Monday, March 20, 2017

IS EXTREME PARTISANSHIP THE NEW NORMAL? A RESPONSE TO JIM DUBBS

 

NOTE: Below is a response to my The Personalization of Politics in America post of February 12th submitted by loyal Phronesis reader Jim Dubbs. It is followed by my response to his critique.


I must say that I am totally put off by any argument that would even try to compare the influence of political partisanship to that of racism. No contest. In any case, you may recall that in 1964, Goldwater and those who had joined his "tribe" were very personal in their partisanship (as, in fairness, were many of us who vehemently disagreed with him). His erstwhile fellow travelers (e.g., Senator John Tower, the Birchers, Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, General Walker, etc. -- hardly mainstream Republicans, but definitely not Democrats) demonstrated a partisan bias that was inflamed mainly by paranoia. Conspiracies everywhere!
 
Try to recall how many times you heard, "America, Love it or Leave it," or that fluoride water treatment was a Commie plot? One could not be neutral. A lot of families and friendships were split; emotions were very partisan and very personal. And like today, the Republican Party was hijacked by a very loud and ideological minority.
 
I tend to feel that much of the personalization of partisanship today has been amplified by the comparatively sudden emergence and pervasiveness of social media. It encourages intemperance and begs for over-simplification, which means little room or time for reasoned argument and, in turn, can rather routinely degenerate into ad hominem attacks. Soon or later, there is no room for a fair fight or a level playing field if the other side has subscribed to the tenet that the ends justify the means.
 
I am not sure how this is particularly new, however. To be more convincing, the Stanford research would need to also have been done 50 years ago to provide a basis for comparison. I think that the bigger worry about the future of domestic politics is how we can get competent individuals to run for office given the unbelievable amount of exposure and dissecting the most trivial details of their lives they are now being subject to. We may end up with only the most narcissistic and/or delusional to choose from.
 
As for this claim of partisan bias being the "new normal," I would counter by citing two factors: 1) the degree of apathy among US citizens eligible to vote as evidenced by the low voter turnout compared to other democratic nations; and 2) the growing number of voters who identify as Independents. I have joked with colleagues that voter apathy is a clear indication of the sound mental health of the populace, recognizing that the same ruling group will remain in place either way. Of course, it might just reflect a triumph of cynicism...or laziness, and apathy does, by subtraction, increase the influence of the partisan true believers.
 
My optimistic side would cite #2 as the stronger argument against concluding that partisan bias is the new normal, threatening the future of our democracy. I suppose if you are a strong partisan, that can infuse your view of almost anything, but if there are fewer like you as more of us become Independents, how might that development figure into predictions of what is normal?

Hey, it's only politics, certainly nothing to lose friends over. Besides, let's see what the next election holds before we start discussing a new normal. I seem to recall that words like "unprecedented," "aberration" and "bizarre" were frequently used to describe this past one. Just sayin'. We have survived more than a few periods of extreme partisan divides in our history. This, too, shall pass. I only wish I could say the same about racism.


Jim Dubbs


MY RESPONSE:


I’ve come to expect, and welcome, Jim Dubbs’ thoughtful responses to many of my posts.  He always brings an informed historical perspective to the table.  He makes me rethink my arguments with a keener eye to comparative history.  I don’t always agree with his responses, as is the case with his current offering, but they are always welcome. His skepticism about strong partisanship being the new normal inspired me to take a deeper look at the problem.  In my response below I take issue with some of the points he made in his critique and also offer some new thoughts on where partisanship may be heading. 

Before responding to Jim’s comments, I feel I need to clarify what I mean by the term, “extreme partisanship.” A person becomes extreme in their partisanship when they come to believe that their party (or political faction) holds a monopoly on political truth.  Alternative truths, such as represented by the opposing party, are considered false, rendering that party illegitimate in the eyes of the partisan.  It is the righteous sense of truth that defines the extreme partisan (and, as I will argue, distinguishes such partisans today from past strong party identifiers).  It is my assumption that there are a growing number of extreme partisans in both the Republican and Democratic Parties.  Their mutual absolutism leaves little common ground and thus little space for compromise (more on this later).
 
With this clarification in mind, I will address Jim Dubbs’ critical response to my post. 
 
