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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Are We the People to Blame for the Breakdown of the Legislative Process?

[This is a continuation of a recent post. Look here for the beginning of my discussion of this book.]

Congress no longer works. This is not a news flash. The question is, Why? Fishing through the tangled skeins clogging the federal legislative pipes requires careful, detailed and objective analysis of sociological data, looking at correlations between trends unlikely at first glance. It also takes a long look into American history. And so the explanation given in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop, is not easily reducible to one short phrase. Bishop’s answer is NOT shameless gerrymandering or any kind of [conscious]“conspiracy.” Instead, he says, the Big Sort is the increasing ability of Americans to choose to associate primarily if not exclusively with people like themselves.

What's wrong with wanting to hang out with people like us? How can that account for the failure of Congress to do its job?

There have always been competing political parties in the U.S., and there have always been certain voter “blocks” and interests in competition. As Smith traces the history of partisanship, however, increasing divisions emerge in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, and gaps dividing Americans have been steadily increasing since that time. Okay, so why? The argument is complex, the data surveyed diverse and impressive, but I’ll try to compress the argument into a somewhat lumpy nutshell.

1)    Prosperity and economic security enabled more Americans to choose where they would live.
2)   Choice enabled people to congregate in communities with like-minded individuals, those with the same values and lifestyles.
3)   People in conversation primarily (or only) with like-minded individuals reinforced and strengthened each other’s commitments. When necessary, individuals adjusted their beliefs to conform to those of the group.
4)   Marketers, churches, and political parties increasingly began to target groups-- “tribes”--rather than appeal to a “mass market” or the country as a whole.
5)   To win the allegiance of “tribes,” political parties and churches (following market research) set out to attract groups rather than individuals, and to do this they could not challenge beliefs already strongly held.
6)   Consensus within groups became more extreme than prior individual beliefs had been.
7)   The middle view, those who could see both sides or agreed partially with one side and partially with the other, those who believed in compromise, etc. dropped out of the picture.
8)   Campaigns on both sides of the political divide demanded party purity, and moderate candidates were purged/
9)   “Without a sizable group of moderates, Congress has a harder time passing major legislation. The parties engage in the horseplay Americans see daily in Congress . . . while significant issues are sidelined.”
10)                 Legislative bodies “’either go lurching from one side to another, which means we have no continuity; or they are immobilized.’”

[Caveat: My ten steps could probably be reduced to five or enlarged to 20 and could certainly be formulated differently but are my quick and dirty synopsis of what the author took an entire book to explain.]

The political form of the “Question of the One and the Many” used to be, “How do the many – the diverse, those with different beliefs and backgrounds and values and interests – come together to live as one nation?” That question has been superseded in the last 30-4o years, as political marketers seek to ask instead how segments of voters can be isolated and converted. Demonizing the “other side” is part of the [marketing/identity] process.

“Us vs. Them” studies are a lot scarier than you might imagine.
People enhance their social identities by viewing their own groups positively and seeing other groups negatively. ... The price of identity is that despite what the human relations movement had hoped, differences aren’t diminished when groups come together. Instead, as social psychologists found out, differences are exacerbated.
And it’s even worse than that.
Researches found that there didn’t have to be any discernible dissimilarity [my emphasis added] between groups for “us” versus “them” conflict to arise. People adopted group identifications with only the flimsiest of pretexts.
In study after study, it turned out, incredibly --
The simple fact of assigning people groups led to discrimination....
The good news (were you hoping there would be some? I know I was) is that knowledge of different Others can reduce prejudice and increase tolerance, but it takes more than putting opposing groups in the same room. Psychologist Gordon Allport found that a number of necessary conditions besides proximity must also be met:

Ø    Groups must see themselves as equals.
Ø    Meetings between groups “should take place as a regular pursuit of an ordinary and shared goal.”
Ø    Meetings should “avoid artificiality.”

Without these conditions, disagreement between members of different groups will typically result in avoidance and silence rather than discussion.

Political scientist Diana Mutz, from the University of Pennsylvania, found that Americans are very reluctant to talk politics with those who might disagree with them.
In a comparison of citizens from twelve countries, Americans are the least likely to discuss politics with someone holding a different view. ... [T]hey avoid political confrontations personally – more so than people in any other country in this study.
Is it not paradoxical and horribly ironic that in the land of free expression, conformity and fear keep us from expressing ourselves except with those who already think the same way we do?

