From the October 2016 issue of The Rotarian
A couple of years ago, researchers at Princeton and Stanford released a study of American political attitudes that was, in a word, terrifying.
The most shocking finding was that political prejudice is now more acute than racial bigotry. What’s more, it is voters who are driving the cycle of contempt and confrontation in Washington. Those intractable politicians we love to rant about are, in fact, acting on our orders.
Another study, by political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster at Emory University, offers more grim news. Americans are increasingly engaging in a practice they call “negative partisanship,” which means we vote based more on fear and loathing for the other party than on a positive identification with our own.
These negative views, by the way, are not grounded in a sophisticated objection to the policies advocated by the opposing party. They are tribal in nature.
Abramowitz and Webster do note that an increasing number of voters identify themselves as independents – Gallup put the number at 43 percent last year – which would suggest a decline in partisanship. Unfortunately, actual voting data reveal that these folks are choosing to label themselves as “independent” to avoid the perception of mindless loyalty to a particular party. In fact, they almost never cross party lines. The “swing voter” is a dying species in American politics.
Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, chronicles the larger cultural shifts that have stoked this polarization. His basic point is that Americans increasingly self-segregate. We surround ourselves with people of the same class, level of education, and ideology. Forget red and blue states, we’re talking about red and blue neighborhoods.
At the same time, our very definition of “politics” has changed over the past half-century. We used to consider politics a collective civic endeavor, the means by which our society sought to solve common crises. These days, politics functions as a form of identity. We regard those in the other tribe not as neighbors who share many of our basic goals and values but as an abstract set of strangers who seek to desecrate all we hold dear.
I still remember watching the 1980 presidential election returns with my parents and a group of their friends. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter that year. Our living room was filled with jubilant Reagan fans and downcast Carter supporters, but the general air was one of amicability. Try to imagine the same scene today.
Which brings us, alas, to the brutal presidential race playing out in front of us right now. Regardless of how you feel about the outcome, we can all agree that Election 2016 has represented a new low when it comes to political acrimony.
So the big question is this: How do we begin to depersonalize politics? How do we cure ourselves of political prejudice?
For me, this has required a conscious effort to undo certain habits of thought and feeling that represent – to be blunt – my own bigotries.
One thing that has helped is that I have children, who tend to act as both fun-house mirror and echo chamber for us parents. When your nine-year-old daughter starts chanting a naughty rhyme at the dinner table about the backside of one of the candidates, the proper reaction is not to laugh. It is to realize that you have, at some basic level, begun to foster political prejudice.
I’m not suggesting that parents don’t have a right to express political views to their children. But too often, what we’re modeling is anger and mockery. Politics becomes a realm of sanctioned bigotry rather than respectful discourse.
The message I’ve been working to instill in my kids is that democracy is a form of government in which citizens enjoy the privilege of supporting whatever candidates and causes they want. What matters, I tell them (over and over), isn’t whom you support, but why you support them.
Because if we can dig beneath our dogmas, our political beliefs inevitably trace back to certain underlying values. To take an example that is close to home, consider my in-laws. This election, they will, once again, be voting for candidates that my wife and I do not support.
In the past this has driven us crazy, and our kids have picked up on our consternation, which they’ve sometimes parroted. This election season, I’ve urged my kids to consider the values that their grandparents hold – their strong religious convictions, for example – and the economic anxieties they face as aging workers.
I want them to understand that the political preferences of their grandparents – and the rest of their fellow citizens, for that matter – reflect their values, not their moral defects. I’ve also tried to emphasize that their grandparents are, above all, loving people who want the best for them.
During this election season, I’ve noted two other patterns that I believe are making Americans more politically prejudiced.
The first has to do with radical changes in how journalism in this country is produced and consumed. Years ago, most of our political coverage came to us through newspapers and a few major TV channels. We looked to reporters such as Edward R. Murrow and anchors such as Walter Cronkite as objective arbiters of news.
At the same time, the so-called Fairness Doctrine required TV and radio stations to discuss political issues in a manner that would “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.” In other words, media outlets were not allowed to operate as propaganda organs. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine and so began the rise of partisan media, especially talk radio.
In the years since, much of the fourth estate has devolved into an echo chamber of grievance. Americans today consume “news” in a manner that reinforces (and inflames) our sense of partisan righteousness. Experts call this confirmation bias: We seek out only those news items, or editorials, that confirm our pre-existing views.
That means that what we’re watching and reading isn’t an objective view of the world but a version of the world that casts us as victims and/or heroes, and our political opposites as corrupt lunatics.
This has made it virtually impossible to have civil discussions. Not only does the other side disagree with our goals, but it also has its own version of reality, one that contradicts our own.
The rise of social media has created a forum where competing views are constantly clashing not in thoughtful, moderated debates but in rage-fueled rants that quickly devolve into ad hominem slurs. This pattern has further degraded our ability to understand and empathize with political opponents, while also reinforcing our sense of political identity as something both public and tribal.
But there was a time, long ago, when the sanctuary of the voting booth stood in for a larger sense that political views were private. And for good reason: What defined us most of all was the work we did in our homes and communities and workplaces, not how we voted. We were judged by the content of our character, not our dogma.
I remember this vividly from my youth. Even though my parents were politically active, they almost never spoke about political affiliations. They revered people who did what they called “good works”: teachers, deacons, doctors and nurses, crossing guards.
Much of our work as a culture resides, then, in figuring out how to remain politically and civically engaged without vilifying those whose goals clash with our own.
This can be frustrating. As this election season has demonstrated, the candidates often conduct themselves more like children than potential leaders. But in a democracy, we get the candidates – and the campaigns – we deserve.
It is up to us, as individual citizens, to change the ways in which we think about and discuss politics, both online and in our civic lives. This means turning away from media outlets that prey on the seductive resentments of negative partisanship. And modeling for our children a brand of political belief based on shared values, rather than dismissive rancor.
We’re the ones ultimately responsible for handing our politicians their marching orders. We need to show them that solving problems through compromise matters more to us than beating the other guy.
It's time to make politics less personal