It’s difficult to make sense of American politics these days, though not for lack of trying! The following article published in Yahoo News presents some evidence that is more widely confirmed but also introduces some interpretations that are contradicted by that evidence (see blog comments). Most of the mainstream reporting seems to be suffering from these contradictions.
To begin, American voters are not divided so much by policy issues, as the head of the survey institute proclaims. Empirical evidence of voting patterns shows that most of the voting preferences are explained by urban vs. rural and suburban policy interests and household formation, with married voters contrasted against singles, with children or not.
The remainder (about 1/3, but growing) is probably explained by the moral values/ideological divide on which Jon Haidt has done so much research (see my The Righteous Mind review). People who lean left or right in ideology seems to have different value priorities that are reflected in how they view politics. Haidt classifies six moral values with their opposites as 1) care/harm; 2) liberty/oppression; 3) fairness/cheating; 4) loyalty/betrayal; 5) authority/subversion; 6) sanctity/degradation.
He goes on to show that liberals value the first three only and suspect the last three so that they focus on care and fairness as the foundation of a free society more than loyalty, authority and sanctity. Conservatives employ all six in designing their moral foundations. Haidt readily recognized this advantage for conservatives but suggests it is more a tactical advantage rather than a fuller understanding of a sound moral society.
Identity politics seems to have turned differences in moral value priorities into tribalism. So we have a Left tribe, referring to themselves as Progressives, and a Right tribe, calling themselves conservatives and libertarians. These tribes have developed two different cultures that appear incompatible. This cultural divide is far more distinct than race, ethnicity, or gender, despite what the media might proclaim. (MAGA is a cultural clarion call, not a racial or ethnic dog whistle.)
Of course, different cultures need not be antagonistic or adversarial, especially since they can evolve over time to share many of the same values, priorities, and mores. One error I see promoted by the liberal urban media and Democrats is the firm belief that their opponents are regressive and that progressivism must be proselytized. Voting results do not substantiate this belief and voting patterns show a majority of Americans embrace both traditionalism and tolerance for differences. Any friction is caused by the socio-economic disruption due to the rapid pace of change. It’s a mistake to push that pace of change merely for its own sake. Instead, we should manage it more judiciously without alacrity and judgment. People resist change instinctively and they need help adapting. That’s the role for politics and policy.
Unfortunately, truth and accuracy are the first victims of tribalism, and that seems to be the source of our present dysfunction.
Divided by symbols, Americans see a ‘serious threat’ across the aisle
An annual survey of American attitudes about politics and values released Tuesday found, to no one’s surprise, that the nation’s divisions are growing dangerously deep and wide.
More than half the people in both the Republican and Democratic parties see the other side as a “serious threat to the country,” the American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found. At a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution to discuss the poll findings, Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said a “pre-Spanish Civil War mentality” was taking hold among voters.
The word “war” itself was mentioned numerous times by the panelists, in reference to the way both left and right see politics now as a zero-sum fight.
The good news — or the bad, depending on how one views it — is that the divisions are mostly not about policy, but symbolism.
“When you’re at war symbols begin to matter more,” said Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI. “Confederate monuments, flags … the [border] wall is part of that.”
But, he added, “If you talk policy, Americans are pragmatic.”
He cited a finding in the latest values survey, which PRRI has conducted for eight years in a row, that around half of Republicans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He contrasted that with the political rhetoric from President Trump about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s the symbolic issues that are animating more than the actual policy issues,” Jones said. “When you turn from symbols to policy, there’s less polarization.”
There was agreement among the panelists Tuesday, including the conservative Olsen, that Trump fuels the conflict by highlighting the most inflammatory public issues.
But the deeper question is, why are Americans so focused on symbols rather than substance when it comes to choosing and following political leaders? Is it a recent phenomenon, brought on by the age of entertainment over information that has dominated the world since the advent of television? Or is it a natural human instinct?
Joy Reid, a panelist who hosts a weekend show on MSNBC, said that the election of former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 was a symbolic act for many black Americans, and that Trump voters — most of them white — engaged in counter-symbolism. [The problem with this interpretation is that the Rust Belt states flipped from Obama to Trump, indicating that symbolism was probably “trumped” by policy results.]
Trump is “almost a flip-side, bizarro-world Obama,” Reid said. “For a lot of hardcore Obama supporters, Obama was the point. It wasn’t specifically that he would do some specific economic thing,” Reid said. “It was the symbolism of having somebody who was not white, somebody who has international roots in his family, somebody who represented a changing America.” [We don’t see a problem here? Voting for someone because they are “not white,” does what for whites in a material sense? Of course, the non-white Obama could never have won an election without the support of a significant plurality of whites. Casting this history in terms of race is probably not helpful.]
Similarly, Reid said, “For a lot of Trump supporters Trump is the point. It isn’t his policies. It’s not what he’s going to do even for them.” [I would agree that it is less about Trump’s policies in a positive sense and more a reaction against Obama’s policies and divisiveness. This extends into the backlash against political correctness that Trump instigated.]
“Just having that man, who is white and very ethno-nationalist in his whitenesss … very proactive about putting forward his gender and racial identity and saying I represent this and I’ll attack the people who in your view are detriments to it … that’s kind of the point,” she said. [There it is again – ethno-nationalism and whitenesss – instead of patriotic sovereignty through Americanism that mischaracterizes the Trump opposition. This is not to say Trump did not take advantage of this mischaracterization.]
Reid said that Democrats who want to “convert” Trump voters may be chasing a lost cause. “I’m not sure that can be done,” she said. “He has a power over at least a third of the country that I don’t think anything can break.”
But while the PRRI study found 15 percent of Trump supporters said there’s nothing he could do to lose their support, there were twice as many confirmed opponents of the president. PRRI asked those who disapprove of Trump if there was anything he could do to win them over, and 33 percent of them said there was not.
“This is a substantial drop-off from where Trump stood on Election Day 2016,” Dionne said. A year ago, right after he was elected, Trump had a 44 percent approval rating, and a 50 percent disapproval rating. [Mr. Dionne is wrong as he views our politics from within the liberal media bubble, advocating that democratic politics is a zero-sum game: For Democrats to win, Trump has to lose. The country’s voters are not really in sync with this approach, which is why that urban media bubble is subjected to such criticism.]
Olsen’s explanations for the victory of symbolism over substance, and the rise of Trumpism, had more to do with a loss of what Jones called “cultural dominance” combined with economic vulnerability for some of the president’s supporters. [This makes far more sense.]
Trump’s voter base “feeds on fear,” Olsen said.
But he cautioned against dismissing them, saying that would only increase the risk of violence.
“If you’re educated and well-off, you tend to look at these reactions as being hopelessly naive, out of touch, racist, irrational and consequently worthy of being ignored,” Olsen said. “If that’s the response, you shouldn’t expect them to give up their arms. … If the answer is basically to build a wall around populism, what you simply do is build up tension, build up the partisanship. And then, if you go through some sort of economic decline that makes even more people despairing, you raise the possibility of a much more dangerous counterreaction.” [This is the danger that anti-Trump forces want to deny or disregard. They will not avoid blame for any future chaos that results.]