum, compared with only 28 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters clustering toward the left and right tails of the spectrum rose from 10 to 23 percent.

Most strikingly, political polarization has become akin to political segregation. You are less likely to live near someone whose politics differ from your own. It’s well known that fewer states are competitive in presidential races than in decades past. We find similar results at the county level. In 1976, only 27 percent of voters lived in landslide counties where one candidate prevailed by 20 points or more. By 2004, 48 percent of voters lived in such counties.

Galston and Nivola say that Americans are self-segregating into communities that broadly share their values and attitudes. That doesn't just concentrate people in places where they hear no dissenting views; it actually exaggerates the views that already hold. That's because "once a tipping point is reached, majorities tend to become supermajorities. This is consistent with the findings of recent political science and social psychology: individuals in the minority of their group tend to shift their views toward the majority, while members of the majority become more extreme in their views. In such circumstances, discussions within groups often intensify, rather than moderate, the underlying polarization."

That squares with phenomena I've noticed among the circles in which I move. I have friends in both Flagstaff (predominantly liberal) and the Verde Valley (mostly conservative). Dropping in on a gathering of either crew can be like visiting an echo chamber -- there's not much diversity of opinion. The Flagstaff types almost never encounter people who favor, for example, loosening economic regulations or firming up property rights. The Verde Valley residents just don't run into people who believe in the right to choose abortion or support teaching kids about contraception.

And this isn't exactly a hardcore area; live-and-let-live still holds a lot of sway in Arizona. Many of those Flagstaff liberals are gun owners, for example, and many of the Verde Valley conservatives believe in reining in police power.

But in areas where there's common agreement, there's a total inability to comprehend how anybody could come to a countervailing opinion because they just don't usually run into people who voice an opposing view.

Take that phenomenon to Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Provo, Utah, and ... well ... Oh, Hell. I used to work in Cambridge. I know exactly what the result is -- think, the Stepford Commies.

But why, after over two centuries of American politics, is so much of the electorate now polarizing and drawing into camps so separate that they don't even socialize or live near one another?

As I've written before, I think it's because the stakes have grown so large.

[G]overnment has so intruded into every nook and cranny of modern life that Americans have real reason to fear the outcome when their opponents control the levers of political power.

Take the controversy over gay marriage as an example. Politicians debate the merits of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but there's no real reason that marriage of any sort should be a public policy issue. New York didn't require marriage licenses until 1908 and many states that required licenses earlier provided for private alternatives, such as publishing banns.

Likewise, private ownership of firearms and personal use of marijuana were regulated by states and localities, if at all, into the 1930s. Entangled in federal law in 2004, guns and dope now serve as defining issues for many Americans, and can decide the outcome of elections.

Even Americans' mealtimes are subject to official scrutiny. The federal government is rolling out an advertising campaign to nag people about their eating habits, and some public health groups want to impose high taxes on so-called �junk food� to discourage its consumption.

Who can blame Americans for being at-daggers-drawn when marital arrangements and lunch menus are at the mercy of the victors in the next election?

In his 1955 book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, historian Jacob L. Talmon wrote that liberal democracy "recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics." In contrast, "totalitarian democracy treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action."

That sounds familiar. Over the years, Americans have turned a country in which most areas of human life "are altogether outside the sphere of politics" into one in which every detail of life is treated as "falling within the orbit of political action."

This election, we have presidential candidates discussing a government takeover of health-care decisions, talking about marching Americans in unison for the good of some national purpose and otherwise dismissing the idea that anything is beyond the reach of the state.

If everything is subject to electoral outcomes, then people who hold views at odds with your own aren't just political opponents; they're enemies who want to reshape your life according to values you consider abhorrent. Why would you want to mingle with them?

This isn't the sort of a divide you cross with a warm and fuzzy PR campaign. If you want to reverse political polarization, you have to reduce what's at stake in political contests. Put more areas of human life off-limits to government intervention so that a victory by the political opposition just doesn't matter so damned much.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 19, 2009 12:58 AM  

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