05 June 2012

Polarization of the People?

It's time again for the annual Pew Research Center survey of American Values, and this year's survey reveals an electorate more polarized than at any point in the 25 years since Pew began this tradition. Polarization on partisan lines accelerated after the election of George W. Bush and has not slowed down under Barack Obama. Pew claims that party identification is now a stronger determinant of polarized attitudes than any other demographic category -- more so than class, race, religion, etc. The last time polarization decreased was between 1994 and 1997, a short-lived trend probably traceable to some soul-searching and cooling of heads after the Oklahoma City bombing. Polarization accelerated most dramatically during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq but has climbed steadily to its new peak since Obama's election. Polarization is ideologically driven, the differences between partisans being most stark on questions touching on the role of government and the need for a social safety net. In simplest terms, fewer Republicans are willing to see government spend money on poor people, while Democrats explicitly disregard questions of deficits and debts when insisting on government aid to the needy. Self-styled independents predictably fall in the middle. They're more likely to agree with Democrats that government should "take care of people who can't take care of themselves," though an independent may define that category more narrowly than a Democrat, while they draw closer to Republicans when the survey raises the specter of national debt. Possibly explanatory are the findings of an "Efficacy vs. Fatalism" question. While all groups agree that "the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer," the major parties draw different conclusions from that observation. A majority of all people surveyed reject the "fatalist" premises that "success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control" and that "hard work offers little guarantee of success," but Democrats as a group tend towards "fatalism," while Republicans presumably assume that hard work can overcome all obstacles, and independents occupy the middle ground. Republicans are also the group most likely to blame poverty on "lack of effort" rather than "circumstances."  Going back to the question of government's responsibility to the needy, we can infer that Republicans assume either that anyone currently incapable of taking care of himself can just work harder and take control over his life, or that such people may as well vanish from the face of the earth. Perhaps tellingly, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to complain that government isn't responsive to them and their concerns, though independents are even more likely to make that complaint.    

Pew makes no attempt to explain why polarization has accelerated so dramatically since the 1980s, and theirs is an insufficient sample to back any claim that today is the most polarized moment in American history. I imagine the Civil War period will always hold that position, but polarization has been a persistent feature of political life under a Bipolarchy. The intellectual bases and emotional intensity of polarization differ across time. A century or more ago, it was often a matter of raw "team" identification or ethnocultural identity politics, Democrats being the party of immigrants, Catholics, working class city folk, etc. while Republicans were the WASP and country party. Partisan propaganda was as ubiquitous in the past as it seems now, though it obviously took different forms. Take all of this as a warning against automatically blaming talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC, etc., for today's climate. They clearly play a role, but we can question whether they instigate polarization or only exacerbate it. To some extent public opinion must come straight from the public, not from the spinmeisters of the party propaganda offices. Despite the survey finding that Americans mostly deny the premise of national decline, it looks fairly obvious that millions of people, for any number of reasons, have decided that millions of other Americans need to be kicked to the curb and made to fend for themselves, whether because we can't afford to carry them anymore or because we never should have carried them. These millions may believe sincerely that those other millions can and will fend for themselves, or they may feel that it's none of their business -- unless they choose to be charitable -- if anyone can't. People with such opinions may not be "declinists," but they certainly represent a nation in decline. Decline itself may be the ultimate or fundamental cause of today's polarization, since it does seem to force an eventual either-or choice on us: "no one left behind" or "every man for himself." Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans perfectly represent these choices, but Americans may pick between the parties based on their own choice of options. We could get rid of Bipolarchy tomorrow and Americans may well feel the same way they do today. Who do we blame then?

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