Americans are quite familiar with partisan propaganda and bickering. They’ve assumed, and quite correctly too, that it is just the nature of American politics. Republicans and their minions will be fighting the good fight against the left-wingers, while Democrats and their cronies will continue a never ending crusade against the conservative infidel. And we the people love it.
We can’t get enough of it. You are hard pressed to find a movie, blog, newscast, or sermon that doesn’t include some political bias. This isn’t anything extraordinary since everyone has certain convictions which govern their life and actions, even those regarding government. But we don’t like to admit it. We want to believe that everyone around us is exactly like us. And if we do meet someone who does disagree, we tend to trivialize it as an anomaly rather than a reality. Which is why our view toward political gridlock caused by partisanship is so oxymoronic.
When Bill O’Reilly, Piers Morgan, or Diane Sawyer decry how Congress is being held up because one party is refusing to play pretty, we get really upset. It is unlikely that you’ll hear anyone say, “I’m glad to know Congress can’t anything done” or “The best part of movie was how it setup a straw man argument of my political views and totally destroyed it!” Yet as I mentioned earlier, we love it despite how we feel about it. The reason for this is how we are currently living our lives and how outside factors are manipulating us.
Think about it. Who are you going to socialize with more? The people who disagree with you 100% of the time? Or those who do agree? Unless you thrive on conflict, you’re going to interact with the latter because there will be less tension and greater opportunities to explore common interests. This in turn creates bonds which help build a stable community. Don’t believe me? Look at your neighborhood. Chances are good that you and your neighbors belong to the same party, are in the same income bracket, and probably attend the same synagogue, church, mosque, etc. Obviously there will be some exceptions and even then the difference can be pretty minor. For example, you might go to a Southern Baptist church while the family across the street attends the local Disciples of Christ. Or you might a registered Democrat and your neighbor a Republican, but you both vote for the same person in the general elections. If you look at Nate Silver’s article from the NY Times, you’ll read that there are fewer and fewer swing states in presidential elections. Gerrymandering, the process of redistricting states to a person’s or party’s political advantage, might have something to do with this. But Silver believes its impact is not as big as previously thought which leaves room for individual decisions to influence how states are becoming more polarized.
So are individuals ultimately the reason for this “great divide” in American politics? Not necessarily. Consider that when you buy a house you have tens if not hundreds of factors affecting your decision some of which may not have anything to do with politics. And it is unlikely that you’ll be surveying potential neighbors about what they think when you’re looking for a new home. In fact the polarization may be an indirect result of those other factors. For example, if you are looking for a city or state with low taxes you are probably going to live in a conservative if not Republican leaning community. Or if you want to live in a city, chances are you’ll be surrounded by Democrats. But again there are exceptions to this. The point is that some of our desires for a community tend to overlap with the characteristics of a political ideology. And considering higher wages and easier access to transportation we have now to years past, it isn’t too surprising that people are moving to or building communities that seem to accept only one kind of mindset.
Another factor is the expansion of communication technology, particularly in the form of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are designed to show you things that you like or have in common with others who may not live in the same state or even the same country as you. They are also breeding grounds for dissent. Because online forums and Facebook pages aren’t bound by geographical boundaries, they allow people from multiple communities to read what one person or group has to say. And that is when things get interesting. If someone says that abortion should be banned at the national level, a person from state that endorses abortion will find that comment frightening and mean-spirited. He or she will respond out of emotion because it appears that an opposing view is threatening his or her community. It may not be the first or even the second, but eventually the fact that someone is declaring an idea that is so antithetical to the commenter has reached their community and others will become too much. Or perhaps someone chooses to be a “troll” and purposefully goes about haranguing people because they need attention and love to see people get upset.
And it isn’t the average Joe with access to computer who’s adding fuel to the passions of the people. Politicians and newscasters are part of this as well. News anchors and TV producers know that sensationalism sells and the best way to get ratings is to find or make someone a victim and someone or something the oppressor. Elected officials know this as well. If a new bill about immigration reform can be construed as an attack on unemployed American workers, then they’ll do it to get votes and to damage the image of the other side.
And do you want to know what the sad thing is? We the people are the ones allowing this occur. We cry out for “bi-partisanship” yet we don’t really practice it ourselves. We want everyone to be open-minded, yet we balk at the idea of someone thinking differently. If change is to occur-and it must if we want a government for, by, and of the people-then we need to start accepting that we live in a pluralist state and that compromise isn’t a dirty word. This doesn’t mean accepting everyone’s views as being equally valid or living in neighborhoods that may be hostile toward you. But it does mean taking a deep breathe before writing a spiteful reply to a YouTube commenter. It means not rubbing it in when the other side’s candidate loses the election. It means saying, “Alright, for both of us to live together peacefully, what can be done that will meet our satisfaction?” The great divide will not disappear. But it can be bridged if both sides meet the other in the middle.