Our February topic was Polarity (in the USA and even in the White House)
Rob Katz led a discussion on his original paper on the origins of our national polarity.
Notes toward an Understanding of Why U.S. Political Parties Are So Polarized
The following is a non-comprehensive account of why US politics is so polarized today. Much more can be said about this topic. I also acknowledge that I come from a liberal Democratic perspective and a conservative Republican might have a different take on this history.
To begin with, the framers warned about the fracturing of the body politic through what they call “factions.” They initially had a dim view of political parties. But the truth is that all representative democracies have political parties, including the U.S. almost since its inception. The framers themselves helped to found parties, and the fighting between the Federalists, to which John Adams and Alexander Hamilton belonged, and the Democratic Republicans founded by Jefferson and Madison, was highly contentious.
Nonetheless, our political parties were not always as politically polarized as they are now.
1940–1980: Age of (Relative) Consensus
Considering our historical divisions, the political consensus achieved during and after World War II was exceptional in American history.
World War II as a Unifying Force
It shouldn’t be underestimated how the unity the country experienced in the war extended beyond the war. Senators and Congressmen who had fought and sacrificed in World War II were more inclined to put country over party. As Ira Shapiro said in The Last Great Senate: “Men who fought at Normandy or Iwo Jima or the Battle of the Bulge weren’t frightened by the need to cast a hard vote now and then. Seeing Paul Douglas or Daniel Inouye or Bob Dole on the Senate floor living with crippling injuries or pain, and the other veterans fortunate enough to have escaped unscathed, set a standard of courage and character for those who followed them.”
Moderate/Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats
During this period, the parties were not ideologically homogeneous, and there was considerable overlap between them. For historical reasons, the Republican Party had strong moderate/progressive wings. The party of Lincoln, the Radical Republicans, and Teddy
Roosevelt had within it a strong sector that viewed government intervention favorably to improve people’s lives and protect them from capitalism’s excesses. The fact that political leaders living in big cities chose the Republican Party as an alternative to corrupt Democratic political machines (famously, Fiorello LaGuardia against Tammany Hall) helped to reinforce this progressive tendency within the Republican Party. So too did FDR’s resounding reelection victory in 1936, which led establishment Republicans to basically accept many of the New Deal reforms, such as Social Security, the minimum wage, regulation of the stock market and banks. On the other hand, there were many conservative Democrats, particularly in the South, due to the lasting legacy of slavery and racism.
Period of Robust Economic Growth Shared by the Middle Class
The period of widely shared prosperity in the 30 years after the war helped support a consensus for relatively progressive policies.
1980–2016: The Consensus is Undone
The extension of Civil Rights to Blacks in the South and elsewhere, as well as other minority groups, although an extremely positive development, led to the gradual migration of the South from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Civil Rights legislation was initially enacted with bipartisan support (another example of post-War bipartisanship) but starting with Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968, Republicans made a conscious attempt to pursue White voters, using proxies for race like law and order, the crack epidemic, welfare queens, and other dog whistles. As late as the 1990s it was still possible for Democrats to be elected to statewide office in Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee. No more. (But there is beginning to be a resurgence among Democrats in parts of the South, partly due to northern migration and increases in Latino vote.) The migration of conservative Democrats to the Republican Party helped make it a more uniformly conservative party.
Race still remains a potent and divisive issue. One question asked by pollsters to gauge racial attitudes in 2010: “In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing Black people, too little has been made, or is it about right.” Among Tea Party s supporters, 52 percent said “too much,” compared to 19 percent who were not Tea Party loyalists.
