December 12, 2006

The Political Polarization Of America

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the many conditions that have created the highly partisan environment that we live in today. Ever since the end of Ronald Reagan's term, it seems that there has been a constant ratcheting up of negativity between the two opposing sides. Yes, politics has always been a contentious subject and of course you can find plenty of examples throughout American history to support an argument that "it's always been this way". But I disagree.

When the next Presidential election arrives, the U.S. will have spent the previous twenty years with an occupant of the Oval Office with either the name Bush or Clinton. Many point to the first term of the elder Bush as about the time that things started to get really nasty. And I tend to agree. But I don't agree that blame lies with Bush 41, Clinton or Bush 43. During this time, a lot of changes have been taking place in the arena of politics. Former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry gave a speech at his alma mater, Princeton University, recently and offered some analysis as to why the Clinton Presidency seemed to fall short of what he believed was its great potential.

Reading through his comments I was struck at how well they applied to modern politics in general. For example:

First, he said the end of the Cold War in 1989 exacerbated partisan politics in the United States.

"President Clinton found himself trapped in abrupt shifts in American foreign policy," McCurry said. "Our politics at home lost bipartisan policy."

From 1989 through 2001, the American people perceived that the U.S. had no looming threat or common enemy to unite against. Notwithstanding regional conflicts in Iraq, the Sudan and Bosnia, the U.S. stood as a lone superpower unaware of the growing, underlying threat it faced from Islamic Terrorism. With no foreign enemies threatening our domestic safety, partisan battles consumed our energies. Of course, this ended on September 11, 2001. But partisanship was well entrenched by that point and the argument over exactly who we should and shouldn't be fighting became the divisive issue of the day.
The explosion of the Internet and partisan media networks, he said, also heavily changed Clinton's time in office because of a new concentration on scandals. Clinton, McCurry said, frequently remarked that when he assumed the presidency in 1992, there were 50 web pages on the Internet. By the end of his second term, there were approximately 50 million.

McCurry noted that these electronic news sources — typified by the Drudge Report — ran through a serial list of crises and scandals that marked Clinton's time as president, including gays in the military, "White House sleepovers," Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Clinton's impeachment.

"This was the press' focus day after day," he said. "There was an inability to change to more substantive topics."

This new focus of national press coverage, McCurry said, is the reason the media is still dysfunctional today.

Yes, "gotcha" journalism became the standard in the new "drive-by" media, probably out of competitive necessity. As I wrote a short while back, the internet is a wonderful thing but it has brought with it several changes in the way we communicate information and how we react to it. Most of these changes are not for the better. People with similar ideologies can find each other easily and work themselves into a frenzy - all the while creating a sense that such negative passion is far more widespread than it actually is. Witness groups like and (not to mention hundreds if not thousands of "group" blogs and bulletin boards, places where the dysfunctional go to bond with each other when they can't find such like-minded folks in their general proximity).
Another important factor that shaped Clinton's presidency, McCurry said, is "the ambivalence of the baby boom generation," which is a generation "that lacks emotional intelligence."

McCurry said this generation came of age in the 1960s believing that the government could do "extraordinary things."

The result of this generation, McCurry said, was a country where "we wanted to have much more government than we were willing to pay for."

This view is opposed by the opposite end of the spectrum which asserts that government can do nothing without screwing it up and is inherently corrupted by the system. Neither view is completely true or completely false. The inability to reconcile these views creates one more wedge that separates the two sides. Each side, however, is losing support to the ever-growing disaffected and disillusioned group known as the "unaffiliateds" or the "independents".

So we live in a fifty-fifty nation and will likely continue to do so for some time. And every election, the deciding factor is that middle third that throws its support enough in one direction or the other to tip the scale. This is not to say that this "middle" of the electorate is pleased with either side. This leaves two questions in my mind: 1) will this polarization recede, maintain stasis or grow even stronger and 2) how much worse could it get?

Posted by: Gary at 03:00 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 Karl Rove, Karl Rove, Karl Rove. Anyone who has paid any attention for the last 12 years knows that Republicans and Karl have pretty much set the tone and created the divisive nature of politics today. Dems were not prepared for competing against sociopaths. They did not realize the depths these people would stoop to in order to gain and retain power. From swiftboating to double speak to moral grandstanding, hypocracy and outright lies. This is the worst time this country has seen in a great long while. It's just plain sad. By the way, there is no war on Christmas. It's just another tactic by the right, instituted by the likes of Bill O'reilly to rile their base. It's all become so trsansparent it's a miracle even one person would vote for these losers.

Posted by: bill stevens at December 29, 2006 02:37 PM (/tdXP)

2 Bill Stevens - you're scapegoating and deferring blame. You blame one man for the "divisive nature of politics today" while ironically calling people "sociopaths". Perhaps you are merely engaging in projection and the dividing sociopath here is you. Oh, and btw - "swiftboating" is telling the truth about your opponent.

Posted by: likwidshoe at December 30, 2006 03:31 AM (VFChh)

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