Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tribalism and Polarized Politics: Things We Know

There's an excellent article in the Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" blog that is well worth reading for anybody interested in the polarized, tribal politics of the United States. You can find it here, and I encourage you to read it in full.

Here are a few choice pieces that are worth emphasizing:
Based on both qualitative and quantitative evidence, the roots of our current polarization go back almost 40 years to the mid-1970s.
The author points out that this rules out a lot of more modern theories as to why our politics is so dysfunctional - Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 presidential election, the election of Barack Obama. This has been a long time coming, folks, and you have to go back a ways to find the "good old days".

Then there's this doozy:
The evidence points to a major partisan asymmetry in polarization.  Despite the widespread belief that both parties have moved to the extremes, the movement of the Republican Party to the right accounts for most of the divergence between the two parties.
For those that struggle (I count myself among them at times) with the attempt to be "bi-partisan" in our laying of blame, this does not come as a shock. If the question is, why is American politics so viciously polarized, it's hard not to blame the Republican party. Over the past 40 years, Democrats haven't drifted appreciably to the left (a bit, on average, mostly by replacing white Southern Democrats with African-Americans and Latinos from other parts of the country). But the Republican party has run so far to the right that at this point Ronald Reagan would likely lose the primaries for not being conservative enough. Check out the graphs in the article above - this is measurable data, not simply where-you-sit opinion.

There's more:
Features of our electoral system such as political gerrymandering and partisan primaries are not likely to be important causes of polarization.  That the House and Senate have polarized in tandem suggests that partisan districting cannot be a primary cause and researchers have failed to find much of an incremental contribution. 
Gerrymandering of House seats is a popular target. I'm not a fan by any means - I think we should reduce gerrymandering as much as possible. But it turns out not to actually cause the problem of hyper partisanship.

This comes as no surprise:
The combination of high ideological stakes and intense competition for party control of the national government has all but eliminated the incentives for significant bipartisan cooperation on important national problems.  Consequently, polarization has reduced congressional capacity to govern. Of significant concern is the extent to which this reduction in legislative capacity has contributed to a shift in the constitutional balance as it enhanced opportunities for executive and judicial encroachments on legislative prerogatives.
There is an irony here, of course. The folks most likely (at least recently) to howl about excessive executive and judicial power have been conservatives. Yet the tribal politics they have created (see above) creates this problem. They have created their own Frankenstein monster, which of course just feeds back into more take-no-prisoners ideological viewpoints.

But here, in my view, is the most important point:
Voters are primarily changing their issue positions to match the partisanship rather than switching parties. 
This is the true essence of Tribalism. We want to think that American politics is in some sense rational - that voters have ideas about policy preferences, and that they choose their party affiliation based on which party comes closest to those preferences. In fact, the hyper-partisan environment of the last two generations means that things are quite the reverse: people choose a tribe (or are born into one), and then believe what the tribe tells them to believe. Evidence is that this process is largely pushed by political elites, who have every incentive to whip up their followers into a frenzy in order to win elections.

To some, these observations will confirm what they thought was true. Some will refuse to believe any of this, and will immediately cast aspersions on me, the Washington Post, the Monkey Cage, the author of the article, or President Obama for carrying out some vast left-wing conspiracy to brainwash Americans with this thing we call "science". And hopefully, some folks who have been struggling in between the tribes will take note and evaluate. I think there may be a lot more non-tribal Americans than our current measures capture - but that's just a hunch. For those folks, there is still hope. For those who have sold their souls to the tribal system - well, this is what you wanted. Welcome to Partisan Paradise!

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