Commentary

Christensen: Yes, we're polarized. Here's why.

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 17, 2012 

With the re-election of President Barack Obama, we have people petitioning to secede from the country. Before the election, I heard Democrats mumble that if Mitt Romney won they would move to Canada.

Never mind that Romney was about as right wing as the elder President George Bush, or that Obama is about as much of a socialist as Harry Truman.

But we have become a country polarized, despite the fact that, in my view, most Americans are not particularly ideological. We are a practical-minded people who do whatever seems to work. Let people in other nations get all worked up over this or that ideology.

But here are some thoughts about we have become so polarized.

The Big Sort: Most Southerners used to be Democrats, which helped the Democratic Party from going too far to the left. Meanwhile, the old Dewey-Rockefeller Republican Party of the Northeast has all but disappeared and morphed into the Democratic Party. We now have more intellectual clarity in the two political parties, but they are also more partisan and more attuned to their most ideological wings.

Decline of the political parties: The parties themselves have declined, replaced by super PACs, special interests and self-funded candidates who answer to no one but themselves. The political parties have historically acted as a centering force in American politics.

Redistricting: Politicians keep looking for ways to make it easier to win elections, so they keep drawing lines favorable to their parties. One result has been packing like-minded voters into districts, which means that members of Congress and state legislators no longer have to appeal to Democrats and Republicans to get elected. After this year’s election, the only moderate left in the state’s 13-member U.S. House delegation is Democrat Mike McIntyre, who held on by his fingernails and may still face a recount. The rest are either conservatives or liberals.

The media: Yes, my business shares the blame. The 24/7 news cycle has been toxic to reasoned debate. In an earlier generation, we had the gentlemanly Lawrence Spivak on “Meet the Press” and Bill Buckley on “Firing Line” – and we still have some of that. Now we are much more likely to get information from Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on the right or Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews on the left. On the Internet, people often get partisan news, whether it’s from the Drudge Report or from the Huffington Post – or worse. In some ways, there is no shared reality any more.

The Big Sort II: Several years ago, after I wrote a column that George W. Bush was likely to carry North Carolina, an acquaintance questioned my judgment. She declared she didn’t know anybody who was voting for Bush. She probably didn’t.

There is a self-sorting process going on. We make friends with people who think like we do, who join the same clubs, who often live in the same neighborhoods and attend the same churches. So we are shocked when the other guy wins.

Decline of civic life: I sometimes speak to civic groups, and it is evident that many of those groups are graying. Those civic groups are great at bringing Democrats and Republicans together to work on community projects for the common good. In such settings, people can see for themselves that public-spiritedness, good humor and common sense know no party label.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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