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What is causing this partisanship?

There is a wealth of academic study on why humans polarize, how this problem has worsened in America recently, and why. One can reference some of this in the Resource Library. From my review of this I’ve refined a perspective, below.

The explanation is detailed, so I have bulletized it. One can click into each point for further elaboration below (all within this page).

First, a caveat. There are 327+ million Americans. They come in all shapes and persuasions. No perspective on this problem will explain 100% of its reasons. My approach is to look for common, prominent factors that, if addressed, could help resolve partisan dysfunction. I do not expect opposing extremists to agree with one another. My prescription does not assume anyone need change their political positions to agree with someone else. But if we can get those to the left and right of center to agree that they need to work across perspectives, we’ll be on our way. (return to bullets)

Illustrative: A Brush Fire

Let’s begin with the analogy of a brush fire. There are factors that contribute fuel, others that ignite that fuel and yet others that exacerbate and accelerate the burn.

The Fuel:

First we have factors that make the environment naturally conducive to polarization. There are several basic cognitive and social traits that humans evolved to aid our survival, but which also are two-edged swords and can lay the foundation for partisan behavior. Most prominent among these are Tribalism and Cognitive Biases. There is vast research on these behaviors, but to simplify:

  • Tribalism: Humans evolved socially to form groups to aid in prosperity and survival. But the act of forming a group often necessitates awareness that there are other humans that are not in the group. In social psychology these are called in-groups and out-groups. The existence of an out-group — perhaps a threatening rival gang — often helps the formation and strengthening of the in-group. None of this is rocket science, but explains the existence of tribalism and how our natural instinct to collaborate, in its very practice, can create an incentive to also resist collaborating with others. (return to bullets)
  • Cognitive Biases: Humans have also evolved “cognitive efficiencies,” to help us make decisions and act more quickly. Prejudice is an example of this. In the jungle, if you hear a tiger roar, it’s prejudicial to conclude that tiger may come eat you. It may not be prejudicial to stop, go investigate that sound and learn whether every roar means you are about to be eaten. But more humans survived by simply running away. So humans evolved biases. We can exhibit over one hundred different cognitive biases. The bottom line on this is, humans have cognitive defenses that protect knowledge that has served us well previously, and conserve our expense of mental energy. It is difficult to convince a human that a lion’s roar does not mean, “run!” We have to work hard if we want to resist that bias. And that is one thing that leads us to have closed minds toward other tribes. (return to bullets)

These are factors that lay the natural groundwork for partisanship. But these factors have existed since literally the dawn of man. We managed to build modern civilization, including the United States, in spite of them. Why have they become troublesome today?

The Igniting factors:

There are multiple factors contributing to angst between various classes of Americans today. One that has gotten media attention is the perceived declining dominance of the white, Christian male in US society. I don’t doubt that may play a role, but am not convinced that’s the core factor. My view is that the “igniting factor” — the biggest single factor driving angst and division in America today — is declining economic opportunity for the US middle class.

After World War Two, the US was the only major industrial economy left undamaged. Certainly as well, we had a great free enterprise system that lent itself to tremendous growth, but also had a decades “head-start” on every other industrial economy, all of which at that point were bombed-out. That lead was going to dwindle eventually. But during the period 1950 – 1980 most income classes in the US enjoyed a heyday. The tide of rapidly growing GDP really did lift all boats.

Things have slowed since 1980. It was inevitable that middle class income growth was going to slow. But at the same time, several other factors combined to squeeze the middle class yet further: (return to bullets)

  • Global outsourcing. It makes sense to produce things where that can be done most efficiently. But if doing so results in job losses where they used to be produced, one cannot simply imagine that those jobs were not lost. That is a reality. It will be confronted, either proactively by political leaders or re-actively by those who lost their jobs. (return to bullets)
  • Automation. Similarly, jobs are being lost or degraded to automation, both directly through job replacement and indirectly through automation of markets (creating the “Gig Economy”). Automation likely is a good thing for humanity as a whole. But for the laborer whose job was automated, or whose negotiating leverage was lost through developments such as Uber, InstaCart, TaskRabbit, etc. that bypass historical labor-management arrangements, it’s a problem. We cannot simply imagine this is not the case. Many observe that jobs lost to automation often are replaced by jobs to build and manage that automation. I’m not convinced that is always true, but if it were, in the case of robotics, the builders of those machines unfortunately are not predominantly in the US. Today they are in Japan, China, Sweden, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. That is a problem for the US worker. (return to bullets)
  • Asymmetries of income within new industries. Of the industries driving GDP growth in recent decades, it seems to be a characteristic of many that income distribution among US workers specifically is less balanced, and more skewed toward few higher earners working on the coasts than toward masses of middle income workers in the heartland. Take Google and Facebook. Terrific companies. They create great job opportunities for thousands of engineers and product managers in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York’s west side. But how many for blue collar workers in Detroit? Amazon and “Gig economy” firms do offer masses of lower-income jobs (delivery, distribution centers), but not the degree of middle income jobs that did, say, General Motors. These industries bring us great value, but here again we cannot simply ignore the dramatic economic shifts they imply, nor the natural alienation that a former steel worker, now “flipping burgers in McDonald’s” would feel toward a wealthy class on the coasts that is “rolling in the riches” of the dotcom, media and finance revolutions. (return to bullets)

“The financial squeeze on middle-class households is one of the factors economists say have prompted voters in Europe and the U.S. to turn toward nationalist politicians, who have supported immigration restrictions and protectionist trade policies as remedies. “Unless we change the script, these patterns will continue—or worsen,” Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote in a paper on the topic earlier this year.

