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.
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.
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.