Do your friends share your political and religious beliefs and values? Are you able to talk to – and listen to -- those with different beliefs? How do you see the legislative future of American government? Divided by geography, by income, by education, by religion, and by political party, is there any hope that "one nation" will be able to move forward?

It would be so cool to get bipartisan groups together to read and discuss this book!

*  *  *  *  *

This is a complete change of subject and has nothing to do with the rest of today's post, but I wanted to note that for some reason (I'm sure there is a reason, but for the life of me I cannot identify it) new titles I'm adding to my "Books Read 2013" list are now appearing at the bottom rather than the top of the list. It's messing me up, so if anyone has a solution, please clue me in. Thanks!

*  *  *  *  *

Coming back a day later to take another stab at this. Here's my synopsis in only four steps:

1) Since the early 1970s, Americans have chosen, increasingly, to live and associate as much as possible with those "like" themselves, in terms of income, education, lifestyle, and religious and political affiliation. 

2) Churches and political parties, following market research, have learned to target these belief and value groups to "sell" their "products."

3) Groups with different beliefs have moved further away from each other, become more extreme as they move apart, with the result that like-minded communities have become geographical, and so political districts have become increasingly polarized.

4) In polarized districts, moderate political candidates at the regional level cannot find party support, and so the middle drops out -- leaving in Congress two extremes with no ability or motivation to work together.

The author believes [on what grounds?] that only a younger generation can (and will?) reverse this trend, and yes, given enough time a pendulum does reverse direction, but where, in its swing from one extreme to the other, is the Early American ideal of a diverse citizenry overcoming differences to work together? Will our grandchildren achieve what we have lost?

COMPLETE COINCIDENCE??? The current New Yorker magazine opens with a piece by Steve Coll, called "Party Crashers," in which he follows one politician, through a brief number of years, adjusting his utterances and his votes in Congress again and again to satisfy the extreme of his party's line but ultimately failing to be "pure" enough.
Political purges have no logical end point; each newly drawn inner circle leaves a former respected acolyte suddenly on the outside.
Are we waking up yet?


BB-Idaho said...

I would add modern communications media to the growing political divisions. In particular, narrow political ideology, much hyperbole and avoidance of logic and fact which seem to reign in those types.
Throw in the recent plethora of huge amounts of cash to candidates,
parties and 'action groups' as well
as obvious leanings of some media
operations. One result is a surprising number of single-issue
folks; firearms, abortion, immigration, etc.
As a progressive in a very right
wing area, many acquaintances have opposite viewpoints, and as noted,
the subjects are simply not discussed..nor does there appear to be much hope for movement towards compromise. US history
is full of examples of political
division (even had a great war),
but the limited communications technology of those times,IMO, reduced the intensity and duration. As usual, the hope for
the future rests with the current generation of youngsters..if they
can stop texting for a bit.

P. J. Grath said...

BB, what's interesting -- well, a LOT is interesting! -- is that with increasing polarization, to a large extent people are able to judge agreement or disagreement on a wide range of issues from what someone says about a single issue. Look at people's bumper stickers: don't they usually present a "coherent," i.e., party line? Have you ever seen a car with a mix of conservative and liberal issue bumper stickers? This is not about THEM. It's about US AND THEM, both sides moving farther and farther apart, the gap widening, the very idea of a common good disappearing.

BB-Idaho said...

Us and them, indeed. One would hope a rational person would recognize You\'re either with us, or against us is a logical fallacy, a false dilemma, which
has been used for
eons. ...successfully, unfortunately.

P. J. Grath said...

Long, long ago, a friend tells me, she was stopped dead in her tracks when her roommate, learning that my friend planned to take birth control pills, exclaimed, "You'd rather have cancer than a baby?!" When my friend subsequently learned of the false dilemma fallacy, she was very relieved, saying, "I knew something was wrong, but I didn't have a name for it."

Kathy in Oz said...

