Polarization Schmolarization


Crossposted from DemocraticDiva.com

pew polarization

Pew (and others) discover the SHOCKING TRUTH that people who pay attention to politics are polarized! You won’t believe what happens next!

Here’s Vox‘s Ezra Klein on a research paper by Pew analyzing “polarization” in the American electorate:

Perhaps the single most important fact about American politics is this: the people who participate are more ideological and more partisan, as well as angrier and more fearful, than those who don’t.

The finding emerges from Pew’s massive survey of 10,000 Americans, which concluded that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.”

But everyone already knew that. Here’s the real kicker: “these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”

You don’t say! The Pew report itself finds that Republicans and Democrats have grown quite far apart on the conservative-liberal scale and Klein correctly points out how that’s largely the result of the parties realigning over the decades.

People talk of political polarization as if it’s one thing. It isn’t.

In April 1947, the American Institute of Public Opinion Surveys asked voters a question that sounds very odd to modern ears:

It has been suggested that we give up the present Republican and Democratic parties and have two new parties – one for the Liberals and one for the Conservatives. Would you favor this idea?

“Today, this question might seem absurd,” writes the political scientist Hans Noel inPolitical Ideologies and Political Parties in America. “For most practical purposes, the present Republican and Democratic parties are parties of conservatives and liberals.”

But that wasn’t true in the middle of the 20th Century. The Democratic Party was home to lots of conservatives. The Republican Party had a vast liberal faction. “Ideology and political parties were two separate ways of organizing political conflict,” Noel writes. But not any longer. Even since the 1990s, the shift towards a political system in which party and ideology are one has been stark:

Perhaps if the reactionaries and progressives/liberals were more evenly distributed between the parties we’d see the kind of momentous bipartisan legislation, such as Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, that got passed five decades ago. But the movement to make the GOP the comfortable home for all right wingers began in earnest after Goldwater lost and isn’t going to be undone anytime soon, if ever. The infamous hippie-punching Powell Memo kicked off the Faustian bargain of business leaders with religious zealots angry over desegregation and the sexual revolution to usher in Republican electoral victories. The propagandizing was so smashingly successful that many of today’s “business leaders” and major funders of Republicans are, themselves, rabid reactionaries.

As Klein also correctly observes, “People often assume “polarization” is a synonym for “extremism.” It isn’t.” That is why while most liberals tend to vote Democratic, the party itself as not become the leftist mirror image of the GOP. Many disgruntled lefties attribute this to corporate donor influence but, while they are not wrong about the existence of that, the Democratic electorate is comprised of liberals and people who consider themselves moderate. Furthermore, Pew found a very big difference in news consumption between conservatives and liberals/moderates.

Respondents were asked whether they had heard of each of the 36 outlets listed in the accompanying graphic. For those they had heard of, they were asked about their trust – or distrust – in each source.

Liberals, overall, trust a much larger mix of news outlets than others do. Of the 36 different outlets considered, 28 are more trusted than distrusted by consistent liberals. Just eight earn higher shares of distrust than trust. Still, among those eight, the levels of distrust can be high: fully 81% of consistent liberals distrust Fox News, and 75% distrust the Rush Limbaugh Show.

Among consistent conservatives, by contrast, there are 24 sources that draw more distrust than trust. The same is true for 15 sources among those with mostly conservative views. And, of the eight outlets more trusted than distrusted by consistent conservatives, all but one, on balance, are distrusted by consistent liberals.

This chart shows the trusted news source patterns across the spectrum:

pew media chart

Yes, we liberals have our preferred lefty sites (like Blog for AZ!) but liberals and moderates really aren’t getting our information from as hermetically sealed an echo chamber as conservatives are. That’s not likely to change any time either, and that’s not even addressing the multitude of foundations and think tanks set up by well-heeled right wingers to make their bullshit look like it’s got intellectual credibility.

So I find all this fretting the political class and mainstream media constantly do over “polarization” to be aggravating and useless. Of course the country is polarized but how is that our biggest problem? Say there were a place where the people who lived in it were roughly comprised of one group of people who thought it was awesome to smash puppies to death with hammers and they were armed with reams of “information” proving that smashing puppies to death regularly ought to be required of every citizen, and another group who were all, “no, we oppose that because we’re not puppy-smashing monsters kthxbai.” Would you say the problem with that place was that is was too polarized? Or would you say the first group needed to take it down several notches and not be let near any puppies? Why isn’t that same basic sense applied to the many, many absurd and awful real policy positions that reactionaries hold and relentlessly try to make into law in this country?

Jeff Sharlet, who has written several books about religious conservatives in the U.S., including his bestseller The Family, wrote a series of tweets criticizing liberals and academics for what he described as “fetishizing dialogue” last year.

The assumption that “dialogue” solves all problems is profoundly paternalistic — & naive.

The fetish for “dialogue” above all — including legit anger & actual inquiry — is a politics of presumption.

Fetish for “dialogue” assumes those you disagree w/ lack only your insight; assumes they want to “compromise.” As if they have no agency.

I hear this from students all time; they forgive bigotries on assumption bigots lack approp “culture.” Cant believe hate can be chosen.

David Creech, a religious studies scholar at Loyola University Chicago, wrote: What alternative to dialog do you propose?

Demand for alternative to “dialogue” assumes solutions always at hand. Sometimes whats needed is diagnosis, nt prescription.

Student fetish for “dialogue” a form of technocratic optimism based on free market myth of “exchange” as end in itself.

Creech wrote: Dialog for me implies also listening, the possibility that I might be changed by your insight and experience.

