The Origins of Today's Political Polarization

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Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.
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Most political experts will tell you that the roots of today’s highly partisan political atmosphere starts in the 1970’s.  Most historians will tell you that a highly partisan political atmosphere is nothing new to America.  There have certainly been times of worse disagreement and a Civil War comes readily to mind.  Regardless, it makes sense that the 1970’s is the starting point since those educated in the radical 1960’s were now entering politics and think tanks with Tom Hayden being the poster boy of that reality.

What we have witnessed since the 1970’s is regional realignment of the two major parties converging with political ideology shifts merging into what we now call today’s polarization.  The disappearance of the moderate/liberal Republican mainly centered in the Northeast combined with the disappearance of the moderate/conservative Democrat centered in the South is one of the most glaring examples of this realignment.  In 1974, the combined Congressional delegation from New England, for example, favored the Democrats 15-10.  By 2012, that Democratic advantage rose to 20-2.  Over the same time period, the Congressional delegation from the South favored the Democrats 91-42, but by 2012, it changed to 107 Republicans and 47 Democrats.

Furthermore, studies have shown that it is not necessarily the policy differences that account for this resorting.  It is a question of trust, or being burned.  One study determined that 68% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats choose their party affiliation because they believe the opposing party is doing harm to America.  Disliking the policies of the opposing party is a more likely reason today for choosing party affiliation than liking your own party’s policies.

Research has shown that with each passing election, population density has a great effect on voting behavior.  In short, Democrats are becoming an exclusively urban party.  Thus, urban interests are pitted against rural interests with the resulting battles for political supremacy being fought in the suburbs.

Go to any Leftist website and they will cry about three things for the current state of affairs: gerrymandering, the role of money in politics, and the Electoral College.  Let’s take the last cited reason first- the Electoral College.  To them, this is an antiquated method for choosing the President that basically disenfranchises voters in non-swing states.  Leaving aside the fact that the recognized swing states represent a good cross-section of America in microcosm, the Electoral College is performing the job it set out to do- avoid ideological or geographical political hegemony.

For example, we are constantly reminded that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 as did Al Gore in 2000.  We are reminded, falsely, that a partisan Supreme Court handed the election in 2000 to George W. Bush and that some 70,000 voters spread over three states handed the Presidency to Trump in 2016.  As proof that the Democrats have become a strictly urban party, if you eliminate Cook County in Illinois and Los Angeles County in California, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin of victory all but disappears.  Does anyone other than the voters of Chicago and Los Angeles want those cities alone dictating to the rest of the country who the President will be?  While they rail against a few states determining a Presidential outcome, they are advocating that a select few urban counties determine the outcome.  The critics should also be well-reminded that both Clinton and Trump played under the same rules.

These are the same arguments Democrats make about their Senatorial candidates gaining more votes nationally than Republican candidates.  Duh!  Democrats dominate in heavily or densely populated states.  The top seven most densely populated states are blue states.  However, only three of the most populous states are blue states which explains why a Republican presidential candidate can carry a highly populated state (like Florida, Texas or Ohio) and not a highly densely populated state like New Jersey, New York, or Rhode Island.

As for gerrymandering, the Democrats are hypocritical in this area.  Gerrymandering has been around almost as long as the country’s existence.  It was named after an attendee at the Constitutional Convention!  Given the opportunity, a Democratic state legislature is just as apt as a Republican legislature to politically gerrymander legislative districts.  This is simply Leftist belly-aching because they cannot win at the local and state levels.

Regarding money in politics, both parties now play by the same set of rules.  What upsets the Left is the fact that both parties now play by the same set of rules whereas pre- Citizens United, the Democrats had the advantage.  Regardless, a First Amendment right takes priority over the hand-wringing about money in politics.

Because of this evening of the playing field financially, geographical realignment ideologically, the rural/urban divide, and Republican gains at the state level that have redistricting consequences, both parties are now competing for power in a dead heat.

And the advent of the 24/7 news cycle has made the problem worse.  Face it: footage of the parties working together and getting along just makes for bad television!  Instead, they stoke the flames of acrimony and tend to, at times, exaggerate political warfare.  The role of technology and social media are particularly instructive here.  Protests and outrage are easier to organize and manufacture with the click of the “send” button.

Sometimes, unified government tends to make the problem worse.  The grievances of the opposition party are aired more loudly.  We see that today with Republican control of the House and Senate and a Republican in the White House with Democrats screaming bloody murder regarding just about everything.  They did the same to Bush after 2002.  Likewise, when Democrats held a unified government under Obama, Republicans screamed bloody murder also.

Ironically, there are some rare areas of agreement.  For differing reasons, both sides came to dislike the Common Core Standards in public education.  And prison and sentencing reform seems to be an area of some agreement between both sides.  But, that is about it.

The number of issues to fight over has expanded.  Single big issues at other polarized times often dominated the debate.  Today, the flash point issue changes almost weekly.  The Russian collusion delusion was pushed off the front page by engagement with North Korea which was pushed off the front page by kids being separated from their illegal alien parents at the border which was pushed off the front page by the retirement of Anthony Kennedy.  The rage against the Supreme Court regarding the union dues decision had not even percolated enough before the rage of a potential Trump nominee to replace Kennedy took over.

Of course, it does not help matters when well-known faces within your party throw about incendiary comments bordering on incitement of violence and then other party leaders give their back-handed apologies for the transgressor.  Never before in my years of watching politics have I ever seen the level of vitriol being thrown around to the point a Senate staffer yells out an expletive at the President on a visit to Capitol Hill.  Yelling “You lie” gets you censured in the House.  Telling the President “F— you” gets you a week’s suspension and back to work (and probably some slaps on the back for “speaking truth to power”).

The level of ugliness currently being exhibited by the Left in no way compares to anything the Tea Party did or said in 2009-2010.  There was no burning of effigies, no occupation of government buildings, no almost weekly marches in the streets.  They even picked up the litter after themselves.  The Left?  They defecated on police cars.  What most disturbs the Left and what is most instigating their “outrage” is the fact that with Trump, they are losing.  A cornered loser is a dangerous creature and the rhetoric, vitriol, partisanship and polarization will only continue and get worse until some threshold of disgust takes over.

As Rahm Emmanuel once famously stated, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”  It seems the Democratic Party and the Left has made that a mantra of their ideology now since they have to resort to the manufacture of a crisis.