Arnold Kling  

The Political is Personal

The Return to SAT Preparation ... From Cheating to Signaling...

Dan Balz writes,

a report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center paints a particularly stark portrait of a nation in which the most significant divisions are no longer based on race, class or sex but on political identity.

Read the whole thing. He refers to a new study that has made a splash. My random thoughts:

1. It is consistent with my impression that blog posts and comment threads have become more strident than they were when I first started blogging. In general, I think people are much more "dug in" than ever.

2. Another Pew Study suggested that a lot of "unfriending" on Facebook is based on politics.

3. I keep thinking that this correlates with the decline in religious affiliation. Some of the group-identity needs that religion used to absorb are now channeled into politics.

4. I wonder if Jonathan Haidt would have found less interesting results had he done his studies four decades ago, because political alignments were not as salient then.

5. I do not think that this will end well.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Andrew writes:

5. I do not think this will end well.
These eight words were all that was necessary.

Chris writes:

5. I do not think this will end well.

Why - what is the end game? Half the country doesn't talk to the other half? Yeah, discourse is overly polemic - but what is the actual bad outcome beyond being impolite to each other?

OneEyedMan writes:

How badly this ends depends on the amount of federalism we can agree to.

Greg G writes:

Political disputes were plenty bitter in the early history of our country and there was plenty of federalism then.

stephen writes:

It seems (to me anyway) that the first three principal components of political identity are race, class, and sex. Granted, "class" does a lot of heavy lifting, but it seems obvious that each party is becoming a particular intersection or race, class, and sex.

aez writes:

"3. I keep thinking that this correlates with the decline in religious affiliation. Some of the group-identity needs that religion used to absorb are now channeled into politics."

Spot-on. Into politics or, I would add, its corollaries: climate change alarmism, racialism, etc.

K.R. McKenzie writes:

But, what about this quote:

"The changes the report cites have taken place at a time when the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as politically independent has risen sharply. Citing data from the Gallup organization, the Pew study states that it is probably safe to say that there are more independents than at any time in the past 75 years."

It seems to me that, considering this point and the rest of the data from the article, there's a growing independent class that is dissatisfied with the status quo republican/democrat divide. Because the centrists are leaving their party affiliations, this results in the further polarization of the two political parties.

Of course, this is a big problem when those political parties are the ones controlling all decisions, but it does leave hope for some reorganization in the future. I'm not sure if that's 8 years away or 80 years away, but it seems to be coming.

StrangeLoop writes:

Ideally, this ends with anarcho-capitalism--in other words, the maximization of preference-satisfaction.

"Voting, once considered a sacred aspect of political freedom, is now considered by many to be a symbol of divisiveness and unproductive conflict." -- David Barker, Free America

Maximum Liberty writes:

I am curently reading "A Team of Rivals," which is a political biography of Abraham Lincoln and his rivals for the presidential nomination, who later served in his cabinet. There are some interesting parallels in it:

a. During the lead-up to the civil war, the parties had split over idelogical issues -- not uniformly in that they still represented coalitions, but there was a significant minority in each party that was significantly different from the other party, and which the other party uniformly disliked.

b. Each party demonized the radicals of the other party and represented the other party as being in thrall to those radicals.

c. The parties became more and more concentrated in their geographies, which left fewer battleground areas that were truly in play.

d. The members and publications of the parties seemed to be talking mainly to each other, and routinely ignored or discounted what the members and publications of the other party were saying.

Noting any parallels necessarily omits anything that is not parallel, so these observations by themselves would overstate the case. I'd say that, to some degree, these things are always true -- it is just a matter of degree.


SheetWise writes:

Agree with K.R. McKenzie. There also seems to be more search for truth, a path that leads a large part of the electorate to the left socially and to the right fiscally. The new media is having an impact.

I don't think that this will end -- but it will improve.

Matt C writes:

Chris, how about civil war?

While I don't think a civil war is *likely*, I don't think it's out of the question, depending on how bad things get in the coming fiscal collapse.

Even if we avoid violent conflict, having more polarization and more intense political feeling means more time and resources wasted on politics, and in practice I'm sure the politicians will parlay that into more state generally.

