Commentary

Two Nations, Divisible, With Enmity And Distrust For All

As depicted on data graphs, political polarization looks like a barbell. People-dots cluster into two groups at the far ends of a plotted line that represents a range of opinions about something. Often, the “something” consists of opinions on an issue of the day. 

Politics in contemporary America resembles a heavy and long barbell. Those on the right on one issue tend to be on the right on most other issues, and the same goes for the left. Many of us live in neighborhoods and gerrymandered districts dominated by one side. Our media screens and the ads served on them reflect our polarized preferences.

That’s the old news about political polarization — so old that Obama ran promising to move people toward the center eight years ago. The latest news, according to a trio of political scientists who presented a paper at the Labor Day confab of the discipline, is that since 1980 polarization has increasingly affected how people perceive the personal character of national leaders. As seen from one pole, write Marc J. Hetherington, Meri Long, and Thomas J. Rudolph, the leaders at the other pole are not just disagreed with, but loathed:

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“One would expect both major party candidates to be [regarded as] knowledgeable and moral, to care about ordinary people, and to have strong leadership skills. Yet Americans increasingly view them as polar opposites on a set of personal qualities that are essential for all would-be presidents to possess.” “Racially resentful” Republicans see Democratic candidates as biased against whites. “Less morally traditional” Democrats see Republican candidates as religious (Christian) extremists.

These campaign-stoked and socially confirmed perceptions carry over into how Americans regard their government. When something good happens while the other party occupies the White House, it must have been caused by something other than the President, because he is a bad person. Trust in government dipped below 40% shortly after the 2004 election and now flutters at about half that level.

An acid test of the culture of personal attack might crystallize should Joe Biden enter the Democratic presidential contest. Who would dare pop the bubble of respect we accord to a grieving father? On the other hand, what presidential candidate deserves insulation from criticism? Ask yourself as a partisan check: is what the Vice President is doing by talking about his late son Beau any different than what Republican candidate Rick Santorum does talking about his genetically impaired daughter Bella — milking family traumas for political sympathy?

In the larger picture, few incentives exist for political marketers to accommodate the decency of the other party’s candidate. Contrast the norm in attack messages with the form of the op-ed, where a concession prior to a topper is par for the course. There’s no room for acknowledging some validity to the other side in a tweet, and no tradition for it in videos. Op-eds are passe. Snark rules. 

If we didn’t need a functioning government, relentless denigration of the opposition’s leadership in campaign messaging would not be as big a problem. But since our Constitutional system distributes power across functions, personalized polarization helps cause government gridlock. Frustration with gridlock, ironically, is one opinion topic where the poles disappear and a consensus emerges. Everyone hates the status quo in Washington; they just diverge strongly on the solutions.

We have campaigns and elections in order to come to a temporary consensus on which solutions will be tried next. But if we hate the leaders, what realistic chance do they have at the get-go? The best option probably lies in depersonalized marketing of policy options to government consumers. “Obamacare” elicits an opinion barbell, but the health care exchange websites and the ads that bring people to them in red as well as blue states do not.

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