Today in the Times, last week, and over the weekend, there were numerous essays (like this one, this and this) about a recent study that examined the growing phenomenon I have previously written about here and here. The paper’s authors, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, use the term “negative polarization,” but what they are describing is really a kind of bigotry, citizens making important democratic decisions purely on the basis of conditioned hatred and dislike based on gross generalizations about political parties and their supporters rather than dispassionate analysis and independent consideration.
Their conclusion isn’t original; it’s not even surprising. It closely follows last year’s study out of Stanford reaching the same conclusion. Americans increasingly demonize one party or the other and all their representatives and members, thus automatically rejecting policy initiatives, arguments and positions not because of their content, but based on their origins and the identity of their supporters—pure, blind cognitive dissonance. As a result, they will choose candidates and policies irrespective of any rational analysis, based solely on the assumption that the opposing candidate and policy come from a vile and intolerable source.
These studies indicate that Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other great divides— and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political associations. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, date and marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children partying with members of the other party. They are, the data says, more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical beauty or personality.
The Stanford study concludes (the Emory study concludes similarly),
“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. 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.”
Naturally, this has set off the usual round of finger-pointing by pundits and the media, which itself shares much of the blame. I know who and what have seeded these dragon’s teeth, and the list is long, beginning with Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levine, Bill Press, the Clintons, Lanny Davis, Matt Lauer, Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, the idiots who made out Florida’s 2000 ballot, Al Gore, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Paul Begala, Jerry Falwell, Mary Matalin, James Carville, David Axelrod, Chris Matthews, Ted Cruz, the Congressional Black Caucus, Fox News, Donald Trump, Truthers, Birthers, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, MSNBC, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Eric Holder, the New York Times editorial board, Charles Blow, the Daily Kos, David Brock and Media Matters, Move-On, Breitbart, Michael Moore, Al Sharpton, Pat Robertson, Harry Reid, Tom DeLay, Nancy Pelosi, the Tea Party, Michael Savage, Salon, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and many others, a majority of whom made a conscious decision to exacerbate the divisions in our nation for their own gains in power, influence and wealth.
The result is bad for the nation in every way. Some of the commentators in the essays linked see reasons for optimism: they are deluded. The phenomenon is government by bias; bias makes us stupid and stupid people end up with incompetent leaders. The lazy division of the political world into good guys and bad guys just facilitates the greatest threat to democracy, which is an uninformed, ignorant citizenry. The current team system, suitable for mastery by Frankenstein’s Monster or the substantially brain damaged–-“ARRRRRR! That team goood! That team baaad!”— just eliminates any need for thought. Among the many terrible consequences of the 2000 election tie—for that is what it was—was the “blue” and “red” convention, coagulating dozens of nuanced issues and positions into fatuous and misleading labels. Everything is color-coded, so nobody has to think.
Predictably, the soulless political consultant class to whom our elected officials delegate their consciences use this to the advantage of their clients and their bank accounts, caring not at all about the damage to the system, the public or the nation. They make officials speak in talking points—bumper-sticker slogans focus group-tested and devoid of nuance and reason—and encourage citizens to believe that they are substantive. They use false statistics to bolster the deceptive phrases, and, finally, exploit current events to inject fear and emotion into the equation. Almost all of the issues have legitimate competing considerations, but never mind: the way the public is encouraged to see every issue is red and blue. That position is taken by the others, and we know they are corrupt, mean, lying monsters. That’s all you have to know.
I have a good friend who is an artist and like many artists if not most, liberal and gay. Almost every day he picks up some poison from the Daily Kos or Move-On or Michael Moore and will send it out with a generalization about “Republicans” or “conservatives.” I’m going to his page now—yup, here’s a new one. It features a video from some whack-job white supremicist group about rising up to save the race, and my friend writes,
“This is something that everyone should see so you can learn the kind of hateful crap that is being promoted by the conservatives in this country.”
And dozens of his Facebook friends will “like” it and pass it on.
This is a very smart man, brilliant, in fact. His famous father was targeted by McCarthyites in the 50’s, and his fellow gays have been the victims of vicious generalizations and characterizations with horrendous consequences throughout his life, and yet he engages in exactly the same conduct—bias…prejudice…hate…bigotry-—every day. I call him on it every day too. My typical response: “You’re too smart for this!” —-because he is. Still, most of those infected by this national disease are not too smart for it. Indeed, it is because they lack the skills to make decisions for themselves that hate and bigotry has become a convenient substitute for reason.
I have three final observations on this topic.
1. This threatens the democracy. It’s that simple. It threatens the democracy because it eliminates any motivation for either party to be responsible and accountable. If the “team” will continue to ratify anything a party or its elected officials do, no matter how wrong, inept, harmful, negligent or misguided, and will reject all criticism coming from the reviled “other side” no matter how fair and valid, then there is no reason for either party or its leaders to worry about such values as competence, honesty, and effectiveness.
The template for this attitude is President Obama, the Democratic Party and African-Americans. Obama and his party know that he could turn to sex -trafficking and still be acclaimed by 97% of blacks, so they make little effort to earn black support. They know that blacks have been carefully conditioned to regard substantive criticism of the first black President as “racism.” Effective government is no longer a requirement for popular support, and when that occurs, democracy is imaginary. Dana Milbank quotes Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla), one of the most toxic members of Congress, who happily describes this a the status quo for the entire country, and he’s happy about it, because, to be blunt and crude, he sucks. He told the Post columnist,
“Essentially there are no undecided voters. Everybody has picked a team. The only question is, do your guys vote or not?…What side are you on?”
That’s not democracy.
2. A threshold remedy, a start, is to point out the bigotry whenever it occurs. If we don’t want the nation deteriorating into government by bias, we have a duty to confront, condemn, and reject this conduct. Don’t argue the position of “the bad guys,” and you should call out such political bigots even if you happen to agree with the policies they think they espouse. Just point out that the “team member” before you is speaking and thinking in the language of hate and bigotry. If they have IQ points in three figures, some integrity, and once were human beings, this can serve as a slap in the face, or a splash of ice water in the face.
3. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy may show us whether there is any coming back from the precipice. It is evident that the Democrats are so certain that their team will vote for anyone or anything they run from the World of Blue—a bunch of grapes, a Blue Meanie, Hillary—that they will persist in this fantasy that she is a qualified and trustworthy candidate despite all the lies, corruption, and scandal, despite her terrible campaigning skills and lack of accomplishments, despite the fact that she has been an anti-female feminist, a venal and greedy advocate for the poor, and an influence peddler who decries big money contributers. It is as if the Democratic Party has decided to bet everything on “negative polarization,” with Hillary Clinton, the most self-disqualified and uncharismatic Presidential candidate since Richard Nixon, as the acid test.
I think the failure of her candidacy may serve as that slap in the face and splash of ice water for the electorate. A political culture that results in someone this bad being at the door of the White House may be just what the nation needs to show it the suicidal folly of government by hate.
At least, I hope so.
We shall see.
Graphic: Mischiefs Off Action