Thursday, September 3 , 2015, 6:57 pm | Fair 74.0º

Pete Peterson and Ted McAllister: Plenty of Blame to Go Around for Political Polarization

We can look for simplistic answers but fragmentation comes in many forms.

By Pete Peterson and Ted McAllister |

In his current bestseller, Nixonland, author Rick Perlstein declares that Richard Nixon’s campaign tactics in 1968 and following were the genesis of our current hyperpartisanship. While the tome is unique in its focus on Nixon, it is yet another in a series of books (Ron Brownstein’s The Second Civil War, Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel’s Common Ground, for examples) that have described this era as uniquely divided. Can we really blame politicians for our political polarization? Are we really uniquely polarized today?

Pete Peterson
Pete Peterson

If a recent report from RAND Corp., entitled “Polarized Politics and Policy Consequences,” is to be believed, the answer to the latter question is a definite “Yes.” Basing their conclusions on voting pattern research, Diana Epstein and John C. Graham say we are currently living in the second most polarized period in American history; the first being the Civil War.

As to the reasons behind this partisanship it is just too simple to attribute it to either “Tricky Dick’s” dirty tricks or the right-wing version of this, “Slick Willie” and his “war room” and outlandish charges of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” The causes are more structural than personal, and they are at least three-fold. First, the federalization of several major policy issues has galvanized opposing camps on a national basis as opposed to a state level. From abortion to the drinking age, policy questions that were once handled by states and local municipalities with their localized factions have metastasized on the body politic. If the recent debate in Kansas about teaching “intelligent design” becomes a matter of federal policy then we multiply the interested parties on a national scale. All politics becomes national ... Scary.

Ted McAllister
Ted McAllister

Second, the one race for national elective office — for president — which was once a six-month process every four years has become a two-year marathon that brings along with it a vast, diverse and always “on” media, saturating concerned citizens with news, events and pseudo-events. Two years ago, the big question being debated on both sides of the partisan divide was “who’s going to run?” The agonizing process moved through candidacy announcements, numerous debates, and a primary “season” that has the look of an epoch. Americans elected Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt in an election cycle that was a quarter of its current length.

Finally, the multiplicity of media channels covering these federalized issues and campaigns has increased dramatically. From multiple 24-hour news cable channels to partisan blogs and Web sites to talk radio, the prevalence of partisan media is at a scope unmatched by any period in American history. Of course, there have always been party news outlets in the form of newspapers, but the extrapolation of these segmented messages across multiple media platforms is unique. This has created a situation in which the partisan channels must compete against their own “kind,” forcing ever-exaggerating rhetoric. For the American citizen, this has created what University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein has called the Daily Me — placing ourselves in ideological “echo chambers” through bookmarking certain Web sites, keeping certain radio presets and watching certain cable channels.

The solutions to our present fragmentation appear to be both structural and habitual. Structurally, some have suggested shortening the presidential campaign season. Ours is unnecessarily the longest of any democratic republic in the world, and appears to be getting longer. Second, we need a reinvigorated respect for local governance at the state and regional level. Empowering state and local governments decreases the pressure that surrounds national debates. Practically, for those of us who concentrate on things political, it behooves us to develop the habits of speaking with others who possess different viewpoints, and to examine our media choices to see if we are, in fact, living in an echo chamber.

Is partisanship on a one-way track to deeper divisions?

Less than two decades after our most partisan era, Englishman James Bryce toured the United States and described his impressions in The American Commonwealth, a masterwork that served as a textbook in many American schools during the late 19th century. In 1881, he wrote of his surprise to discover that Americans rarely talked about national politics: “In a presidential year, and especially during the months of a presidential campaign, there is, of course, abundance of private talk … (but) when that hour of relaxation arrives he gladly returns to most agreeable topics.” When this election is over, let us search for that “hour of relaxation” and those “most agreeable topics.”

— Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California and lectures at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Ted McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

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» on 07.27.08 @ 05:30 PM

Money rules and extreme amounts are accumulating in the pockets of a small oligarchy.  With well financed propaganda, this will only get worse, leaving our bootstraps broken from all us thinking we can pull to get “ahead” when actually we are being left behind.  If only there was a parliamentary system with representation based on total number of votes for a party, to allow minority opinions (with time & spending limits)?  If only there was required advanced lie detection to rid us of the sociopathic politicians?  Then we might have a chance at a thoughtful political process and good management in government. 

California is so under-represented in the Senate (if counties divided into states, we could have ~50 senators, kind of like a bunch of Rhode Island’s); plus the House 435 reps, against the constitutional right of one per 30,000 voters (we have one rep per 500,000 currently); all this rips the public off for representation and only big money can talk.  Population control and/or space migration could help as well.  Turning off the TV news is another thought.

Of course, an asteroid will hit the earth in 2014 and all of our mewing will be for naught:  “British government’s Near Earth Object Information Centre announced that the asteroid 2003 QQ47 has a remote chance of 1 in 909,000 of hitting Earth on 21 March 2014. ”  Better odds than the lottery.  Oh, yeah, I forgot:  a Terminator is already in control of California.  No wonder everyone is out to get what they can while they can.  Fragmentation and partisanship is locked in.  And religion is legalized insanity (thanks Janov and John Lennon) to keep us from questioning our fate.  Am I being too negative?

» on 07.29.08 @ 03:10 PM

Although what the author says is contributing to political polarization is true but it is even more complex than he discusses. Not the least of the omissions is the content of political campaigning which has drifted away from any substantive discussion of issues to a generalized feel good rhetoric including obvious non-answers intended to please certain constituancies. At the same time the candidates have evaded giving, or even having, any meaningful answers to difficult questions. Instead, in order to distinguish themselves from their opponents, they have attacked their oponents and demonized them often unfairly or without any real basis or for some “dirt” that has been dug up from their past or even their concerning their family members. This has given the media great fodder because todays media is keyed to “sensationalism”, often turning the so called news into broadcasts and endless discussions by talking heads that resemble a Jerry Springer look alike show. Unfortunately the political parties and their spokespersons have seized upon these tactics as party practice and policy. One can see this clearly in the conduct of the current presidential campaign where candidate Obama echos the platform of “change” evidently for the sake of “change” without any meaningful reference to what he is going to change to what. In fact he criticizes “politics as usual” and then engages in that very same ambivalent rhetorical practice. Senator McCain rightfully criticizes Obama for having no experience or being able to point to a single elective accomplishment in his short tenure in the Senate yet Senator McCain never discusses any notable successful accomplishment of his own during his long tenure in the U.S. Senate. This is because some of the bills he has sponsored like the McCain-Feingold campaign reform Act (excludes contribution limits on Indian tribes and gambling casinos) and the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988 which have both proven to be disasters and failures in accomplishing their objectives and have even been responsible for agravating political corruption and conflicts of interest rampant in America today!.

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