Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Harsh? Perhaps, but Americans are every bit as guilty as their leaders for the rampant partisanship that has paralyzed politics. Republican or Democrat? To many voters, this seems to be the only trait that matters. If you doubt that, consider some recent research.
In the first example (found at Kevin Drum’s politics blog), Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar found increasing tribalism among voters. In 1960 and 2010, Americans were asked whether they’d be upset if one of their children married someone outside their political party. Fifty-two years ago, about 5 percent of respondents said an inter-party marriage would upset them. Two years ago, 40 percent said they’d be perturbed.
Research has already demonstrated that voters react differently to policy prescriptions when kept in the dark about their promoters. Attitudes about a wide variety of issues haven’t budged much over the decades, but the animosity for “the other party” has intensified greatly.
We’ve seen this on many issues, where support for an idea is withdrawn if the opposite party sponsors the effort. For instance, the mandate to purchase health care insurance was first promoted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and Republican politicians. But when President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress jump-started the idea, it was fiercely opposed. Similarly, Democrats have seemingly waved the white flag on warrantless wiretaps and closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay now that George W. Bush is out of office.
It’s too bad there isn’t a way to adopt policy while hiding its authorship. A second survey drives home this point.
The Daily Yonder blog, which covers rural politics, reported that the National Rural Assembly polled rural citizens in nine swing states on immigration issues based on each party’s platform. When party affiliation was withheld, the Democrats’ plank was the most popular. When affiliation was disclosed, the Republican position won big.
On issue after issue, the divisions in this country are narrower when party labels are withheld. This suggests that politics has become more like gang warfare than a battle of competing ideas anchored by long-held principles.
It’s not a coincidence that this chasm has opened during an era when each side self-selects the “news” it consumes and thus lives in alternate realities. Republicans flock to Fox News; Democrats switch on MSNBC. Increasingly, people are looking for daily confirmation, rather than objective information. Similarly, we’re bombarded with campaign ads that deliberately distort and exaggerate the views of the opposition.
To cut through this fog of opinion masquerading as truth, people are increasingly turning to the shortcut of party labels. Then, laughingly, candidates proclaim that voters want leaders who will tell them the truth.
The truth is that the country faces enormous challenges that will require compromise. But as long as leaders dig in, Americans will jump into foxholes with them.
Middleman. I think Mitt Romney would greatly benefit from having a regular person hang out with him, so he can avoid saying things like “middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.”
If that’s the middle, then 98 percent of households fall into that category, and nobody is poor. It’s like those fast-food joints where the smallest drink is “medium.”
I would gladly volunteer my services to Mr. Romney for the middle-class wage of a quarter of a million dollars a year.
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