The Rise of Bipolar Politics

“A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest”                                                         Paul Simon

File:The Undecided Political Prize Fight, 1860.JPG

Lincoln and Douglas box before onlookers at the White House (Public Domain: Wikimedia)

It is becoming more and more evident that the American political system is fraying badly. A generally neutral media has weakened in the last two decades. In its place are partisan ideologues on the radio, cable and Internet. Political debates, the essence of a democracy, are more shouting matches than forums for competing solutions. As this year’s Presidential election has progressed, this fraying has become more apparent. Part of the problem is that neither the left nor the right speak the same language. Every action, every event is coded as bait for the other’s fervent supporters.

The decision by San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick to refuse and stand for the national anthem is a prime example. Kaepernick’s motive was to draw attention to the lives of African-Americans and other minorities who have lost their lives in unjustified police shootings. It is a perfectly legitimate cause because police represent the power of the state, and no one of any race should lose his or her life because of the inappropriate, deadly actions of a police officer. However, Kaepernick has fallen into the trap plaguing modern American politics. While his supporters claim that his actions opened a dialogue on the issue of minority deaths at the hands of police, the fact is that all sides have simply retreated to their partisan corners.

A dialogue represents a conversation to find a solution to a problem. Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem has not created a conversation or even a cohesive debate on any subject. That is because he failed to pick an issue directly relevant to the police killings. Instead, he picked a symbol that means something different to different people.

Some say Kaepernick insulted the anthem. Others say it was the flag. For those on the right, many say this shows disrespect to America. Others say it disrespects the men and women in uniform fighting for this country. There are those who have even called it illegal. Most label it as unpatriotic.

For those on the left, many called his actions patriotic. They state that the “Star-Spangled Banner” derives its origins from slavery. That it glorifies slavery. That the flag and anthem represent an oppressive national government.

Then, there is the middle ground that stakes a position that it is Kaepernick’s First Amendment right, disagree or not with him. But none of this was the debate Kaepernick intended. It was supposed to be about people of color inappropriately losing their lives to police officers, not the anthem nor the flag nor patriotism nor even free speech.

The debate has become anything but that. Part of the reason is that the symbols involved represent many things. Kaepernick made one of the cardinal errors of a political protest. He made his protest over a symbol that represents just about everything, but the issue he wants to raise.

When Martin Luther King wanted to challenge segregation in the South, he didn’t refuse to acknowledge the flag or national anthem to stake his position for civil rights. No, King made a direct assault on segregation by challenging the seating on buses and restaurants. There was no mistaking what his cause was.

When Mohandas Gandhi challenged British rule in India, he chose a salt march to break a British monopoly on salt. Like King, that is a direct challenge to an instrument of oppression. There can be no confusion over the issue.

Although both King and Gandhi used specific examples of repression as symbols for a greater injustice, they picked battles that they could win in a long, protracted struggle. Being able to sit in a restaurant with whites didn’t bring equality to African-Americans, but it had a specific goal that could be achieved until the next goal was set. Kaepernick has only said that he won’t stand until things change for the better. Nobody knows what that means, probably not even Kaepernick.

All Kaepernick has done is feed coal to the coming election’s fire. The United States is in a hyper-political mood as the presidential election approaches. It doesn’t take much for an attempt to create debate to turn into partisan tangents. The “debate” on any one of the many things that the anthem represents is primarily limited to similar-thinking believers. In other words, the debate is simply a process to support confirmation bias. When the two opposing sides do engage, it is often an argument, not a debate. The arguers often can’t even agree on what they are arguing over because a national symbol means different things to each side.

That is where we are at now. Liberals have their own media; conservatives have one too. Rarely do they meet except in a mutual distaste for a shrinking mainstream media. This situation is very similar to that of a younger United States in the nineteenth century. At that time, the press was partisan. The political parties had their own newspapers. Now they have their own cable channels and blogs. Politically diverse Americans weren’t talking to each other back then either, and that helped contribute to the Civil War. As with today, the moderate middle was dwarfed by the far more vocal and numerous voters of the right and left.

When the media becomes a voice of partisanship, it is difficult for voters to find reliable, fair information. Demonization of the other side and candidates becomes easy. The political center begins to shrink as centrists line up left or right. For liberals and conservatives, when an issue rises up for national debate, it becomes two separate issues with two separate solutions. Any debate is primarily limited to internal party debates. That tends to create two hardened sides that won’t compromise because they see the debate as over by the time it reaches the wider public forum.

