Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hooray for My Team!

No one who posts to an internet bulletin board could have been surprised by this article in the Washington Post yesterday, which includes the following:

There is another piece of evidence that party identification rather than ideology is behind the growing polarization of the electorate: On a variety of unrelated issues -- gun control, the economy, war, same-sex marriage, abortion, the environment, the financial bailout -- the views of Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly monolithic. There is no reason someone who is against abortion should necessarily also be against gun control or for economic deregulation, but that is exactly what tends to happen among committed Republicans. Loyal Democrats have similarly monolithic views on unrelated issues.

"Party identification is part of your social identity, in the same way you relate to your religion or ethnic group or baseball team," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. This explains why, on a range of issues, partisans invariably feel their side can do nothing wrong and the other side can do nothing right. By contrast, moderates don't feel there is a yawning divide on issues because they don't identify with one party or another. Moderates, in other words, are like people who are uninterested in sports and roll their eyes when fans of opposing teams hurl abuse at each other.

One of the most dependable reactions on the net is the impulse of a netizen to support a fellow partisan, to concentrate on the areas of agreement with him/her, and to attack those identified with the "other side". It's disorienting to see those who agree with one on the Iraq occupation take a position contrary to one's position on gun control, abortion, religion, NAFTA, or same sex marriage. I like to think I handle this sort of cognitive dissonance better than most, though; I often see fellow liberals become irate over a former comrade's apostasy on some issue, almost to the point of claiming he's forthwith drummed out of our club. It's even worse on the conservatives' side; their big boards (like FreeRepublic) are famous for banning anyone who deviates from orthodoxy in the slightest.

So, the cited article says this tendency has become more pronounced over the years in the US, and I believe it. But how smart is it? My answer is, not smart at all, if you care about a civil society and a functioning democracy. There is no good reason a person can't be a free trader, pro-life, pro-gun control, and for universal health care. But those people would not have a home in either major party today. They'd have to keep half their opinions to themselves when among friends. And we haven't even started talking about religion.

I don't know how we can improve this situation. The major parties and their politicians keep talking about "big tents" and such, but it makes no difference. The hoi polloi still needs their culture wars. And I definitely feel this urge too. "President Sarah Palin" makes me want to retch. To me, she stands for a return to the Dark Ages and a repudiation of the Enlightenment. Everything about her and her family strikes me as trashy and destructive, from the snowmobile fixation through hunting and beauty pageants and religious fundamentalism to the shotgun marriage of her daughter to an unemployed high school dropout. If they were neighbors I'd avoid socializing with them. And I'm sure I'd be called a "hater" by Palin, as she terms all those who don't think as she does.

Maybe it'll take a realignment to shake up this very stable dichotomy. If one party becomes substantially more numerous, the other's exclusivity would have to weaken if it were to have any chance of regaining some parity.

But maybe we're all beyond that. Americans tend to move to areas whose values they share. And the net allows us to select our own communities. You can always be in the majority somewhere in cyberspace, and somewhere in the real world, if you're willing to move.

I don't know how much further apart we can get than Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and Michael Moore. Conservatives usually have (take you pick) no sense of humor or a very different one from me. They are not open to new experiences. Many of their moral choices are repugnant to me--and vice versa. I often think we're doomed to a cycle of shoving each other's faces into the ground as we gain temporary ascendancy in politics or popular culture, all the time nurturing our fears and resentments about each other.

We can try to be civil, and we often succeed. I hope that this does not become impossible.


James said...

Have you heard of an idea called "The Big Sort".
Seems like what you're getting at.

charvakan said...

Yes, I think I have. It refers to the tendency we have to choose like-minded friends and even communities, right? I was referring to that trend at the end, yes.

Samnell said...

Well when you have people with utterly opposed basic worldviews, one must assume that they will be partisan against each other. Issues like the Iraq war, abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun control are not at all unrelated. All are deeply entwined in our fundamental value structures. That's not something that one needs to fix, but rather a natural development of having any kind of conviction to begin with.

It's easy to say that we need some kind of common ground on which policies are evaluated, but what common ground is that going to be? The scientific consensus? Already all the conservative religious and ninety-nine percent of the moderate religious have completely left the building. Empirical examination of reality? Same problem.

While I don't think politics should necessarily and invariably rise to the level of skin color or sexual orientation, both of which you're more or less born with, I think it's misleading and trivializing to drag it down to the level of sports partisanship as well. That's on the same tier as having a favorite color so far as I care: so utterly meaningless that it says nothing about anybody that anyone else should ever consider a weighty judgment. The notion that, for example, the state should be involved in torture is quite the opposite and says volumes about one's value structure and thus the sort of person one is.

Would it be better if we had a multi-party parliamentary democracy? Sure it would, but the founders stuck us with the least just form of democratic government they could manage to sell to nine states, replete with any number of perverse structures purposely designed to undermine it, from the electoral college to the Senate. It's always been fatal to having a free, open, informed, democratic society. It is thus no particular surprise that the US has rarely come within visual range of any such animal.

James said...



charvakan said...

Samnell, I just don't see why a person opposed to gun control would be predisposed to oppose same-sex marriage, unless it was some loopy form of cognitive dissonance based on party affiliation. They have nothing to do with each other. I'm a precinct captain in the Democratic Party, so I don't oppose partisanship, but there are some irrational aspects to it.

Samnell said...

"Samnell, I just don't see why a person opposed to gun control would be predisposed to oppose same-sex marriage, unless it was some loopy form of cognitive dissonance based on party affiliation."

Then both feed into the same intensely patriarchal, parochial, violent male self-image. It's the same one that opposes abortion. Taking away a gun, letting women have control of their bodies, and letting men marry men and women marry women are all direct attacks on their entire identity.

You and I don't care about straight male dominance with the option to resort at will to lethal force to defend that dominance, hence every one of these is a no-brainer to us. They do care about those things. Hence they are existential threats. This isn't just my idea, some of our resident forum conservatives have practically spelled it out.

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