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?
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.
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.