In essence, neither side is speaking the same language on an issue. Every issue has its nuances that the other side does not understand or respect. The end result is attitude polarization.

In the 1960s, psychologist Peter Watson conducted studies on confirmation bias that concluded once people proceed down a path that confirms their beliefs, they rarely move off track. In 1979, Stanford University conducted a study on capital punishment beliefs. Two sides were separated evenly with supporters and opponents of the death penalty. Both sides were given arguments pro and con. Those with firmly held beliefs embraced the arguments supporting their position while dismissing the arguments of other side, even if those opposing arguments were factually stronger.

Once people have locked into a set of beliefs, it is nearly impossible to bring back a balanced reevaluation of the facts. In our partisan driven social media world, balanced information is a rarity. This new media age has created a bubble of confirmation bias around everyone’s personal beliefs. Platforms like Google and Facebook reinforce that. Internet searches contribute to building a profile of each user.  If one is an ardent denier of climate change, that is the feast of information which is provided up in searches and sponsored site information. It makes good business sense for the likes of Google and Facebook. They want to keep the user happy and engaged. Giving that person what they want is the way to do it. However, that is not the best path for an informed electorate in a democratic society.

A self-governing society cannot operate without some sense of community. Unfortunately, that sense of community is disappearing from American politics. The common ground that most Americans shared shrinks steadily as we become ever more insulated in groups of our think-alike peers.

The last six presidential elections have been decided by less than a 10% margin of the popular vote for the winning candidate. Contrary to what the media like to portray, those are not landslide margins. It is a comfortable win, but only when the margin gets to 15% or 20% does it really classify as a landslide.

There are only two other periods in American political history comparable to this. One is the period from 1836-1860. Although three of those elections had the victorious candidate winning by more than 10%, none of those three instances had the winning candidate getting a majority of the vote. That was because of strong third, fourth and even fifth party candidates or factions. The country was badly divided, which lead to the Civil War. After Reconstruction, there were seven very close Presidential elections between 1876 and 1900. There are strong indications that 2016 will also make this year seven elections in a row.

The importance of this rests on a strong ideological division that leaves little room for a middle ground. This leads to entrenched positions and a lack of compromise on issues. It then takes either a war or a political realignment to create a stronger centrist voting bloc. In the past, that happened with the Civil War and the rise of the progressive movement in the early twentieth century. How the predicament we are win will be settled is yet to be determined. However, it is clear that without a strong centrist bloc, compromise is nearly impossible. The centrists don’t have the clout to force compromise and align with one side or the other. Instead, the centrists must align with either the hardcore right or left to get elected. In the process, they lose independence. The best example of this is the rise of the Tea Party and its targeting of elected officials it deems as RINO Republicans – essentially moderate-leaning Republicans.

There used to be huge swings in vote totals between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Hoover took 58% of the vote in 1928. By 1932, nearly 20% of those voters deserted him for Roosevelt. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s 61% improved on John Kennedy’s vote total of less than 50%. Barry Goldwater only received 38% of the vote in 1964, but by 1972, fellow Republican Richard Nixon was able to get 61% of the vote. For much of the twentieth century, one of the major parties could undergo a shift of over 20% every four or eight years. Toda, it isn’t feasible to imagine those types of electoral swings.

Kaepernick’s protest is doomed not only because he picked the wrong symbol to make his case, but because there are so few to convert to his point of view. They are either already on his side or opposed and will only hear what they want to hear in the media. The middle hardly exists in American politics anymore. Historically, it is the arbiter of political causes.

Immigration, climate change, GMOs, etc. are all issues locked into attitude polarization. Once a science issue becomes associated with a political ideology, the battle for a widespread understanding is over. For non-science issues, that window rarely exists at all.

In the 1990s, both liberals and conservatives began to embrace global warming as a fact. The partisan divide intensified when Al Gore took up the cause, thereby creating suspicion on the right. In addition, when carbon taxes were proposed by liberals, more conservatives jumped the global warming ship. Global warming changed from a science issue to a political one. The cause was lost, at least for significant change at diminishing greenhouse gases for the near future.

The only route out of this dangerous pattern is for more people to become critical thinkers or for the media to become a forum for balanced reporting. Unfortunately, our technology is not moving the media in the direction for the later so we are only left with the former. The only route left for the American political system to remain viable is to find a way for people to become critical thinkers. It is a long process that must start in the schools. In the age of information, if people are not taught how to process and evaluate it, then the information is worthless. Without change, our intolerance and self-righteousness will strangle what is left of our political rights.

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