Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

Thoughts On Our 'Divided America'  | e-mail post

Since I was delinquent in addressing last week's Homespun Symposium topic, I will get this week's out of the way immediately. This topic this week is three (really four) questions:
Before answering any of these questions, I think it is critical to consider what exactly "the division in America" really means. Is the conventional wisdom regarding the nature, source, and extent of the division in America accurate?

The contemporary American political process naturally demands a certain level of division.In every election competing candidates offer competing or opposing positions and visions for the future; and in every election only one candidate can win. That's the way it works. Why does this election demonstrate some kind of unique divide?

Some point to the election results as evidence of the rift. They say the relatively narrow margin shows just how evenly split the nation is, while the high voter turnout indicates the intensity of the divide. But compare this to Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 in which Kennedy won the national popular vote by a margin of .17%, about 113,000 votes, a smaller vote margin than Bush had in Ohio alone. And as to turnout, in 1960, 63.1% of the voting age population showed up to vote, compared to 55.1% this year. Was the nation as divided then as it was today? More importantly, did people feel as divided as we do today? It is doubtful that Kennedy's election left 3 out of 4 Nixon voters "worried" and over a third "angry" about the outcome, as a Pew poll found Kerry voters to feel about Bush's victory.

A political scientist would say that close elections aren't usually a sign of division, but instead are the result of a lack of clear substantive differences between the candidates. I have commented at length on John Kerry's failure to present an agenda that offered a significant alternative to Bush. Kerry talked of doing things "better" or "smarter" or "differently;" he said we should do "more" or "everything possible." However, as a substantive forward agenda, he offered little more than increasing taxes on the wealthiest 5% of the nation and eliminating restrictions on funding embryonic stem cell research. The first President Bush might say that Kerry lacked that "vision thing."

"But look at the maps!" division-seekers claim, "The maps make the divisions so clear." If you really feel that way, I would encourage you to read a piece by the Washington Post's Philip Kennicott, "Election Map Makers, Exercising Some Latitude" to help provide some perspective. One of Kennicott's observations:
On the Internet, the shape of the United States is being reconfigured, recolored, relabeled and even twisted, in some cases, into unrecognizability. The infamous Jesusland map, which pits the blue states and Canada against a new southern theocracy, is only the tip of the cartographical iceberg. A more sober slide show, originally produced for CBS News, walks the user through just about every conceivable demographic division, from wealth to education to race and ethnicity. It is a mesmerizing and obsessive repetition of the American silhouette, colored to capture myriad degrees of social difference. It has the unintended consequence of reducing America like an X-ray reduces a patient, reinforcing the same minutiae of demographic cynicism we deplore in major-party strategists.
"Well if you can't see the division from the polls, you must be blind," say the believers in a deep divide, pointing to electoral splits among various demographic or sociographic factions. Of course, one can obviously segment groups, and identify segments that vote in one direction or another, this is exactly the "minutaue of demographic cynicism" Kennicott described. Indeed, I recently argued that the exit polls were actually engineered to "find" the division. But looking at the bigger picture and reading various postelection polls, the division appears less clear. For example, a CNN poll found 63% of voters want Bush to emphasize a bipartisan agenda, while only 30% want a focus on a "pure" Republican agenda. If you assume that anyone who voted for Kerry would, by definition, want a bipartisan agenda, slightly over 40% of Bush voters must want that bipartisan agenda as well. I would even bet that if the election results had flipped, the results would be mirrored, with at least as large a portion of Kerry's voter's endorsing a bipartisan agenda.

And, there really isn't so very much difference between the major parties. I'm not saying it's Coke versus Pepsi, but we certainly aren't deciding between milk and whiskey, this election was LBJ versus Barry Goldwater. When you consider the entire gamut of government policy, so much of it has been settled and institutionalized into vast professional bureaucracies. Even in policy areas that haven't been completely settled, the debate is not black or white, but more about deciding between a charcoal or slate grey. Each party is more than willing to co-opt positions traditionally "owned" by the other: Clinton brings us free trade and welfare reform, and Bush spearheads the largest entitlement program since Social Security (the Medicare prescription drug benefit). Ever tort reform, a key platform item for Bush, was first implemented by a Democratic governor and legislature in California back in 1975 (more on this subject). And truthfully, there wasn't much of a healthcare debate because Kerry's plan really wasn't all that different from a proposal presented by Republican Senate Leader Bill Frist. It's hardly surprising that many earnest progressives would call Kerry "Bush lite," or that conservative ideological purists would point out that Bush could hardly be called a "genuine" conservative.