That’s great when it’s an option. But it assumes a desire for common ground. Which is a form of paternalism.

Creech: Desire for common ground as paternalism… Intriguing suggestion… I will have to chew on that for a bit.

The desire for common ground isn’t paternalim; the assumption that others share it is.

Take the example of Uganda’s “kill-the-gays” activists. Some assumed they needed dialogue. They thought that funny. 1/2

2/2 because they knew the arguments against homophobic genocide. Knew them & rejected them. Not looking for my “insight.”

Defenders of “dialogue” as end in itself see only other option as brutality. They fail to imagine possibility of open-ended problem.

A perfect example of chosen bigotry: Heritage Foundation’s Harvard-powered, race-based, anti-immigration “study.”

Well-intentioned liberals always ask how we can “educate” haters. Elite haters don’t need “education”; they need to be challenged.

Sharlet is exactly right. Just as the Ugandan bigots were aware of the opposing arguments, so too are the American ones. Americans in their Rush and Fox News bubbles are regularly presented with empathetic and egalitarian arguments but it’s so they scoff at and mock them. Coming from two decades of pro-choice activism and regularly encountering the toxic misogyny to be found on the other side, I am keenly aware that some disputes are just not amenable to dialogue and need to be polarized until the forces of hate and irrationality are defeated.


  1. No, I neither said nor implied that Republicans are puppy killers. Lots of them are dog owners who would never think to hurt a puppy. I used a bit of hyperbole to make a point about over-emphasizing polarization as a problem.

    I notice that you rarely actually defend Republican policy positions, but instead mostly engage in scolding over tone. Why is that?

    • Ah, you noticed I scold a lot, hm-m-m? I do the same thing on Republican sites when I encounter extremists. Thier extremism is no more defendable than Democrat extremism. I couldn’t defend it, either. I am a moderate conservative. I find some positions of Democrats quite acceptible, but most I disagree with.

      But I do take your comment under consideration and I will look for positions I can defend just to make it interesting.

      • I’d come up with a few theories of my own, but I’m busy leading the GOP cheering section.

        Generally, the far left drives me a bit less nuts than the far right, even though I agree a bit less with the far left. I actually came here initially looking for some reasons to vote for a few Democrats in statewide and regional elections. I’m still up in the air about a lot of offices in this election.

        • I came here for the same reason, and I will confess I have been nudged in the direction of a couple of Democrat candidates. Generally the people here have been nice, but occasionally they get a little tempermental. Donna is correct, I do more chiding than contributing, so I am going to change that…assuming it is worthwhile. One troll to another: it will be interesting to see what happens here after the election.

  2. Steve, is there a point anywhere in your missive? What “truth” are speaking? The American people want policy options that work to solve the issues of the Country. Conservatives believe god, personally brought them their ideas, and thus cannot compromise. Liberals hope for some compromise somewhere, but conservatives say they want it and never deliver it. The goal post is constantly moved. I just watched Fox News for week to get some insight, and all they talked about on every program, was a crisis in credibility in the President. Constant. For a week. That was the theme. I rest my case.

    • Oddly enough, conservatives say the same about liberals, that conservatives are looking to be bipartisan but liberals will not compromise.

      As for a week of Fox News….how did you stand it? I can’t handle a week of Fox News or a week of MSNBC.

        • This doesn’t surprise me. One of the most successful tactics the Democrats have used over the years is taking small steps toward an bigger goal. The willingnes to sttle for part of a victory while continuing to persue the bigger goal is one of the strong points Democrat partisanship. It gives the appearance of compromise while never giving up.

        • If by “normal” you mean “spouts inane truisms without bothering to do any research” then, yeah, Sarah is normal. As are you.

          • OW-W-W! That stings!

            Donna, would you do me a favor? Would you tell me which HTML code allows me to attach “http…” attachment to this blog? I haven’t been able to figure it out and without it I can’t cite research without taking up too much space here.
            I would be very appreciative and we could argue substance more than platitudes.

    • Yes, there was a point to “missive”. It was that there is rarely truth to be found at EITHER political extreme and when you allow yourself to drift there, you damage yourself. And I wouldn’t “rest my case” on watching a week of of Fox News…that is a very small base upon which to build it.

      • And in the so-called middle are a bunch of ignoramuses who think saying things like “both sides are equally bad!” makes them look smart and insightful.

        • Not both sides, both extremes. I think good ideas come from both sifes, but I think more good come from the conservative side.

  3. Oh, Donna, you talk about me having blinders and yet you are incapable of seeing how deeply your biases are and how blind it makes you to failings of some of the Democrat ideology. Republicans are your great shibbiloth and nothing positive can ever be found about them. You consider them narrow minded, poorly read, limited in exposure to current events, etc., yet you exhibit those same traits when it comes to Democrats.

    Hinting that Republicans are puppy killers (no you didn’t say that, but the implication is clear) and that they draw information from very few sources is sad. Then to state that Democrats are joined by moderates and Republicans aren’t is just plain silly. If Democrats were really carrying moderates they would be winning more elections because those moderates are the swing voters that carry elections.

    The truth is that you incapable of seeing the truth. This article is an excellent example of you throwing around gratutitous insults and unfounded accusations EVERY time you mention conservatives or Republicans. You can’t help yourself because your hatred is so deeply seated that I don’t think it even registers with you when you do it. It is as automatic as breathing. I feel kind of sorry for you because, like right wingers who go off the deep end, you’ve lost a part of your soul to raw politics, and that is sad. And, yes, I know you don’t give a rats puttotee if I feel sorry for you or not, but I do.

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