This is the first in a series of three meetings placed two weeks apart on American political polarization, its causes and consequences. This week we try to understand how our political culture got so bitterly divided and whether regular people are responsible for it and can do anything about it. March 3 is about what the highly polarized people actually want (“my country back”), and March 17 is about the cultural roots of it all (red vs blue states). After the last two years — and the last 30 — I can’t think of anything more urgent than understanding political polarization.
But, what does the term mean? Who is polarized and about what? Typically, people just point to culprits. We’re polarized because our politicians are petty and don’t know how to get along. Or, it’s the yellers and activists: Fox News, talk radio, liberal blogs, etc. Well, sure. but there have to be deeper causes. America has been horribly polarized before (e.g., Civil War, Gilded Age, 1960s), but not in decades. Why are we going back?
In a 15-minute overview, I’ll discuss (1) what polarization means and who seems to be most polarized, and (2) theories of causation. The nickel version is that regular people are not really polarized on specific policy issues, but elites are, and changes in American society and political institutions have made those elites more responsive to extreme views and less responsive to the opinions of the median voter in the middle. These changes include rising inequality, immigration and globalization, cultural changes, the communications revolution, etc. The voters themselves have abbetted all of this by sorting themselves by party and geography; e.g., red sates and blue states, and all conservatives are now in the GOP while all liberals are Democrats.
LINKS: Not great ones this week. Most of what I know on this is from the books I cite below.
- Krugman: Our polarization is not petty or small. It’s about basic political values.
- Polarization in Congress has been growing since the 1980s and the differences between the two parties are now as wide as it’s been since the 1930s, with its battles over the New Deal.
- Why are we polarized?
- There are many, many books on polarization, but they are a little polical science-y and technical. Still:
Does anybody have any ideas for what they want to hear?