Americans are more likely to define themselves by political party in 2017 than ever before, a trend that began in the mid-1990s. This trend is dangerous because it makes civil discourse more difficult as time passes. Alarming studies by the Pew Research Institute show American attitudes clustering around political party affiliation as never before. We are socially separating as Republicans and Democrats to an unprecedented degree. We find the “others” more different, more infuriating, more wrong, than ever before.
When populations divide along partisan lines, emotions are more easily triggered. Fewer people remain neutral and dispassionate when considering public matters. Where you stand politically becomes an element of your identity, the way you differentiate yourself from “those other people”, those human beings with whom you have ever less in common.
In 21st Century America, party affiliation tends to drive rhetoric down to matters of values and identity, things we take very personally, and away from the loftier realms of logic and reason. If differences of opinion are discounted as typically partisan, resentment is generated and we are driven farther apart.
There is so much disturbing about our current political environment. Underlying all of the incivility and nonsense that dominates the 24-hour news cycles, is our need to understand issues in binary ways, as contests. Even traditionally non-political news like mass-shootings and natural disasters are being presented through the lenses of partisanship. Where do you stand? Who are you as an American? Encouraged by these commercially-driven “realities”, Americans are increasingly separating as Republicans and Democrats.
This is not an issue of the political moment. Rather, it is a social trend already a generation in development. The Pew studies show that divergent attitudes on every issue are more likely to cluster around party affiliation than any other personal or demographic characteristic. This graph, developed four years ago, will show an even more extreme divergence when Pew publishes its 2016 findings. The 2012 version shows that other elements of identity – race, education, religiosity, income and gender – are pretty much as they were during Reagan’s second term. What has changed significantly is the degree to which partisan identity is a predictor of one’s attitudes about everything else. “Party” is now the most telling demographic.
There is nothing good about this rearrangement of America. It has already played a significant role in the dysfunction of our state and national governments. Not only are the politicians incapable of stating attitudes that offend their voter bases, we the people are more than ever likely to blame members of the other party for bad news. Social media enable ever more partisanship as people are drawn to the echo chambers of the like-minded.
How can we have rational elections if we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same? We are all human beings driven by the same needs, all of us American, all of us the same under the skin. But those similarities decrease in importance when we see those with whom we disagree as “not my kind people”. More than ever, my kind of people belong to my political party. There can be nothing worse for democracy which depends, above all else, on the quality of political discourse.
The commercial and political incentives that stoke the flames of partisan polarization are enormously powerful. The political parties and the commercial media depend fundamentally on a polarized, competitive perception of affairs. Would we even listen to a candidate who values civility and decorum above winning?