Politics is replacing religion as the default repository for group identity. At least here in the U.S., I don't think it's a good trade.

Mike Rulle writes:

This theme--or meme might be better--is emerging in more studies and newspaper stories (yesterday's WSJ story on Wisconsin makes it seem like Bosnia and Croatia circa 1990).

It is extremely difficult to measure the relative fractiousness of a nation when living inside, i.e. in realtime, one of the comparison periods. We all have a bias that "today is the best, worst, strangest, etc., time" regardless of the topic. This statement would also apply to the Weimar Republic---so it is not used in a dismissive manner.

Politics often is the expression of desired economic interests. Today, the perceived economic interests among our population is fractious, and with good reason. Our growing promised payments to ourselves largely outstrip much of the plausible achievable growth---although productivity can surprise on the upside.

This means we are less wealthy per person as a nation than we perceive ourselves as working individuals. I like to reference the Fed's Household Balance Sheet as an example. We as individuals own Treasuries that Germany and China do not, but the balance sheet does not show us owing any federal or state debt----but this debt is outstanding now. If we as individuals do not owe it, who does? One can reasonably argue there are missing assets as well---but they are "present value numbers" or "Government assets". We have "present value" debt too.

The question becomes "who takes the hit" on this unsustainable situation? No one wants to. The free market proponents have a more complex argument to make----who can understand "spontaneous order"?. Its much easier to be a demon finder----as we all know.

My point is.....Pew is picking up the realization by many that they are going to have less than they thought they were----and are beginning the process of fighting the "who pays more fight".

Shortages, even imaginary ones, (I don't think mass poverty is in our immediate future) can be blamed on others. I do think the political culture has become more nihilistic---hence your reference to religion is salient to me.

But I go back to my opening comment----where does this conflict stand when compared with other historical American conflicts?

We know the Civil War was worse----after that, the Civil Rights movement. Maybe Vietnam War protests a distant 3rd. Beyond those----its hard to know how conflict ridden we are relative to our History.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

This article seems to strongly confirm "The Fourth Revolution" (I followed a link off Powerline)

For instance: I am a political independent, but I feel enormous detestation for modern democrats and moderate detestation for republicans. I'm sure democrats feel similarly but in reverse. Surely there is a better coalition that would seek to shrink government, help the poor, reduce international obligations, weaken public service unions, reduce corporate lobbying, reduce regulation, increase domestic energy production etc etc that a new majority could agree on. If not, then we are at the end of our republic.

Jeff writes:

The first major party to adopt some libertarian ideas is going to win big. Neither liberals nor conservatives are currently pushing any ideas that have much appeal to the other side. The way to break the deadlock is to push things that almost everyone can agree on. Most of these ideas are libertarian in nature.

A conservative who wants to appeal to liberals can emphasize things like ending the drug war and its uneven enforcement that puts an awful lot of minority men in jail, ending various subsidies and giveaways to corporate farmers, defense and intelligence boondoggles.

A liberal who wants to appeal to conservatives can recognize that an awful lot of supposed "consumer" regulation is actually just protecting incumbent businesses from competition and can easily come up with dozens of examples that will appeal to conservatives without alienating his base. Taxi medallions, restrictive licensing, doctors ordering tests from labs they own and billing the taxpayer, and lawsuits that mostly benefit lawyers are just a few examples. Why doesn't Jesse Jackson campaign against agricultural marketing restrictions that make it more expensive for everyone (including the poor) to feed their families?

Both liberals and conservatives hate Wall Street and too-big-to-fail.

I would love to see a major political figure come out and say: Look, there is a lot of disagreement among citizens on social issues. Instead of wasting time fighting over things we're not going to agree on, let's look for things we can all agree on. Let's stop wasting money defending Europe from a non-existent Soviet Army. Why spend billions reducing carbon emissions when anything we do is going to be dwarfed by ongoing industrialization in the developing world? Why are we subsidizing the richest and least deserving among us via Wall Street bailouts? Why does all of the health care debate focus on the demand for care and never ask how we can increase the supply? Increasing supply lowers prices and increases consumption. Why are patients going to India and Thailand for lower cost care instead of doctors coming here?

