The Polarization is Real

posted by amba12 on July 5, 2006 - 7:30am

ambivablogIt wasn’t the happiest, this 230th birthday of ours. Here in New York, the fireworks defied the rain. Americans gamely oohed and ahhed at the starbursts, waved tiny flags and sparklers, and ate corn on the cob and ice cream. But the whole time we had this sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs, like children in a family where divorce is in the air.

We’re well on the way to becoming the Divided States of America. E pluribus no longer unum -- if it ever was, but at least it used to be an ideal to aspire to, an illusion we took pride in. When we pledge allegiance now, we’re only paying lip service to “one nation, indivisible”; our hearts belong to one fractious faction or embattled vision of it. (“Under God” or not? Huh? Wanna make something of it?) And those fragments are falling into a state of war with each other.

That was the message of a somber report on ABC’s 20/20 last week, “A Country Divided: The State of Our Union.” Texas journalist Bill Bishop and statistician Bob Cushing examined vote counts in all 3,100 American counties for the last 14 presidential elections. Over the last three decades, they found a dramatic trend they call political segregation, or “The Big Sort”:

[Across the country], the margin of victory [for either Republicans or Democrats] has steadily widened in every presidential election since 1976. In 2004, the overwhelming majority of counties were decided by margins of 20 percent or more. The number of Americans living in these landslide counties has doubled over the last 30 years. Today, half of all Americans are living in polarized communities.

Birds of a feather squawk together in cyberspace, too, of course. And on one level it’s natural. Most people prefer to “read, be among, watch, live with, worship with, vote with, people who are like themselves," in Bishop’s words (though speaking for myself, it bores me silly). So what’s new?

The bedrock identity, “We’re Americans,” that used to connect us down below all our differences has eroded alarmingly, that’s what. Our disagreement about what “America” is, and should be, has become nearly absolute. And so we’re shrinking away from one another, retreating into mutually inimical Americas that, like matter and antimatter, cannot coexist in the same space. It’s been shown that “like-minded people are pushed to more and more extreme positions when they group together.” The more we disagree, the less we talk to each other, and the less we talk to each other, the more we disagree – and demonize and caricature each other. This is the vicious cycle ABC News points to when they warn that “the polarization is feeding on itself.”

Two of us bloggers recently tried to bridge that widening gap. “Funky Dung” of Ales Rarus, a conservative Catholic, and “amba” of AmbivaBlog (moi), a post-traditional “spiritual nomad,” deliberately decided to get into a dust-up over the most divisive of issues, gay marriage – but we vowed to keep it civil. The result: people on both sides came out in the open and said what they really felt. Here is the one comment, from Funky’s camp, that really shocked me:

What we have here is competing notions of "the good". And when we disagree about what "good" means, we can be as civil as we want to be, but it really is best to simply put up a sturdy wall between our tribes. Multiple generations hence (and only then) will we be able to peel back the gates and see whose societal norms were really the wiser.

That’s how bad it is: we’re ready to secede from each other.

I’ve written this long, dark prelude to remind us what “Unity08” – how starry-eyed that sounds! – is up against. The political polarization Unity08 is tackling head-on is both a symptom of the disease and a cynical exploitation of it by both parties to gain power – just as the media exploit it to adrenalize ratings and make money. But is not the disease itself. The “disease” is a very real disagreement about what is good – a disagreement in which each side has carried off half of America’s best values. Centrist campaigners here and elsewhere are banking on the strategy of downplaying the hot-button values issues that the polarizers play up, acknowledging them as “important” but not “crucial.” I’m not sure that strategy will work, because that’s where people’s heart, gut, and identity are. Unless we can get all sides talking and listening to and learning from each other again, at least postponing their plans to withdraw into gated communities, anything like “Unity” in politics is a pipe dream. And we won’t be able to put America back together again.

The Declaration of Independence has become the meme of this political season. In addition to Unity08’s “Declaration of Independence from Politics Without Purpose,” which goes out to the leaders of Congress this Friday, hopefully with well over 10,000 signatures (hint hint), Minnesota’s Independence Party has its own “Declaration of Independents” (“When in the course of Minnesota events it becomes necessary to break the bonds of extreme partisanship, special interests and divisive politics . . . “), and the National Centrist Network (new name for the Centrist Coalition), where other centrist bloggers and I recently joined the board of directors, has, uh, independently planned its own Declaration of Independents. Florida’s new history education law centers on “the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

What appeals to us, I think, about this bold founding document at this particular political moment is that it was written and signed by a bunch of fed-up guys with the guts to say “Enough!” It embodies a clean break, a firm stand, and a new beginning based on simple, visionary principles. Today, the yoke of big money and partisanship and lobbying has become as burdensome to our democracy, and as necessary to throw off, as the Crown of George III had become for the Colonies. Still, I wonder whether a Declaration of Interdependence isn’t the document we really need.

