Disconnecting America

When we were kids growing up in what was probably a “lower-to-middle” middle class neighborhood in southeast Houston, we rarely thought about politics at any level. Carl does remember the JFK nomination and election when he was in the third grade, primarily because some kids were actually walking around the playground carrying signs that read “Kennedy.” Chuck remembers a Jimmy Carter town hall meeting around 1976 and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan as events that started his thinking about the US political process.

However, neither of us remembers politics particularly dividing the nation in the 60s and 70s. From the little we saw in those days, there were different philosophies, and of course the Vietnam War was a divider (with apologies to Clausewitz…we recall that war “is the continuation of politics (policy) by other means”!). But both parties usually knew when to say “that’s enough politics” and to put America first. That’s all changed!

We started this blog precisely because we do remember the days when politics might drive elections and guide policy, but it didn’t tear apart the nation so deeply that America actually became two nations: People Networked with FlagRedtopia and Bluedreamia. It was this tearing apart that convinced us we had to say something. As we contemplated this blog, all we saw was increasing acrimony across the aisle facilitated by partisan media organs that had just gone too far…it was getting so bad that America was becoming dysfunctional and the country we love was at risk.

What we thought of as personal experience and intuition when we started this blog came to light for us this month thanks to a Washington Post Op-Ed piece by Dana Milbank, titled online as America’s new cycle of partisan hatred. “Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates,” Milbank wrote. As Milbank and the Stanford/Princeton study indicate, it’s worse than we thought. [1]

Occasionally it takes a long time to circulate important insights about the changing nature of the American electorate, given the study Milbank cites came out last June; however, the implications of this study are worthwhile nonetheless. This is no longer the 60s, 70s and 80s.

When we started the blog, perhaps we were guilty of still living in the good ole’ 80s. We thought the political divide that facilitated the edge-driven politics we’ve cited many times was created by office-seekers and power-hungry politicians who couldn’t find anything good to do for America. But, as Walt Kelly said in Pogo “we have met the enemy and it is us!” [2]

The authors of the study Milbank cites, Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, claim that Americans have allowed politics to pull us away from compromise that led to the foundation of the United States and towards the edges that politicians do in fact exploit. “Our evidence demonstrates that hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds, and that affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race. We further show that party cues exert powerful effects on non-political judgments and behaviors. Partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, and do so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race.” [3] The American electorate is in cahoots with politicians in creating our disconnects and divides!

As the authors and Milbank note, partisan political discrimination has replaced race as the main reason for keeping Americans from the Center. This politically driven partisanship inhibits and now apparently disincentivizes the function of compromise and cooperation that has been the root of American success and national prosperity. Political partisanship is trumping putting America first, and American voters are enabling it whether by design or by neglect.

Milbank writes that “partisanship is more tribal than anything — the result of an ill-informed electorate.” As Westwood, one of the paper’s authors, told Milbank for his Op-Ed piece, “…most people understand their side is good and the opposing side is bad, so it’s much easier for them to form these emotional opinions of political parties.” Redtopia and Bluedreamia now form the basis for tribes that insist on fighting against each other rather than moving forward together for America.

This is saddening to say the least, and politicians feel perfectly free to exploit it: “elected officials and professional partisans then reinforce the tribal tendency in the electorate with overheated rhetoric, perpetual campaigns, negative ads and increasingly partisan media outlets,” Milbank notes from the Iyengar and Westwood study. [4]

In other important ways, the social fabric of America is changing as well. “Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes,” Milbank continues.

Instead of using the Connected Age to bring us closer together as a nation, our political tribes and those we elect to represent us use information age technologies to disconnect us across political party lines. Yes, this is most saddening indeed. The Connected Age is tearing us apart when it comes to politics.

What is the answer?

Sadly, it is almost impossible to write anything that won’t seem hopelessly naïve given the situation in which America finds herself, but here’s a stab. America: sober up! The right and the left edges driving politics today might be best viewed as drug pushers that are willing to take the nation down for their own short-sighted, selfish goals. To enhance their power, they feed us edge-driven ideological hallucinogens that reinforce and even build our fears and insecurities.

Just as we have had “Just say no” drilled into us in the past, it now seems time to “Just say no to extremism and personal attacks.” Our nation is truly at stake. Anytime a politician personally attacks his or her opponent, push away.

In our youth, we don’t recall many people personally attacking Presidents Ford, Carter or Reagan, as much as making light of them. There weren’t serious efforts to dehumanize them. Sure there were disagreements about policy, but we didn’t see nearly the same level of personal attacks we commonly witness today.

Since our politicians refuse to be adult, it is up to the voters to be “the adults in the room.”

Again, at the risk of being naïve, just say no to extremism and personal attacks. Could it be as simple as civility? We’d love to hear from readers…let us know if we’re off-base here!

Originally posted by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 4/22/2015.

[1] The news story of this study was also reported in The Stanford News as “Political animosity exceeds racial hostility, new Stanford research shows,” 10/4/2014 and “What Is Really Tearing America Apart” in an NPR blog post, 10/15/2014, by Linton Weeks.

[2] This quote was apparently originally provided by Walt Kelly for an Earth Day poster in 1970, something that seems appropriate given the publication date for this post.

[3] Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization,” June 2014.

[4] The restraints against this type of socio-political disconnect are self-feeding. Milbank continues in his Op-Ed: ‘“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms, there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents,” they (Iyengar and Westwood) conclude. “If anything, the rhetoric and actions of political leaders demonstrate that hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate. Partisans therefore feel free to express animus and engage in discriminatory behavior toward opposing partisans.”

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