Among his comments, Jim said he would be totally “put off” by “any argument that would even try to compare the influence of strong partisanship to that of racism.” I didn’t try to make such an argument. I simply raised the question whether extreme partisanship today has become a powerful influence on political and social behavior, like race and to a lesser extent class in terms of predictive power. It was a hypothesis, not a claim. I wasn’t implying that racism and extreme partisanship are similar evils, if that’s how it was interpreted. 

Evidence strongly suggests that today's partisan polarization is the product of a convergence of multiple identities: racial, religious, professional, geographical, ideological and more.  In contrast to the past, when differing identities pushed in different partisan directions, multiple identities nowadays line up behind one party, hence widening party polarization.  
 
Jim doubts that strong partisanship has become the “new normal” in America. He makes two arguments to support his doubt. One is historical: we’ve had bitter partisan polarization in the past, particularly in the Goldwater conservative era (and, I might add, over civil rights and the Vietnam War). On this he says “a lot of families and friendships were split; emotions were very partisan and very personal. And like today, the Republican Party was hijacked by a very loud and ideological minority.”
 
There were indeed angry emotions and bitter disputes during the Goldwater era, but I don’t recall them being narrowly associated with party identification.  Angry disagreements over issues like free vs. regulated markets, taxes, social spending, civil rights, and the Vietnam War did rage, but were not conducted exclusively along party lines.  A number of Republicans, for example, supported civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War, and were not adverse to taxing and spending.  A number of Democrats, and not just those from the South, took opposite positions. 
 
A “loud and ideological minority” was indeed prominent, but it never did fully hijack the Republican Party.  Rockefeller Republicans formed a potent opposition and would rise again in the ashes of the Goldwater defeat.
 
I thus think Jim overstated the intensity of the partisan divide during the Goldwater era (or underestimated the current divide).  Back then strong partisanship didn’t stop Republicans and Democrats from crossing the aisle to produce landmark legislation on civil, women and voting rights, and on an array of environmental, health, and safety protections.  It didn’t prevent Republican and Democratic officials from having good personal relationships, hanging out together after hours where many deals got done.  Such cooperation and fraternizing is history.  These days, at least for Republicans, being seen after hours with a Democrat would likely bring a stern rebuke from party leaders.  Voting against the party line on an important matter could jeopardize one’s committee position and even invite a strongly backed primary challenge.  Democrats are not so draconian in imposing sanctions on deviant members, but still it is rare for a Democrat to cross the aisle.  
 
Jim’s second argument was about the trend toward independent voters, which he suggests is reducing the number of partisans.  While it’s true that an increasing number of voters identify themselves as “independents” (around 40% in a recent Gallop poll), this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily non-partisan and hence more inclined to be swing their votes.  According to research conducted by Corwin Smidt, a Michigan State University political scientist, Americans who call themselves independents today tend to do so because they “view partisanship as bad” and see allegiance to a party “as socially unacceptable.”  In actuality, they tend to regularly vote for the party they lean toward.  Smidt found that independents are more stable in their support for one or the other party than were “strong partisans” back in the 1970s.

According to University of Maryland professor Frances Lee, who wrote a book on partisan polarization, voter reluctance to admit to a partisan bias often leads people to say they are independent, when in fact they lean toward one of the parties.
 
In another study by University of Pennsylvania government professor Dan Hopkins, “independents who lean toward the Democrats are less likely to back GOP candidates than are weak Democrats.”  He also found that self-identified independents also are less likely to vote. 
  
This evidence suggests that independents are not a significant wild card in American politics.  Rather than exerting a moderating influence by being receptive to vote switching or ticket-splitting, they are really “closet partisans” with generally stable voting patterns.
 
There is thus good reason to be skeptical about the significance of the growing number of voters who call themselves independent.  Regarding the impact of polarization on voting, evidence indicates the growing distance between the two major parties has not significantly increased the number of true swing voters. Partisanship continues to define voting behavior and this is not likely to change even if the numbers of self-identified independent voters grows.  It also predicts that independents, such as they are currently constituted, are not likely to become a third, and possibly moderating, force in American politics.  
 
Extreme partisans of the left and right today have separate perceptions of reality.  Since each side is certain their perceptions are true, and their opponent’s views are wrong, there is no need to ask questions or try to understand the other side’s point of view.  This makes finding common ground illusive.  Between the two parties is a no-man’s land.  Cross into it at your own political risk.   Because both sides consider the other contemptuous of truth and out of touch with reality, debates invariably become nasty affairs, with a lot of shouting and accusing, but little listening. The American cultural disposition to be a winner—never a loser—hardens positions, intensifies battles, and, in the end, reinforces belief in the illegitimacy of the rival party.
 