[To be continued. In Part II I’ll muse about what and how we can learn from each other without agreeing -- and why I think the Left has even farther to go than the Right.]

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

In addition to petitioning Congress to respond to the needs of the people rather than the needs of big money interests, we also need to petition the media to report the in-depth truth about issues rather than presenting unsubstantiated sound bites on two sides of an issue and calling it news.

Virginia you are so right! Media what a biased bunch of hacks!

May I suggest that we, in this new joining of the reasonable, eschew the phrase "The American People..." and substitute "We Americans....". Both extant parties, and the leaders thereof, subtly distance themselves personally from our common interests by using the first phrase which does not include themselves. I'm sure it is unconcious, but equally sure that the phrase is patronizing. I know that I am very tired of hearing it bandied to support an issue about which I strongly disagree. While I am one of "The American People" but, somehow, I don't feel included when the phrase is used.

I agree with you. The problem is that the media is owned by Big Money and it is asking too much of humanity for Big Money to say bad things about Big Money.

What upsets me is the loss of investigative journalism. Today our "journalists" ask a soft question and if the President (or whoever) smirks the reporter shrinks into a corner and wets him/herself.

My recourse is to read as many sources as possible, including Christian Science Monitor, Aljazeera and several English-language foreign papers. Japan has some fairly straight reporting.

Chin up! We'll get through these dark ages!

Your description of a family under divorce describes eloquently the feeling I've had for several years.

And to take it outside of our sandbox, the whole world is divided. In recent elections in Germany and Mexico the vote was split right down the middle.

It's led me to have nightmares about a global civil war.

Before you start typing how I am a paranoid idiot hold your horses. I am not predicting such a horrible event, only admitting it has crossed my mind.

Bill Clinton and GW Bush both played only to their parties with no real outreach to opposing views. I blame both of them for exacerbating the division.

A major goal of Unity08 should be to hold a candidate to an expectation of bipartisanship. Listening and responding to opposing views and suggestions from "the other" whoever that may be.

I miss America.

Isn't there a problem here? To my understanding, Unity claims as it's raison d'etre the disconnect between the two major parties and the electorate as a whole, implicitly suggesting that it is the parties themselves which drive polarization. But here, you are suggesting quite the opposite: the entirely more natural (and I think accurate) claim that the growing partisanship of the major parties is not *driving*, but rather, is *reflective* of a deep and fundamental split in the electorate, a basic and irreconcilable divergence in views on "what 'America' is, and should be." It isn't that the parties are pushing us apart, but rather, that "we’re shrinking away from one another, retreating into mutually inimical Americas that, like matter and antimatter, cannot coexist in the same space." If that assesment is accurate - and I think it is - isn't that more-or-less Unity's epitaph? If the problem we face as a nation isn't unrepresentative parties, but instead a fundamental disagreement on how to resolve the real issues before us, where does Unity fit into this picture?

Listening and responding to opposing views and suggestions from "the other"

THAT is what we're missing. How can we expect politicians to do it if "We the people" aren't doing it?

Our blog experiment in disagreeing civilly, and trying to hear each other, was very compelling. Maybe Unity needs to have some issue-based town halls like that, in parallel with the political activity.

I have been as guilty as the next person in reacting with vitriol against los otros. I've been thinking about a pledge that I would take to keep me from giving in to the emotion of the moment.

Something like this strawman:

"I pledge that within the context of Unity08 I will engage in discussion with everyone. I will listen and consider opposing views. If I choose to reply I will do so calmly with respect and if negative emotion overtakes the conversation I will leave it be until I've calmed down."

I firmly believe that a large part of the problem is the public's ability to isolate themselves from opposing views via cable TV, talk\public radio, and blogs.

I don't think the divide is as concrete as many think. I find that often individual Dems and Reps can agree on what problems exist but have different ideas on what the solution is. Furthermore I find that when talking to individuals most of them don't tow their parties line 100% on every issue. So a while ns may be lacking when it comes to a broad based consensus normally two people can find some common ground somewhere.

