Last January, I wrote my column for Lagniappe about the polarization of politics in the United States. I was born in 1946, making me one of the first “baby-boomers.” As I was growing up, people usually spoke about political attitudes as if they were normally distributed (that is, in a “bell-shaped” curve) along a left/right spectrum, with ultra-liberals on the far left, ultra-conservatives on the far right, and the vast majority of people somewhere in between in what was called the “mainstream” of U.S. politics.
This seemed to be verified in 1964 when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who was perceived to be on the far right, to run against Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater received just 52 electoral votes to 488 for Johnson. Eight years later the Democrats nominated George McGovern, an ultra-liberal, to run against Richard Nixon. McGovern received only 17 electoral votes compared to Nixon’s 520. Neither Johnson nor Nixon were hugely popular with the American people, so the lesson appeared clear: if you want to win a national election, you better pick a candidate from the political mainstream.
But that bell-shaped curve may no longer describe political attitudes in the U.S. The Pew Research Foundation has tracked the ideological attitudes of American voters over several decades, and their data show that better educated voters are becoming more ideologically polarized. That is, the liberals are moving further to the left and the conservatives are moving further to the right, leaving fewer voters in the middle.
The Pew researchers also found that less educated voters and independents are becoming less ideological. In other words, they do not recognize or understand the political philosophies of either conservatism or liberalism; they are populists who care more about issues that affect them directly than about being ideologically consistent.
More alarming is a recent YouGov poll that shows an increasing number of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, believe that violence is acceptable in advancing one’s political goals. Unfortunately, we do not have to look far to find verification of this.
What happened to the America I grew up in where you could have a spirited political debate with someone and still be friends and have a beer together afterwards? One thing that has changed is how we get our news of current events. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, everybody watched the evening news on one of the three major broadcast TV networks: ABC, CBS or NBC. One may have had a favorite newscaster, but they were all reporting pretty much the same thing. Most towns had just one newspaper; big cities might have two or three. Then there were the weekly news magazines like Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report; some were a bit more conservative and some a bit more liberal in their coverage. But there was not a huge difference. In other words, we were all pretty much on the same page.
But today we can choose from a dozen or more cable news programs, each one trying to claim its market niche by presenting its own slanted take on the news, while the news magazines, which had their journalistic reputations to protect, have been replaced by anonymously run websites, each trying to grab subscribers with sensationalized reports and unverified claims. Nutritionists have a saying: “you are what you eat.” In politics today, “you are what you choose to believe.”
Representative government is built on the idea that, despite our differences, we can work together to build a better community or a better world. It should not be a struggle as to who is going to dominate whom. But in the dog-eat-dog world of political information today, fear sells. Do not tell me how we can work together; tell me how you are going save me from the vicious dogs that want to eat me. My family is at stake; my religious and cultural values are at stake; my job is at stake; my self-identity is at stake … hell, America is at stake. One cannot sit back and passively watch as everything is taken from them. A true patriot must act.
A liberal reading the passage above is likely to think “boy, he has those ‘Trumpsters’ pegged, while a conservative is likely to say, “he must be talking about Antifa and BLM.”
Actually, I am talking about both.
Fear sells, and that is what the political hucksters on the left and the right are peddling these days. Blacks are told that white supremacists and the Klan are going to be unleashed to terrorize their communities, Latinos live in fear that their families will be torn apart and deported, Muslims fear religious persecution, while environmentalists fear that the world is about to burn up. And fear breeds violence.
The question is, can democracy survive in a world of enemies where “might makes right” and votes don’t matter? I guess we are about to find out. Meanwhile, we have a pandemic raging across the land, a $13-trillion national debt and an economy dependent on government handouts. Welcome to 2021.