It is this kind of extreme partisan polarization, mutually righteous in belief of what is factual and important, dismissive of opposing opinions, adverse to cooperation and compromise, intrusive into social and personal, as well as political arenas, that I believe distinguishes the current partisan divide from previous manifestations of strong partisan disagreement. This hypothetical conclusion must, or course, be verified by rigorous comparative historical analysis. I am confident, however, of its validity.
 
The big question remains: is extreme partisanship today the new normal?  The optimistic Jim Dubbs doesn’t think so.  In his view, previous periods of strong partisanship differences eventually ran out of steam, confounding many prophets of doom.  This may have been true in the past, but there’s good reason to believe it does not in the present situation.  Separate realities, such as exist today along the partisan divide, aren’t easily reconcilable.  Public apathy and the independents Jim banks on are not likely to change the partisan calculus.
 
Things, of course, could change. Trump’s failure to deliver on promises he made to his base, his attacks on national security professionals and anyone else with whom he disagrees, conspiracy mongering, repeated lies and distortions of truth, and so much more, could produce a backlash that could empower moderate Republicans waiting in the wings.  The  extreme favoritism of Trump and his fellow Republicans toward the super rich could loosen the ties of many working class white voters to the GOP, leading them to become true vote-switching independents, resulting in a narrowing of the  partisan divide.  
 
A eternal optimist may buy into such a partisan-moderating outcome, but a more realistic overview points to a less rosy scenario. My sense is that extreme partisanship, as I’ve conceptualized it, will have lasting power; it will likely remain the “normal” for some time. 
 
I conclude this for two reasons. First, today’s extreme partisanship is not new in the sense that it just recently popped up or was ushered in by Donald Trump and will hence disappear if/when Trump self-destructs. The current partisan divide is a product of over three decades of anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-non-white rhetoric that has become deeply entrenched in our political culture.
 
Second, the role of social media must be considered. Hyper-partisan opinions, often designed to incite fear and hatred, can be instantly and broadly disseminated via social media.  While the explosion of electronic media can inform and educate, it can also be used to transmit fake news, alt-facts, and unfounded claims that insight, among other things, racist, xenophobic, misogynist and anti-immigrant dispositions.  Conversely, it can also serve to heat up anti-Trump sentiments. The hate-preaching finger-pointing, narcissist Donald Trump has been a complicit fire-starter. Given the power and pervasiveness of social media, it’s hard to envision a diminition of intense partisan passions. The post-fact world we live in will be very hard to dismantle.
 
My greatest fear is that things could get worse.  If anti-Trump protests become more expansive and disruptive, as they easily could, repressive crackdowns on human rights and liberties in the name of restoring law and order could ensue.  Lawmakers in at least 17 red states are already trying to criminalize political protests. Unruly protests, militarized police forces and a rights-adverse president residing in the White House don’t bode well for First Amendment protections.
 
If Trump’s plutocratic policies prove as alienating as some pundits are predicting, popular unrest in America could grow substantially. Social unrest and institutionalized repression, government eavesdropping and attacks on all forms of critical education, combined with a militarized foreign policy and the state-corporate alliance that dominates our politics, economy and culture would produce a mix of conditions reminiscent of what preceded the fascist takeovers in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930s.*
 
The edifice of constitutional democracy in America is of course much stronger than existed in the European states that turned to fascism.  This is our greatest protection against challenges to our time-honored democratic ways of life.  Recent attacks on civil, religious, and voting rights and challenges to free speech, press and assembly, however, demonstrate that our democratic institutions may be more fragile than many think. Could raging disorder make a substantial number of Americans acquiesce to authoritarian rule? Would citizens welcome a strongman on a white horse (as many already have)?  It is up to democracy-loving Americans to make sure this does not happen. 
 
* See Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated.   

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1 comment:

  1. Great commentary on both sides.
    Unfortunately, I think that once again race has raised its ugly head even further, and has become more entwined with political identity. While I don't believe that political partisanship is as deeply ingrained as racism, that entwining will make it harder to shake this era of political partisanship.
    I am optimistic our democracy will survive this era and that the likely failure of Donald Trump and GOP far right policies will create an opening to move pass this era of partisanship, but I think it is going to take many many years.

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