Some might suggest that the similarities between the parties indicate a dysfunction in the political system. I would suggest that, more positively, such similarity might also be taken as evidence of a significant national consensus about a great many issues as well as the relative effectiveness of the two parties at ultimately arriving at solutions that are acceptable to a broad national consensus. The truth is that, as a collective whole, our nation is in pretty good shape, really. Citizens around the world might criticize or insult us for reelecting George Bush, but the funny thing is, we are still the envy of the world. For every Kerry voter that joked of leaving the country, there are easily a hundred people around the world who would wish nothing more than to take their place in America. And, as a practical matter, there hasn't really been any sort of exodus.

But If There's All This Consensus, Why Do We Feel So Divided?

As I've thought about it, I believe that the sense of division we feel is symptomatic not so much of a broad political difference but of a partisan rivalry, created and compounded by some broadly interrelated factors, none of which should make us very proud. (I will be posting followups to elaborate on these items as well, but I am trying to be brief(?))

A broad level of political ignorance and apathy, combined with the an expanding commonality between the major parties, has encouraged, if not forced, the use of more wedge issues, shrill claims, and personal demonization in campaigns, creating a political Kabuki theater. Poor mainstream news reporting of both government and politics has also encouraged more stark differentiation and simplistic messaging. The media has compounded their failure by being a party to the shift in the political debate from one of substance, facts, governance and policy to one that is personal, partisan, misleading and process-oriented.

These factors, combined with a pragmatic consensus by many in the informed middle has resulted in the group of citizen partisans for each side being composed of proportionally more extreme elements, who have also become increasingly shrill. The rise of niche media outlets from talk radio to blogs has also provided these citizen partisans with a greater voice.

The increasing intemperance by partisans and a lack of substantive knowledge about politics and policy has combined with a culture that discourages the social discussion of political disagreement to create a situation in which our social circles are more likely to be politically homogeneous, leading to groupthink and intemperate "debate" within those circles. When combined with increasing privacy and social isolation in people's political worlds (evidenced by increasing absentee voting and online political discussions) the result is many people who don't have (or don't know they have) any friends with an opposing viewpoint. A broad decline in the culture of respect and civility has also meant that people are more likely to view those who share different political views as somehow abnormal (and since it is often only the most extreme from the other side that rise above the din, this is more understandable).

All of this has combined with an increasingly self-indulgent culture that encourages, or at least validates, this emotional and dramatized sense of division that requires healing. Depression, as they say, is a disease of affluence. And, of course, it makes great news copy, having become the meme of the year for the mainstream press.

So What Can We Do?

Shortly after the election, I did an in-depth analysis of the NEP exit polls, which led me to believe the questions and tabulations were selected to highlight the sense of division in the electorate, it forced me to contemplate their motivation:
I'm not 100% sure why they would want to create that image so badly it would be worth effectively rigging the voter opinion results. The only rationale that comes to mind for doing this is that an America divided along largely demographic grounds is a better story for television.

I suppose television as a medium can't compete as strongly with print or online in the deeper discussion of policy, and that is exactly what our nation needs. If polling revealed the commonsense fact that most Americans, regardless of who they vote for, are generally concerned about the same sorts of things, and the conflict is really about the philosophical approach to achieving those common goals, then Americans are going to realize that we need to come together, across party lines and ideologies, and have a dialog about how best to achieve those common goals. That is usually what I try to do here, but I think many people think it's just easier to believe that "the other guys" are just too far apart from them to even have a conversation.
And while I could go on about this at length, that seems like the best summation for now. I will be posting further information about some of these issues mentioned here, and will add links to the expanded information in this post as I do.


"Thankfully, Ukraine Reminds Us What 'A Nation Divided' Means" offers both some contemporary and historical perspectives on our nation's current divide.

"Looking at Political Apathy and Ignorance" considers some of the reasons for political apathy and touches on the extent of political ignorance.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  |  | Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Fascinating post. Good job. I agree that most people agree on what's important, and differ in their idea of how to reach that desired goal. But I'm not surrounded by most people, I'm surrounded by incredibly liberal law students.
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