The Reinforcement of Free Market Ideology
Starting in the 1970s, with the famous Powell memo, business groups that had accepted to some degree government regulation and labor unions became increasingly hostile toward any incursions on corporate power. Business and conservative groups like the Koch brothers spent billions to attempt to discredit New Deal reforms in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation. Corporate funded think tanks sought to minimize the role of government in the economy, and justify privatization. Public choice theory, for example, denied essentially that there was anything that could be identified as in the public interest, and argued that government entities were merely out to advance their own private interests of getting reelected and increasing their budgets. Free market fundamentalism became the new dogma, and both parties to some degree bought into this doctrine. After the overwhelming defeat of the old New Dealer Walter Mondale to Reagan in 1984, many Democrats were eager to move towards some imagined center. But whereas the Democrats would appoint judges and regulators who would honestly police big business, and balked at huge tax cuts for the rich, the Republicans increasingly had no such scruples and would become a party completely in step with the wishes of its corporate donors. The influence of wealthy donors became even greater after Citizens United allowed greater corporate cash in political campaigns in 2010.
It therefore seems incorrect to propound a symmetrical theory of polarization, i.e. the Democrats moving further to the left, the Republicans farther to the right. In fact, at least on economic issues, Democrats moved closer to the center in the Clinton and Obama years, while Republicans move toward an ever more doctrinaire conservative partisanship. Democrats who thought moderate, market-based proposals would garner some Republican support in Congress, e.g. the Affordable Care Act modeled after Mitt Romney’s reforms in Massachusetts, and cap and trade legislation to address climate change, were instead met with virtually unified Republican opposition.
The Rise of Social Issues
Starting in the 1960s, and increasingly in the 70s and 80s, social issues, and the “culture war” became increasingly prominent, with polarization around noneconomic issues such as abortion, gun control, “religious liberty,” law and order and affirmative action. Sometimes, as in the latter two issues, apparent policy divides thinly concealed racial resentment. (See above.) Furthermore, in contrast to WWII, the Viet Nam War was deeply divisive, exposing a fault line between counter- and traditional culture that still runs through our society. The fact that social issues rose to prominence at the same time as free market ideology is no coincidence. The Democratic Party to some degree abandoned the role it had assumed during the New Deal as the party of the working class, and was not willing or able to counter the trends in globalization and the weakening of organized labor that led to wage stagnation, increasing inequality, and a weakening public sector. Thus, both parties became to some degree (though the Democrats less so) instruments of corporate power, and voters increasingly distinguished between the parties on the basis of social issues rather than economic ones. These social issues tend to be fought out in absolutist terms and contribute to polarization, e.g., abortion is mass murder, and gun control violates precious Second Amendment rights. Republicans have long realized that they can’t win elections based on their free market ideology alone, which is not of obvious benefit to most people, and so have used social issues to capture voters not inclined by their economic interests to vote Republican.
The Rise of Cable News, Social Media, and Other Polarizing Media
Much has been said about this. In the 1980s, the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated by the Reagan administration. This led to the rise of ideological talk radio (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) capable of galvanizing conservative opinion. Then there was the ascendancy of cable news, which led to the rise of Fox News serving as a megaphone for the conservative Republican line. By the late 90s, what David Frum called the “conservative entertainment complex” was in full swing, helping to drive the discourse in the Republican Party. The pundit/entertainers like Bill O’Reilly and Limbaugh were interested in stoking conflict and provocation to attract a loyal audience, were contemptuous of compromise, and were far more interested in entertaining than in having a working government. Their influence among the Republican base made pragmatic compromises by conservative politicians far more difficult. These trends only got worse with the rise of social media, and websites like Breitbart. The left also got its own websites like Vox etc. Now, people could live in a news world that would entirely enforce their worldview. People were entitled not only to their own opinions but their own facts. People would inhabit news environments in which the idea that their opinions were right and that of the opposition wrong was constantly reinforced, and the listener/viewer/reader was continually being told, subliminally, that they were better than groups that thought differently from them.
