June 13, 2012

Election 2012: Causes of American Political Polarization

After the American Century

Jeb Bush has now said what every thoughtful commentator has been saying for some time: the Republican Party has moved far to the Right. Bush is hardly a radical, but he noted that even Ronald Reagan would not fit well into the current climate of the GOP. It has moved so far toward right-wing positions that his father also feels marginalized. The GOP has gone through an internal transformation that has pushed him toward the margins.

This movement toward the Right and the polarization of the two parties will be one of the great subjects for future historians. In a simple-minded sense we can attribute it to the end of the Cold War, which freed Americans to be less cohesive, since there was no longer a common external threat. But if we accept that as the catalyst for this change, it still does not make clear what forces are at work inside the country.

The change can be compared to the slippage along a geological fault, which periodically leads to an earthquake, like the 1994 election with its proclaimed "Contract." To resist this change, the Democrats had to trim their sails and move toward the center. Clinton took some of his program from moderate Republicans, cutting back on welfare, for example, and embracing the NAFTA treaty against the wishes of the labor movement.  But the geological pressures kept building up, and under George W. Bush the country split more completely than before. The bi-partisanship that once was a hallmark of Washington, in contrast to some dysfunctional democracies elsewhere, has largely broken down. 

However, this is only a history of the political surface, not a sociology or history of the forces that have led to this seismic shift. Some of the reasons can be listed:

(1) The increased inequality between social classes. Between c. 1940 and 1972 equality was growing in the United States, as measured in real wages. Since then, the society has increasingly split, with the top 10% benefiting disproportionally, while the income of most of the population has tood still or fallen. 

(2) Greater political focus on non-economic issues, such as abortion, gay marriage, birth control, teaching evolution in the school system, and much else. These issues have been used by the Republicans to mobilize a considerable base. 

(3) The development of large church organizations, often media-based, that offer not only religious services but a community for the working- and middle-class. These mega-churches are typically controlled by a charismatic minister who is not inside a hierarchy like that of the Catholic Church or older, "classical" Protestant denominations. Politically, such churches are seldom on the left. There seem to be few heirs today of the social gospel movement that thrived in 1900, or of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, when in part for religious reasons, millions of white Americans supported social reform.

(4) The persistence of traditional American values, notably individualism and self-reliance, along with resistance to anything that can be labelled "socialist" or "communist." 

(5) The rising cost of medical care and education has increased the difficulties of ordinary Americans. It has become a struggle to educate children and care for the severely ill. One might expect that the Obama medical program would be wildly popular, but it is often seen, instead, through the lens of the traditional values just mentioned.

(6) The persistence of racial and ethnic tensions, which are largely unspoken but a very real part of the shift to the right and the Tea Party demand for  tighter immigration controls.

(7) The transformation of public discussion, changed through the Internet, including Twitter and the blogosphere, which makes it possible, even likely, that people get only the news and opinion that they want to hear, rather than a spectrum of issues and ideas in a newspaper that appeals to a range of readers. Rather than being challenged to hear diverse opinions, the new social media can create on-line communities that share prejudice, rumor, and half-truthes.  "Narrow casting" is becoming the norm, in contrast to the broadcasting, which by its nature was conducive to forming a broader political base that adopted moderate positions. 

(8) The radical increase in campaign spending, along with the sharp rise in the number of negative advertisements. Rather than developing a program, many candidates can get elected by tearing down their opponent. This is not a new idea, of course, but it is more common, and it fosters polarization.

This list is not complete. A historian in 30 years time will be able to look back and identify more social and economic forces that are driving this polarization. It is not only a change inside the Republican Party, but inside the Democrats as well. President Obama understands this and has tried to position himself in the more conservative portion of his party, much to the frustration of many 2008 supporters.  He is a pragmatist, a bit to the right side of the Democratic Party.  On the right side of the Republicans, however, are ideologically driven leaders who reject pragmatism and compromise.

Will coming elections increase tensions and drive the parties further apart? Can the country begin to heal, or will it split further?