Politics, polarization, and polls

Is America flying apart at the seams? Observers of political rhetoric like to generalize about increasing polarization, especially a vast cultural and political divide between coastal urban 'blue state America' and inland, suburban, exurban, and rural 'red state America.'

Yet, according to sociologist Paul DiMaggio of Princeton University, examination of national polling data reveals 'the public actually has become more unified in attitudes toward race, gender and crime since the 1970s.' Writing about DiMaggio's work, the Washington Post's columnist Robert Samuelson blames  the politically—committed segment of the population, Democrat and Republican alike, roughly 30% of adults, for moving further apart from each other. DiMaggio's data suppports this, Samuelson avers, in that he finds increasing consensus on a wide range of values, except for the self—identified groups of strong Democrats and strong Republicans, which are polarizing.

Samuelson's opinion piece almost echoes Rodney King's plea during the L.A. riots, 'Can't we all...get along?' If only those pesky political junkies would cool it, we could all return to the halcyon days of the 1950s, when Congress looked more like a genteel debating society than a fierce battleground:

The result is a growing disconnect between politics —— and political commentary —— and ordinary life. Politics is increasingly a world unto itself, inhabited by people convinced of their own moral superiority: conspicuously, the religious right among Republicans; and upscale liberal elites among Democrats. Their agendas are hard to enact because they're minority agendas. So politicians instinctively focus on delivering psychic benefits. Each side strives to make its political "base" feel good about itself. People should be confirmed in their moral superiority. 

There's more than a small element of truth to this formulation. But its seemingly even—handed plea for the sensible center to dominate, glosses over critical values questions, as well as political—sociological realities.

The truth is that we have a small segment of the population, located in powerful elite positions in government (including especially the judiciary), media, education, and non—profit institutions, seeking to drive society as a whole into radical change via non—democratic means. They work quietly and often beyond public scrutiny. Judicial rulings, bureaucratic regulations, and curriculum changes are their chosen instruments, as opposed to small—d democratic legislation.

Resisting these elites is an adamant movement of conservatives, seeking to preserve the status quo, and keenly observing the maneuverings of their counterparts on the opposite end of the spectrum. Precisely because those seeking to change society work mostly behind the scenes, their opponents loudly proclaim their opposition in public, most often via talk radio and the internet. What is most notable about recent years is that segments of the left, especially the gay rights movement and the secularists, have become increasingly open and vehement in proclaiming their views and goals.

The values consensus described by DiMaggio is genuine, though. It applies not to the issues currently in dispute, but to those disputes which were settled in the recent past. On matters of race, religious tolerance, and certain other formerly—divisive questions, we have achieved welcome consensus. America is committed to tolerance of all kinds of differences.

But DiMaggio must have missed examining questions such as the importance of prayer in public schools and homosexual 'marriage.'  There is strong public consensus on these issues, which extends to middle—of—the—road Americans and 'Strong Republicans' but which excludes many on the cultural left. The elites are in fact isolated from the mainstream on such fundamentals as the basic virtue of America (deeply flawed in their view by racism, sexism, imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, militarism, materialism, various other —isms yet to be identified), the importance of a belief in God, and the role of individual will and personal responsibility in judging behavior.

Samuelson concludes his article with a plea for more political mush:

Politics should reflect and, at its best, conciliate the nation's differences. Increasingly, it does the opposite. It distorts, amplifies and inflames conflicts. It's a turnoff to vast numbers of centrist voters who do not see the world in such uncompromising absolutes. This may be the real polarization: between the true believers on both sides and everyone else.

I respectfully beg to differ. It is the role of politics to highlight differences and animate the institutions of democracy to make important choices in an open fashion. If there is disagreement over absolutes, then let us examine the intellectual, moral, historical, and practical dimensions of those questions. Impassioned debate is to be preferred to dull inattention.

Quiet acceptance of stealth maneuvers to bring about change via institutional power is characteristic of an oppressed populace. Let the debate continue, and let more people wake up and get involved!

