Chris Cilizza, via Lulu:
After a political rally this week in which Democrats criticized the Obama administration for siding with Republicans on trade, I had a talk about the future of the party with Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat who is one of the most ferocious partisans in the House.
It does no good, he told me, for Democrats to “pretend to be Republican” or to “run corporate campaigns and try to pretend that they’re going to govern from the middle.” His rationale: There is no middle.
It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”
Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.
“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms, there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents,” they conclude. “If anything, the rhetoric and actions of political leaders demonstrate that hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate. Partisans therefore feel free to express animus and engage in discriminatory behavior toward opposing partisans.”
Up to and through the early 1980s, the average American had a neutral view of opposing partisans. But since then, “partisans have come to dislike the opposition and like co-partisans dramatically more,” Westwood told me. Favorable feelings toward partisans on the other side have dropped by 10 percentage points — going from tepid on what social scientists call a “feeling thermometer” to being “clearly in the cold.”
This hyper-partisanship has occurred even though fewer people identify with the actual parties. The vast majority of self-described independents actually lean toward one party or the other, and they are often even more partisan in their views than those who identify themselves with a party.
Also of note is that the partisan polarization occurs even though Americans aren’t all that split on policies or ideology. Their partisanship is more tribal than anything — the result of an ill-informed electorate. “In order to have an understanding of the ideology of your party and the opposing party you have to have a lot of information,” and “that’s something that just doesn’t happen for the majority of the electorate,” said Westwood. “However, most people understand their side is good and the opposing side is bad, so it’s much easier for them to form these emotional opinions of political parties.”
This leads to a grim conclusion: The problem with politics isn’t Washington but the electorate. Members of Congress, most of whom come from safely gerrymandered districts, are behaving in a perfectly rational way when they avoid cooperation with the other party and instead try to build support within their own tribe.
Elected officials and professional partisans then reinforce the tribal tendency in the electorate with overheated rhetoric, perpetual campaigns, negative ads and increasingly partisan media outlets. “The individuals who hold more hostility are then given the green light to hold these more hostile positions,” Westwood explained.
It’s the damn electorate. What a bunch of riffraff. They never should have been allowed to vote. Democracy is just a fancy version of mob rule. We can’t blame our leaders or the media. They are just doing their jobs, inciting and agitating.
I imagine the courtiers of Louis XVI said similar things about the French mobs.
From “I Can tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” by Scott Alexander:
The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.
I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:
I’m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the “intelligent, reasoned and thoughtful” group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.
This commenter was right. Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.
And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.
Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”
I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.
And that was when something clicked for me.
You can talk all you want about Islamophobia, but my friend’s “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful people” – her name for the Blue Tribe – can’t get together enough energy to really hate Osama, let alone Muslims in general. We understand that what he did was bad, but it didn’t anger us personally. When he died, we were able to very rationally apply our better nature and our Far Mode beliefs about how it’s never right to be happy about anyone else’s death.
On the other hand, that same group absolutely loathed Thatcher. Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.
I started this essay by pointing out that, despite what geographical and cultural distance would suggest, the Nazis’ outgroup was not the vastly different Japanese, but the almost-identical German Jews.
And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.
America used to be a unique place where the old tribal loyalties and enmities were forgotten and a new common identity was forged. It was called the “melting pot” and even though it wasn’t perfect it created an entirely new nation.
Then along came identity politics. Identity politics (aka “multiculturalism”) focuses on how we are different rather than alike. It divides us into groups and pits those groups against each other for the benefit of the people in charge.
There are places on this planet where people are carrying grudges for stuff that happened before Christopher Columbus was born. Do we really want America to become like that?