Cacophonous Concerto—How Polarization Makes Everything Sound Bad
One of the truly wonderful things about being a parent is to see your child dressed up in a silly robe and an even sillier square hat, tasseled and sashed, looking painfully young and even more painfully half grown up.
I had that pleasure this past weekend at Northwestern: a kaleidoscope of marches and brass, and orbs and scepters, and meetings and lunches and prizes and a thousand pictures and probably as many hugs (mostly of complete strangers.)
Ricardo Muti, the world-renowned conductor of the Chicago Symphony, gave the commencement address. He was charming, speaking of the power of music to unite, telling a story of the time he coached a policeman on how to make fabulous riches wearing white tie and tails (mostly, move your hand one-two-three, trust the orchestra to know what they are doing, and try to look both impressive and enraptured) and finally talking about the human need for person to person communication as the only real salvation. Less text, more talk, persevere, preserve, and nurture your relationships.
Muti’s words might have been chosen for a large audience, but the day before, in a far more intimate setting, Sandy Goldberg, Chair of the Philosophy Department, said something that struck me as the critical corollary to Muti’s words, and something perhaps even more important. Philosophy isn’t just about ideas or abstractions. It does something more critical. Philosophy teaches people how to talk to each other, and philosophy teaches how to disagree.
I’m sure neither Muti nor Goldberg was thinking about politics, but they couldn’t have been more prescient. Democracy works best when there is constant communication, vigorous but respectful disagreement, and a commitment to continued discussion.
Unfortunately, we seem to be moving, rather rapidly, in the opposite direction. The evidence of increasing polarization is stark. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has published the first of a five part series Political Polarization in the American Public. Pew polled 10,013 people over a three-month period earlier this year. It then went back and did more in depth follow up interviews with a representative sample. What the Pew study found was fascinating, and a little unsettling. There are two major trends that emerge—the growing uniformity of opinion amongst members of the same ideological group and political party, and the growing antipathy they feel for each other.
Let’s dive into the numbers, but first, take a deep breath.
92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. That tells you that there is no real middle ground for consensus and deal making. Instead, the parties have to take the next step—swap one priority for another.
Can they do that? Can they, in Sandy Goldberg’s construct, act the philosopher, agree to disagree respectfully and talk through issues? Can they see the other side as anything other than antagonists?
First, many of them have to hurdle their own gut. 27% of Democrats see Republicans as a literal “threat to the nation” and 36% of Republicans say the same about their Democratic brethren.
And, about that word “brethren” I would tread lightly. When consistent conservatives and consistent liberals were asked how they felt about one of their immediate family members “marrying the wrong kind” 30% of the conservatives and 23% of the liberals couldn’t cope.
Well, maybe you wouldn't want your sister to marry one, but that doesn’t mean the place has to be fumigated if he visits, right? Actually, no. 50% of consistent conservatives and 35% of consistent liberals want to live in a community where most people share their political views, 57% of consistent conservatives want those folk to be coreligionists (only 17% of consistent liberals care about that) and 76% of consistent liberals want racial and ethnic diversity while only 20% of conservatives do.
So, governing had become impossible, right? If, on the most basic and visceral level, we can’t even abide living near people on the other side of the spectrum, how do we try to compromise with them to reach a governing consensus? Is democracy is doomed?
I would offer a qualified no. There is no question that polarization has increased markedly since 1994, and that the two poles don’t even see the same reality. Pew calls it living in “ideological silos” where joining the “club” means adopting a long list of constantly reinforced articles of faith.
There is also no doubt that politically opinionated people tend to be more motivated to vote and have a disproportionate impact on elections. Pew found that, “nationwide, 21% are either consistently liberal or consistently conservative in their political values. But these people make up a larger share of the electorate – 28% of people who say they always vote and 34% of those who always vote in primaries.”
Yet, there are things to be encouraged about. Partisanship has grown markedly, but still only 21% of the voters are inflexible ideologues. That means 79% are not. The rest of us don’t have to let those 21% decide for us. But there’s a catch. We can be pretty certain that the 21% is not uniformly distributed. In some places, the concentration of the rabid is going to be much higher, given the propensity for like to want to live with like. That places a far greater burden on the less doctrinaire to do something that they seem unwilling to do—step up to the plate and make their voices heard through the ballot box, starting with the primaries.
And the responsibilities don’t end there, because the fringes are anything but marginalized. Even if the 79% weigh in in the primaries, we are still going to have a substantial number of people in Congress who seem to have very little interest in either lawmaking or compromising. A lot of them are angry, and truly loathe not only members of the other party, but any of their own who show the slightest deviation from revealed truth. If you want to see something truly hair-raising, watch Chris McDaniel’s “non concession” speech after he narrowly lost to Thad Cochran in Tuesday’s Mississippi Republican Primary. McDaniel is almost sputtering with rage, accusing Cochran of all sorts of irregularities.
Just a few more thousand votes, and McDaniel would have been the nominee, and likely the next Senator from deep Red Mississippi. He would join a Congress that is filling up with people just like him, always looking for someone to punch. It would have been another movement away from the discussion, respectful disagreement, and the compromise that a democracy demands.
Therein lies the paradox for the 79%. We want what Muti and Goldberg want--to start the orchestra working together, communicating with each other, arguing even, but within the confines of a team. We expect that there will be false notes and dissonance, but it’s not going to improve if everyone goes off into their private practice room. But we also don’t like our institutions or our elected representatives very much, and our very revulsion for how poorly they do and how ugly they are estranges us. Instead of diving in and wresting control, and working at it until it sounds the way it should, we turn away and yield to it.
The next time you see some bill in Congress, perhaps imperfect, but largely a positive, being sabotaged by a group of absolutists, remember that. It's not them. It's us. There are way more of us then of them, and it’s only our inaction, and our silence, that enables them.
If you really want better, you have to open your mind, and open your ears, and, ultimately, you have to fight to have others do the same.
There is no other way to make beautiful music together.
June 25, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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