J. Peder Zane

June 17, 2014

Zane: Our best politically engaged Americans are becoming our poisonous worst

The best citizens of our republic - the politically active and engaged voters who care passionately about issues and even read newspapers - are becoming rigid, intolerant boors who are poisoning the well of American politics, according to a new Pew study.

The best citizens of our republic – the politically active and engaged voters who care passionately about issues and even read newspapers – are becoming rigid, intolerant boors who are poisoning the well of American politics.

That’s the central finding of a new Pew study about the metastasizing partisanship in American politics. “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades,” reports the survey of 10,000 Americans.

Remember 1994, when President Clinton and Newt Gingrich were setting the stage for government shutdowns and impeachment? That was a love fest compared with today.

In a sharp uptick, the survey found that 92 percent of Republicans are now to the right of the median Democrat and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.

That partisanship is morphing into animosity as 43 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats now have a very unfavorable view of the opposing party – an increase of about 150 percent since 1994.

The Pew survey also found that Republicans and Democrats tend to seek like-minded friends and neighbors, creating “ideological silos.” This helps explain why the number of hard-core ideologues – those who hold down-the-line, consistently liberal or conservative views – has more than doubled during the last two decades, to 21 percent.

Seemingly on the plus side, 21 percent is a small number; the parties have become so venomous that about 42 percent of Americans identify themselves as independent, the highest figure in our history. The Pew study notes that the majority of Americans “believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.”

But just when you’re feeling hopeful, it adds: “Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”

That 21 percent looms especially large given that only about 60 percent of eligible voters bother to turn out for presidential elections, when about 40 percent cast ballots in off-year federal elections and when even fewer citizens participate in primaries and local elections.

As a result, our politics is driven by the take-no-prisoners, MSNBC/Fox News divide; by magazines and newspaper editorial pages that take predictable, Politburo stands on every issue while blithely casting opposing views as not just wrong but morally repugnant. In their high-dudgeon sermons to the faithful, our leaders and their media acolytes rely on Manichean tropes and straw men. In their narrative, one is either racist or enlightened, for or against regulation or freedom or spending money to help the poor; in foreign policy one either supports diplomacy or war.

Every action by our side must be defended; their every step and misstep by the opposition must be exploited. Sadly, the fact that our nation is struggling with immense challenges that offer no easy solution helps explain why partisans spend more time attacking their enemies than advancing their own ideas. It is a lot harder to understand and explore the vast give-and-take, shave-the-difference middle ground of compromise available for most issues than to hammer your opponent.

Again, all of this is being perpetrated by those who care the most. The best have become the worst, filled with rigid intensity.

A counterargument to this bleak view of the 21 percent is that they may be the only ones with their eyes open. As the most engaged citizens, perhaps they see threats ignored by the mushy middle.

This argument is wrong for three reasons. First, it lacks humility. Neither side has the corner on truth. Republicans and Democrats have each held sway over this country and not only has neither destroyed it but each has done some good.

Second, it lacks respect. The other side may be deeply misguided, but denying that its supporters have come to their views honestly is a gross distortion of reality. They may be wrong, but they have their reasons.

Finally, the winner-take-all approach advanced by the 21 percent is unreasonable. It seeks the impossible: total victory. That rarely happens in our divided nation. And when Democrats commanded the White House and Congress during Obama’s first two years, their actions prompted a revolt in the 2010 elections. The mushy-middle still has teeth.

I doubt there will be a sudden resurgence in humility, respect and reason. Partisanship serves the interests of our leaders and the media. As thoughtful, engaged people, we should be worried about our country and ourselves.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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