I watched an interesting debate aired by PBS over political polarization in American politics. The debate actually focused solely on the partisan/ideological divide as it pitted “right against left” in its panels and choice of participants. You can view the debate here.
I found some truths and falsehoods presented on this issue. First, I would agree with George Will that partisan opposition is fundamental to the design of the US electoral and governing system. We have two parties so that issues can be reduced to simple dichotomous choices where the choice that prevails can be said to represent a majority of the nation’s citizens and thereby claim a mandate, whether that be weak or strong. Polarization today is evenly matched in a 50-50 nation, which makes elections highly contentious and volatile. It also makes it hard to claim a mandate, and rightly so.
The left-liberal argument seems to be that electoral polarization causes government dysfunction, but this is exactly the purpose: to challenge one side’s view of “good” government by forcing majorities and supermajorities in elections and governance. One discussant claimed that gridlock did not express the “will of the people” because of large scale disenfranchisement of minority groups. Whether disenfranchisement is salient or not, this is not what the data show to be driving polarization. In fact, if one controls for race, for instance measuring only white people, we find the same polarization patterns exist.
Matt Kibbe argues that the system is experiencing upheaval due to information technology that opens the political process in many ways that challenge the old guard. In other words, the political and media elites no longer control the show and are understandably upset with their loss of hegemony. This paints our political dysfunction as an insider-outsider, populist-elite conflict that has tilted toward the outsiders. I’m not sure it has, beyond informing the outsiders just how outside the process they are. The apparent result has been widespread dissatisfaction with the governing status quo, but that doesn’t drive polarization as much as blame-gaming.
But the debate focused on the narrow ideological differences between left and right, whereas most of the polity does not adopt pure ideological or partisan identities. The fastest growing group of voters identify as independent and non-affiliated. So, we are still left with the question of what is driving polarization and we need to answer that question before we have a chance of understanding it. One problem is that the proffered answers usually support one’s political agenda rather than truth.
One need only to look at the correct maps of election results to understand that polarization exists and it is largely a geographic phenomenon. The Red State-Blue State narrative is not quite accurate as the real divide is obviously urban-rural, as illustrated by county election maps. This is confirmed with robust statistical results from recent presidential elections. As one moves from the urban core to the rural periphery, the share of the vote by county moves monotonically from Democrat to Republican. This fact has given rise to those bizarre and amusing subcultural characteristics of opposing voting groups: Republicans own guns, go to church, drive pick-up trucks, and listen to country western, while Democrats drink lattes at Starbucks, drive hybrids, and listen to rap and hip hop. There’s some truth to these stereotypes that feed our amusement, but these lifestyle choices do not drive political preferences, they coincide with political preferences. There’s a big difference, because when identity drives politics, there is little room for compromise.
This coincidence has become salient because both parties have tailored their party platforms to appeal to rural or urban voters. In other words, the parties have created political identities, not voters. We can observe the reality in the suburbs, where cultural caricatures are harder to apply. The true divisions in American politics these days are pretty much the same as those divisions that have existed over the past two hundred plus years: rural regions have different policy preferences than urban, metropolitan regions. The data show that these preferences also correlate with household and family formation, specifically marriage vs. singles and single heads of household. Population density of the county along with the share of married and female heads of households explains roughly two-thirds of party voting preferences in elections today. These differences in preferences have existed in societies throughout history and across countries, so they don’t present any different challenge to our democracy today. The real problem lies in the final third of the explanation for polarization, which is ideology or political philosophy.
Unfortunately, this conflict is usually misrepresented by self-interested parties. So the real challenge we face are the myths promoted by those elites who study and propagandize politics. This would include both parties, the political class, and most of the mainstream media elites. It would also include self-interested parties that exert great influence over the funding of politics, such as major corporations, the banking system, and public unions. This PBS debate exposes the tendency of experts to perpetuate these myths for reasons best known to them.
Mr. Will is correct that the driving force of the polarization we speak of today is ideology over the proper role of government in democratic society. I would have to say that the burden of proof on this rests with the pro-government advocates on the left, as the status quo ante for the US has been limited government that is constitutionally proscribed. The burden of small government proponents has been to meet the demands of democratic society without shifting the sphere of private life to the public sector. One cannot merely say such demands are illegitimate because legitimacy is a function of what a democratic polity demands within the constraints of constitutionalism. If voters demand economic security, the task is to help meet that demand in the most efficient and just manner possible, which usually doesn’t mean creating another universal entitlement program. An old Chinese proverb illustrates this perfectly: better to teach a hungry man to fish than give him a fish to eat.
Eric Liu seems to understand this, though he also appears too willing to fall back on the default of government-driven solutions by expanding public goods. Instead of really addressing the issue Mr. Will presents, the opposing discussants resort to claiming the question of bigger or smaller government is a false dichotomy. Intellectually, perhaps, but practically it seems to be the simple dichotomy that our political system was designed to distill and resolve. The petty and personal nature of our political conflict is merely a manifestation of this inability to reconcile these opposing positions. Personally, I am convinced it can be done, but it starts with understanding the true nature of our politics that puts to the test many of the belief systems we hold so dear.