There are hundreds of things you can campaign on that have a lot of appeal across partisan divides. What ties them together is the recognition that people with influence on the government just naturally tend to use that influence to enrich themselves at the expense of all of us. There is never any shortage of examples of this, and they're always good for some populist appeal. Tie enough of them together, and Voila! You have a winning libertarian-flavored campaign.

Collin writes:

I tend to think the world has become more polarized because the world is much safer than it ever has been. For all the nice day comments about Europe and Euro, nobody is even remotely close to recommending the invasion of another country. That would have been the solution 100 years ago. Think the Euro crisis is bad...Compare that to the stupidity of WWI. I suspect that one reason why debt crisis are becoming bigger and more frequent...That the military is a taking a portion of the pie and war is not around to clear out everything while breaking lots of windows.

I suspect that the US and Europe will muddle through it in the long run. That a major party realignment in the States in 2020 with both parties taking more libertarian approaches.

Floccina writes:

It seems to me like people have come to like their politicians more and are more willing to defend them. People that knew in past seemed to think that all the politicians even of their own party were corrupt and not worthy of honor or affection. People defended Bush and his wars and people defend Obama against the charge that unemployment is still high. People now seem to want something from Gov. rather than just to he harassed less.

IVV writes:

Politics replacing religion for group identity isn't really a problem, in my opinion.

The real problem is the insistence in identifying a nearby group to demonize. The idea is that we can't be satisfied with saying we're all Americans, ultimately on the same side with the same interest. No, it's that some of us feel a need to find a group and say, they're right here, they're among us, and they aren't us.

These groups aren't defined by what they stand for, but by what they stand against. And they make sure it's a group that is nearby, a group that they can shout at, be heard by.

Brian writes:

How and when all this ends depends on what's causing it. The likely cause is the explosive growth of information and our inability to handle it. In hopes of managing too much information, we lean more on proxies as stand-ins for actual thinking and enforce those proxies through inter-group conflict (think Herbert Simon).

The explosion of information is being driven by the Internet and mobile media, of course, and is responsible for both the political and financial polarization (the latter being the wealth gap) observed lately. Since the information explosion is not likely to calm down soon, the end of increased polarization will only happen when we adapt to it. This will require the creation of new and more effective proxies than currently exist, literally an intellectual revolution.

If no intellectual revolution is realized, the electorate may decide to look for a person to serve as a rational exemplar, a kind of "messiah." There are shades of this already with Obama. If this step is taken, it could end badly, but I doubt that's the most likely outcome. Instead, such a person is likely to appeal to independents and be less beholden to the traditional party structure, allowing for some steam to escape from the political kettle. I agree with the earlier poster who suggested that the way forward will involve somewhat more libertarian approaches.

I think the relation between religious involvement and political polarization is correlated but not causal. The rise of social media, which is part of the information revolution, has somewhat substituted for the social benefits of religious affiliation and practice, making them seem less necessary.

guthrie writes:

I live in Wisconsin and can confirm #2 has been happening quite a lot the last few days. It seems those who supported the recall are angry/upset/sullen and those who supported Governor Walker are gloating (it would seem to me the opposite was true after the general election of President Obama). I have friends who are bragging that they've shed 'Walker supporters' from their friends' list, and feel as if they've 'taken a shower'. It's amusing and depressing at once (for me, anyway).

I agree here with Jeff about the general mood of the country, however.

A=A writes:


In this you seem to echo what may be my favorite post of yours of all time:

Particularly your conclusion: "...look at how the issue of health care reform is going to be resolved. It is like gang warfare, where the Democrats and Republicans are going to rumble, and at least one side is going to be very unhappy with the outcome. For me, it is the democratic process that is barbaric, and it is the market process that is comparatively peaceful and civilized."

"Like gang warfare" indeed.

I have to wonder though, as an intellectual libertarian arguing its superiority for years: what role have we played in this divisiveness? Duller political minds have often borrowed libertarian ideas and cast them as their own -- G.W. Bush's Social Security privatization effort comes to mind.

To what extent are intellectual libertarians like us responsible for the current severely-degraded state of political discourse? Ayn Rand may be the best example of this: an uncompromising attitude, which we now see reflected in the Tea Party...

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