Wall Street Journal, December 2019.

In my view, this is the critical angst that has inflamed a divisive wedge between the fortunate, generally more progressive populations of the thriving coastal cities and the struggling, longing-for-a-prior-era-of-better-jobs residents of the industrial Midwest (Yes, I know this is a generalization. Please remember this).

The Exacerbation/Accelerants

Partisanship has smoldered before. What has made it worse this time?

Three things:

  1. The Democratic party, for a period at least, seems to have lost its empathy for the blue collar worker.

    I say “lost” because the party had long been closely associated with championing blue collar issues. But more recently it has become associated, at least in public perception, with the concerns of more well-off coastal constituencies. In 2016 the party did not prioritize, at least in the top ten issues of its presidential platform, addressing economic decline in industrial America . One can see how this would alienate the neglected voter in Wisconsin and exacerbate polarization. One can also see how coastal citizens would then be alienated from the Wisconsin voter by his/her subsequent rejection of the Democratic platform — How could they vote for “him?” — polarizing things yet further.

    It has its own strengths, but the GOP has never claimed to be the party of empathy, nor of Labor. It has historically been the party of independent responsibility and did, indeed, famously break the PATCO union. The Democrats, though, have the ability to bridge the divide to the struggling blue collar Midwesterner and build a broad coalition. They have the ability to undermine polarization. Unfortunately, in 2016 the party did not. Famously, its candidate did not even visit Wisconsin. (return to bullets)

  2. Second, rapid changes in the media landscape have meaningfully altered the quality and balance of news delivery.

    Polarization of news media: For the first 39 years of television news the FCC “Fairness Doctrine” mandated that news broadcasters be “honest, equitable, and balanced.” This doctrine never applied to cable news, which began in earnest in 1980 with CNN. In 1987 the FCC eliminated the policy entirely, but it is probably fair to chronicle that broadcast news and CNN continued to try to maintain professional standards of balance, if not with (from a conservative perspective) a slight leftward tilt. But in 1996 FoxNews and MSNBC were founded and all that became moot. These two businesses’ formula of providing a distinct ideological filter on the news was gigantically successful and they have ultimately squeezed CNN into leaning into a tilt of its own. As a result, cable news is today highly polarized. And over half of Americans get their TV news from cable. This means many, if not most Americans get a skewed interpretation of the news, designed to reinforce their pre-existing world view. Clearly this would exacerbate polarization.(return to bullets)

    Emergence of Social Media: Social media technology and its impact upon news dissemination and issue dialogue has gotten well ahead of society’s understanding of its consequences. Influences of filter bubbles, fake news, micro-targeting, dubious news sources and malevolent manipulation call into question both the quality and diversity of the information we are exposed to. In fairness, I don’t personally believe this issue is as influential as it has been made out to be in the popular media, especially relative to the other factors addressed herein. But a lot of research suggests that social media can exacerbate cognitive biases and tribalism. (return to bullets)

  3. Third, our politicians have increasingly indulged in divisive tactics.

    Trump advisor Steve Bannon famously advised, “Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” This is no astonishing new campaigning revelation. It is a simple application of the out-group demonization alluded to above. But it is a two-edged sword, with dangerous repercussions. If a politician paints a picture with the electorate that the other side is basically evil, threatens us, cannot be bargained with and must be overwhelmed, then that politician needs to deliver on that vision once elected. And as stated earlier, it is exceedingly difficult to govern without bargaining with the other side. So, for this reason, for much of US history, with the occasional cyclical exception, the political class has tried to moderate its criticism of its opponents, so as not to paint anyone into corners from which they cannot negotiate their way out. It is nothing more than the practicality of needing to work with opponents to get anything done. But in my view, a new downcycle began in 1994 with eventual House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Subsequent to the astounding success of “The Gingrich Revolution” and the Clinton impeachment, more and more politicians found divisive politics difficult to resist. And it worked. We elected divisive politicians, on both sides. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would not describe herself as a collaborator with Republicans. Senator Elizabeth Warren, arguably, wants to demonize “billionaires and mega corporations,” not unite us with them to jointly solve problems. (illustrative reference on this point to come) So here we are today, unable to get anything done. (return to bullets)

Let’s recap:

  • Humans have a natural propensity toward tribalism and cognitive biases, which requires actual effort to overcome.
  • Current angst over declining economic opportunities for our mid-country and rural middle class, while at the same time wealthy classes generally distant on the coasts are historically thriving, have resurrected and inflamed these partisan urges.
  • This angst has been exacerbated by Democratic party neglect of the issue, media polarization, unintended consequences of social media and politicians’ willingness in recent years to exploit divisive tactics.

So …

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Thoughts from across the aisle...

“Candidates who listen to voters in the middle are more likely to reach across the aisle and to get things done.”

— Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor, NYC

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