The Gingrich Revolution
As conservatism took over the Republican Party, and a new generation of politicians who’d grown up in the conservative movement took command, the culture of compromise in Congress gave way to a new type of partisanship and intransigence. Newt Gingrich introduced the practice of having Congressmen go home to their districts over long weekends, so that they would not socialize with members of the opposing party. The contrast between Ronald Reagan, who talked like a conservative but was willing to make deals and compromise with Tip O’Neill and the Congressional Democrats, gave way to the likes of Mitch McConnell, who declared in 2010 that his main priority was to make sure that Obama was a one term president, which he sought to accomplish by opposing any legislative initiative Obama proposed.
With the triumph in the Republican party of free market ideology, social conservatism, the influx of conservative former-democrats, and demands of unswerving party/ideological loyalty, moderate Republicans were increasingly crowded out of their party. They either retired, or were defeated in primary or general elections, or switched parties (e.g., Arlen Spector).
2016 and Beyond
The Rise of Trumpism
Trump did not challenge Republican orthodoxy when it came to tax cuts for the wealthy, gutting environmental and consumer protection regulations, and appointing judges that were pro-business and conservative on social issues. He did depart from that orthodoxy in his skepticism of free trade, which he shared in part with the left, and an anti-immigration ideology tinged with racism, which he shared with the radical right. That kind of nationalism, together with his own confrontational personality, manipulation of broadcast and social media to rile up his base at all costs, plus his contempt for truth, constitutional limits on his power, and of the rule of law, has dramatically increased polarization.
The Democratic Party: Back to its Roots?
Although it is much debated whether the Democrats should move dramatically leftward, or more moderately so, it seems the real question is whether the Democratic Party will return to its New Deal roots: Will it be a party that focuses on government intervention to improve the economic well-being of the average person? The Democrats success in 2018, emphasizing the protection and improvement of the Affordable Care Act, in contrast to Republicans who sought to eliminate it, is perhaps a sign of what is to come. Democrats can again shift the focus from social to economic issues, as well as the environmental issue of climate change that voters increasing view as a threat to their wellbeing.
One model is Sherrod Brown, the senator from Ohio who won in 2018 by 7 percentage points in a state that Trump carried by 8. The state has a strong strain of socially conservative voters and Brown has been consistently liberal on abortion, civil rights, and gay marriage. But he has also been progressive on working-class issues, advocating renegotiation of trade deals, support of organized labor, and talking about the dignity of labor. He was able to persuade enough working-class people who cared more about economic issues than social issues that he was genuinely on their side in order to win his reelection handily.
We also discussed a new book by an advisor (or advisors) within the White House. It’s not clear if there are multiple writers because the author is “Anonymous, a senior Trump administration official.” The title is A Warning, which is published by the Hatchette Book Group. Perhaps they feel comfortable publishing this book because they are based in France. (See Hachette, Warned by DoJ, Moving Ahead with “A Warning”)
Page 29. Take, for example, the process of briefing the president of the US, which is an experience that no description can fully capture. In any administration, advisors would rightfully want to be prepared for such a moment. This is the most powerful person on earth we are talking about. But before a conversation with him, you want to make sure you’ve got your main points lined up and a crisp agenda ready to present. You are about to discuss weight [sic] matters, sometimes life-and-death matters, with the leader of the free world. A moment of utmost sobriety and purpose. The process does not unfold that way in the Trump administration. Briefings with Donald Trump are of an entirely different nature. Early on, briefers were told not to send lengthy documents. Trump wouldn’t read them. Nor should they bring summaries to the Oval Office. If they must bring paper, the PowerPoint was preferred because he is a visual learner. Okay, that’s fine, many thought to themselves, leaders like to absorb information in different ways. Then officials were told that PowerPoint decks needed to be slimmed down. The president couldn’t digest too many slides. He needed more images to keep his interest – and fewer words. Then they were told to cut back the overall message (on complicated issues such as military readiness or the federal budget) to just three main points. Eh, that was still too much. Soon, West Wing aides were exchanging “best practices” for success in the Oval Office. The most salient advice? Forget the three points. Come in with one main point and repeat it – over and over again, even if the president inevitably goes off on tangents – until he gets it. Just keep steering the subject back to it. ONE point. Just that one point. Because you cannot focus the commander in chief’s attention on more than one goddamned thing over the course of a meeting, okay?