Is America flying apart at the seams? Observers of political rhetoric like to generalize about increasing polarization, especially a vast cultural and political divide between coastal urban 'blue state America' and inland, suburban, exurban, and rural 'red state America.'

Yet, according to sociologist Paul DiMaggio of Princeton University, examination of national polling data reveals 'the public actually has become more unified in attitudes toward race, gender and crime since the 1970s.' Writing about DiMaggio's work, the Washington Post's columnist Robert Samuelson blames  the politically—committed segment of the population, Democrat and Republican alike, roughly 30% of adults, for moving further apart from each other. DiMaggio's data suppports this, Samuelson avers, in that he finds increasing consensus on a wide range of values, except for the self—identified groups of strong Democrats and strong Republicans, which are polarizing.

Samuelson's opinion piece almost echoes Rodney King's plea during the L.A. riots, 'Can't we all...get along?' If only those pesky political junkies would cool it, we could all return to the halcyon days of the 1950s, when Congress looked more like a genteel debating society than a fierce battleground:

The result is a growing disconnect between politics —— and political commentary —— and ordinary life. Politics is increasingly a world unto itself, inhabited by people convinced of their own moral superiority: conspicuously, the religious right among Republicans; and upscale liberal elites among Democrats. Their agendas are hard to enact because they're minority agendas. So politicians instinctively focus on delivering psychic benefits. Each side strives to make its political "base" feel good about itself. People should be confirmed in their moral superiority. 

There's more than a small element of truth to this formulation. But its seemingly even—handed plea for the sensible center to dominate, glosses over critical values questions, as well as political—sociological realities.

The truth is that we have a small segment of the population, located in powerful elite positions in government (including especially the judiciary), media, education, and non—profit institutions, seeking to drive society as a whole into radical change via non—democratic means. They work quietly and often beyond public scrutiny. Judicial rulings, bureaucratic regulations, and curriculum changes are their chosen instruments, as opposed to small—d democratic legislation.

Resisting these elites is an adamant movement of conservatives, seeking to preserve the status quo, and keenly observing the maneuverings of their counterparts on the opposite end of the spectrum. Precisely because those seeking to change society work mostly behind the scenes, their opponents loudly proclaim their opposition in public, most often via talk radio and the internet. What is most notable about recent years is that segments of the left, especially the gay rights movement and the secularists, have become increasingly open and vehement in proclaiming their views and goals.

The values consensus described by DiMaggio is genuine, though. It applies not to the issues currently in dispute, but to those disputes which were settled in the recent past. On matters of race, religious tolerance, and certain other formerly—divisive questions, we have achieved welcome consensus. America is committed to tolerance of all kinds of differences.

But DiMaggio must have missed examining questions such as the importance of prayer in public schools and homosexual 'marriage.'  There is strong public consensus on these issues, which extends to middle—of—the—road Americans and 'Strong Republicans' but which excludes many on the cultural left. The elites are in fact isolated from the mainstream on such fundamentals as the basic virtue of America (deeply flawed in their view by racism, sexism, imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, militarism, materialism, various other —isms yet to be identified), the importance of a belief in God, and the role of individual will and personal responsibility in judging behavior.

Samuelson concludes his article with a plea for more political mush:

Politics should reflect and, at its best, conciliate the nation's differences. Increasingly, it does the opposite. It distorts, amplifies and inflames conflicts. It's a turnoff to vast numbers of centrist voters who do not see the world in such uncompromising absolutes. This may be the real polarization: between the true believers on both sides and everyone else.

I respectfully beg to differ. It is the role of politics to highlight differences and animate the institutions of democracy to make important choices in an open fashion. If there is disagreement over absolutes, then let us examine the intellectual, moral, historical, and practical dimensions of those questions. Impassioned debate is to be preferred to dull inattention.

Quiet acceptance of stealth maneuvers to bring about change via institutional power is characteristic of an oppressed populace. Let the debate continue, and let more people wake up and get involved!