If Australia had been included in the survey of countries whose citizens are reluctant to discuss politics with those holding opposing views it would rank at least equal with America. Our population is much, much smaller than yours and doesn't have the same numbers of extremely rich or extremely poor people. Our political parties aren't as drastically different to each other as yours are, although there are, of course, lots of points of difference between them. We only have 6 states and 2 territories in a country almost as big as America and have never been to war with each other. We have an increasingly frenzied media, however, who do their best to whip up hysteria on the political front, and social media such as face book and twitter which spread wild and potentially dangerous and usually inaccurate ideas. I don't honestly know how the next generation will handle how the country runs if they don't observe for themselves and read more intensely than these forms of communication. We have compulsory voting and I don't think it is a good thing, having been a voter for a lot of years. There seem to be more apathetic then passionate voters out there and I would rather see voting restricted to people who actually care about the country. We get some crazy fringe parties coming out of the woodwork at election time and, with our method of preference voting, our senate can be composed of people who aren't representing the general population. I hope this makes sense: as you know, Pamela,I am in the middle of racing about preparing to leave our house for a month's holiday overseas and we have so many little details to attend to and so many things to remember to tell our house sitter that my thoughts are flying around like a mad woman's breakfast (is that an Australianism?).

P. J. Grath said...

My son (sitting next to me at the moment) tells me that "a mad woman's breakfast" is also a phrase used by Brits.

The author of THE BIG SORT had some interesting observations on apathetic nonvoters. If only I could remember! Will look when I get a chance and report on that phenomenon as he sees it. Seems to me he saw political disaffection in a positive light.

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, here it is from the book: “Although high voter turnout had always been considered consummately good, Lazarsfeld discovered that the rigid partisanship that spurred more people to the polls was in truth a mixed blessing. ‘Extreme interest goes with extreme partisanship and might culminate in rigid fanaticism that could destroy democratic processes if generalized throughout the community,’ Lazarsfield wrote. The political system required flexibility. It demanded partisans to invigorate politics and moderates to heal the nation after a divisive struggle. ... Having a good number of people who didn’t care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled with eager supporters of both sides. Indifferent citizens leavened the system, gave it suppleness, just what the partisan personality lacked. Apathy gave politicians room to maneuver, compromise, make deals, smother grease on the gears of representative democracy. Having people who didn’t give a flip about politics helped hold society together and cushioned the nation from the shock of disagreement and change.” This is from page 291, under the heading “The Benefits of Apathy and the Paradox of Democracy.” But I wonder, what good is it if apathetic nonvoters give politicians room to compromise if the politicians are determined not to work together???

Anonymous said...

Bill Bishop's analysis has a good deal of support from those who look at elections. Gerrymandering, however dramatic in some cases, accounts for little of the political polarization we see today. One credible analysis of the 2012 H.R. elections finds 6 districts that changed parties because of districting.
We do seem to be sorting into 'Two Americas.' The GOP has become a southern party. The rigtwing core of the party are now reactionary conservatives -- fearful and angry (sentiments amplified by talk radio).
It's not easy to see a way out of the current gridlock. I'm all for encouraging talk 'across the aisle,' but in a period when the sides share so little in terms of preconceptions and notion of evidence, it's pretty discouraging.
I'll close with a long quote from Mann & Ornstein, (it's Even Worse than it Looks): "...however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge,... the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
cheers, Phil

P. J. Grath said...

Phil, I'm glad you were finally able to manage to leave a comment. It's very clear which side of the divide you are on. I read only this morning that the Republican party today has a lower rating than any major party in American history. Interesting, too, that they have taken a page from the old Communist playbook, i.e., the old revolutionary slogan, "The worse, the better."
Working on that rule, they run for and get into Congress, refuse to make anything work, and then say, "See? We told you government doesn't work!" Actually, they've gone the old Communists one better: the Communists merely thought that the worse conditions became, the better their hope of eventual revolution, while today's far right fringe takes it into their hands actively to make things worse.

On the other hand -- and I do think there is always something to be said on the other hand, even when I don't see what they're holding to be equal in weight -- don't you have some liberal friends who spew nothing but vitriol and all of it along party lines?

I am a Democratic to the marrow of my bones, but with a few conservative tendencies. I'll be revealing one aspect of my conservative side in another blog post soon.

Thanks, Phil. You do know this material, so your contribution is important.