Its not enough to build a party on but if the parties in control would allow elected representatives to vote the way their constituents want rather than punishing them for not voting along party lines every time we might not be having this discussion.

Since Washington joined Northerners Adams and Hamilton at Jay's Treaty in opposition to Southerners Jefferson & Madison (and Monroe) we have been a binary nation, North and South. Historian Dan Carter points out that this polarization continued in our time through the political strategies of George Wallace. This manifested & advanced as "red" and "blue" America (to paraphrase, " . . . politics is war by other means . . . ."). What might be historic here is the awakening of two new Independent parties; Angus King's (Maine) and Jesse Ventura's (Minnesota) as demographics shift to the West and the old, irrelevant, political parties decay like old worn-out coats. We are shifting from a North/South paradigm to an East/West paradigm. North/South is prelude - East/West is destiny.

I hope everyone had an opporunity to check out the Boston Pops performance that was along side the fire works in Boston. Very well coordinated.

It's a good time to reflect on what our nation stands for.

I vote for the party not the man. It is the Party that makes the tertiary appointments - the Under Secretary of Whatever, the Vice Chairman of Such’n’So, and the Deputy of ..., (you get the idea) And it is on that level , below the radar, that the real damage is done.
And also because a party can change its views slowly over a generation, but a man can change his over night.
If Eisenhower had accepted Truman’s offer of the Democratic nomination, we would not have had John Foster Dullas at State, or Nixon as Vice President. Remember, we elect a GOVERNMENT not just a man. ...Sorta Anonymous

Well to the extent that is true we get a real wild card here as Uo8 is not a party and the elected ticket will not be beholden to anyone to include the 'members' of Unity08



Where's the talk about the broken electoral system?

So many people vote strategically.
Third parties in our system today serve only the small role of attempting to influence the two parties.

If we had a ranked voting system where someone could put lib. then repub. or green then dem. more people would be interested and involved.

I'm sure many people here realize: is it no wonder that todays youth (and many adultes) are put off by the prospect of voting for disconnected money on each side of the ballot?

I would still have never voted for Buchanan, or Perot or Nader, or Bush or who ever the Libertarian was as President. Give me the alternative of naming them Members of Congress from their respective districts and I might pick that. (Especially since I don't live there.)

We the people can be pushed so far with violations in the name of profit, it got us in trouble before and here we are again. The plantation owners were wrong then and they are wrong now! Instead of slavery being a family ran business it has turned into corporations making it easy for us all to own slaves... and now they want to bring foreign nationals to our shores to take our union jobs calling it immigration reform? This is no split at all, this is the difference between right and wrong...

I'm perplexed as to what or whom the terms moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road or even unity referres to. In reference to what? What is the criteria? Is it a moral base? A economic fundamental? A power equilibrium? Or is it just being nicey-snicey and playing well in the sandbox? Why on earth would anyone desire an average? A less than optimum solution? A half efficient engine? Or a "C" grade?

"If we had a ranked voting system where someone could put lib. then repub. or green then dem. more people would be interested and involved."It would also open the possibility that Daily Kos would get a few seats in the House of Representatives, the Klan would get a handful of seats in Congress, and every nutty sect in the country would get some seats. FPTP has the salutary effect of excluding the crazies and allowing functional government. If it also has the side effect of sometimes forcing people to make choices they don't like, that is at least a price worth paying, and personally, I think it is a boon. Those who would force PR on us must first explain why they think that Italy is a good model to follow (although be warned, anyone familiar with postwar Italian politics will have a bone to pick with you).

I feel that subjects like gay marriage and prolife or right to life issues should be legislated by the states rather than the federal government. If we set aside this type of issue and focus on big national issues like: out of control spending by the incumbent Congress; the rip off of taxpayers by Medicare Part D; our sieve-like borders, waste and abuse by Halliburton in Iraq; waste and abuse by the Army Corp of Engineers and FEMA during and after Katrina. We Unity08 dissenters should be able to agree that Congress has seriously dropped the ball and sloughed off any personal or ethical responsibility for the mess they created with the assistance of the Administration and some unethical lobbyists. We must get rid of every incumbent Senator and Representative unless we happen to be one of the lucky few with a courageous Representative like John Murtha. We need a Congress with ethics, character, and the willingness to stand up and say things that are right and true that people don't want to hear. As voters, we need to remind Congress that they need to quit wasting their time and our money with issues better decided by individuals, churches or states.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.