35. Fundamentally, the president never learned to manage the government’s day-to-day functions, or showed any real interest in doing so. This remains a problem. He doesn’t know how the executive branch works. As a consequence, he doesn’t know how to lead it. The policymaking process has suffered considerably. On any given issue – say, how to fix health care – there is a daily confusion between departments and agencies about what the plan is and who is in charge. He tells the secretary of defense [small letters used here] to do things that are the responsibility of the secretary of state. He tells the attorney general to do things that are the job of the director of National Intelligence. Sometimes he tells his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to do all of their jobs at once, including reimagining care for America’s veterans, negotiating Middle East peace, spearheading criminal justice reform, and undertaking delicate conversations with foreign allies.
50. I was wrong about the “quiet resistance” within the Trump administration. Unelected bureaucrats and cabinet employees were never going to steer Donald Trump in the right direction in the long run, or refine his malignant management style. He is who he is. Americans should not take comfort in knowing whether there are so-called adults it the room. We are not bulwarks against the president and shouldn’t be counted upon to keep him in check. That is not our job. That is the job of the voters and their elected representatives.
65. You don’t need to be a presidential appointee to witness his irregular mental state. Just watch any Trump rally. While giving a speech on energy production one day, the president made an errant comment about Japan, complaining that they “send us thousands and thousands – millions! – of cars, [and] we don’t send them wheat. Wheat! That’s not a good deal. And they don’t even want our wheat. They do it to make us feel that we’re okay, you know, they do it to make us feel good.” Ignoring the fact that trade with Japan was irrelevant to the speech, the comment didn’t make sense. Wheat is not a top US export to Japan. It’s not even one of our top agricultural exports to the Asian nation, as appointees in our Commerce Department later pointed out. Also, his characterization isn’t a coherent way of thinking about how countries purchase goods. Nations don’t buy our products on behalf of their people, and they don’t do it to make us “feel good.” Trump makes such statements all the time, leading to our next point.
66. Among many other conspiracy theories, Trump suggested without evidence that Senator Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in the Kennedy assassination, that Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered, that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have been involved in a former intern’s death, that a former Clinton advisor’s suicide could have been something more nefarious, that Muslim Americans near New York City celebrated on the street after 9/11, that vaccines cause autism, and more. External observers can barely keep these claims updated. Internal observers are not better off. We wonder, does he actually believe these conspiracy theories? Does he just say this stuff to get attention? I can’t get into his head, but my guess is a little bit of both.
117. Following the 2016 election, in which he expressed the customary words of political unity and solidarity, Donald Trump quickly pivoted, eyeing ways to use his White House and taxpayer-funded federal investigators — whom he thinks of as his investigators — to go after political enemies.
118. Most Americans shrug at Trump’s bombast. Surely he doesn’t really want to investigate and jail Democrats who opposed him. This is just another feature of his outlandish entertainment persona. He can’t put Hillary behind bars because he doesn’t like her. Right? Donald Trump thinks he can. He is serious about his commands to prosecute and persecute anyone who challenges him. Many of us have come to learn the hard way how angry he gets when the law and his lawyers in the administration do not bend to presidential dictates. Trump is particularly frustrated that the Justice Department hasn’t done more to harass the Clintons. In his first year in office, he complained to Jeff Sessions that the department hadn’t investigated people who deserved it, citing the Clinton email scandal. Days later he tweeted about the issue, writing, “Where is the Justice Dept?” and noted that there was “ANGER & UNITY” over a “lack of investigation” into the former secretary of state. “DO SOMETHING!” he demanded. The directive was not given to anyone in particular, but it’s obvious to whom Trump was speaking. However, Sessions was effectively recused from the matter since it was tied to the Russian investigation.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.