On June 12, 2019 Dr. Phil Mikesell taught a class at NMC entitled “Governing Today: Exploring Partisan Polarization.” The class was an excellent overview of the history of partisanship in the US, how we got to where we are today, and some thoughts and discussion about what can be done.
I won’t summarize the whole class, but here are some of the high points:
While today’s climate of polarization is quite bad, it’s not unique; America’s history is rife with partisanship. Dr. Mikesell pointed out that of all of the US presidents, only George Washington was not affiliated with a political party. In his farewell address, Washington warned that “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts [keep in mind that the country was dealing with a north-south divide even in Washington’s day], is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.”
Other points from the class:
There was a long period of low partisan division, from the depression era until approximately 1980.
Starting in the 1980s Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party courted the religious right, completed the Republican takeover of the South, and dramatically increased Party recruitment.
The differences between the parties, across a number of issues, has increased over time, however differences, for example, between younger and older people, or between church-goers and non-church goers hasn’t changed that much. Party identification seems to be a bigger deal.
Partisans are becoming socially isolated from each other, and that can be dangerous.
For the first time in more than a century all but one state legislature is dominated by a single party. [Bonus points if you know which state legislature isn’t—see below.]
Author Jon Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind (2012) that there are six moral foundations from which people tend to view the world: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation and Liberty/Oppression.
Other factors that have influenced political polarization include:
The end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1978.
The increasingly partisan media environment, which is enabled by new technologies.
Teamsmanship—voting the party line means that politics for most members of congress is just symbolic.
What do we do about the divide? Sadly, there are no great revelations. Jokingly, Prof Mikesell said that facing a major catastrophe of a magnitude far greater than 9/11 would help. He pointed out that generational changes in attitudes might ultimately be the solution. He also said that local opinion leaders can model proper behavior. We also talked about needing to overcome the siloization of media sources.
Dr. Mikesell said that we need to pass a 28th amendment to get corporate money out of politics. Though he didn’t mention this in class, this is something that several groups are advocating nationally.
We are left with the question of how to confront the partisan divide in ways that will heal the country and that will further our own views of good governance. There are several things that I have personally committed to; all are what I like to call foundational issues, i.e., those things that profoundly and broadly affect the American political environment. They are:
Increasing governmental transparency
Increasing voting access
Reducing partisan gerrymandering
Getting money out of politics
None of these should be partisan issues, though there are political parties and interest groups that are fighting every day against reforms in these areas.
My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Mikesell for teaching such a timely and important subject!
SELECTED REFERENCES AND READINGS
The Great Alignment, by Alan Abramowitz
From Yale University Press: “Our current political divide is not confined to a small group of elites and activists but a key feature of the American social and cultural landscape. The polarization of the political and media elites, he argues, arose and persists because it accurately reflects the state of American society. Here, he goes further: the polarization is unique in modern U.S. history. Today’s party divide reflects an unprecedented alignment of many different divides: racial and ethnic, religious, ideological, and geographic.”
Running Scared, by Anthony King
From the Atlantic: Painfully often the legislation our politicians pass is designed less to solve problems than to protect the politicians from defeat in our neverending election campaigns. They are, in short, too frightened of us to govern.
The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
From the New York Times: “Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.”
Dr. Mikesell shared some charts from a Pew Research Center study that illustrate many of his points.. Here's the link to the study:
The answer to the question, “Which is the only state that currently has a legislature with bipartisan control?” Minnesota.