What is Happening To Us? And Why?

The health care debates have revealed bitter political divisions, but the signs of polarization, both big and small, litter our entire political landscape.  Why is this happening?

Ross K. Baker, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on the history of the Senate, noted in The New York Times: “It has gotten so bad now that Republicans don’t want to be seen publicly in the presence of Democrats or have a Democrat profess friendship for them or vice versa.” (See, “In Senate Health Care Vote, New Partisan Vitriol.”)

Even the careers of Supreme Court clerks reveal this polarization.  “Until about 1990 . . . there was no particular correlation between a justice’s ideological leanings and what his or her clerks did with their lives.”  But now, “Clerks from conservative chambers are now less likely to teach. If they do, they are more likely to join the faculties of conservative and religious law schools. Republican administrations are now much more likely to hire clerks from conservative chambers, and Democratic administrations from liberal ones.” (See, The New York Times, “In Supreme Court Clerk’s Careers, Signs of Polarization.”)

The evidence is everywhere, but why is this happening ?  And why now?

Two reasons, I think.  The first has to do with the psychology of politics in a post cold war era, the other with emergent real differences in society.

Following the collapse of communism, we no longer have a common enemy to unite against.  All the frustrations and petty annoyances that tend to get displaced onto politics now cannot be exported so easily into hatred of the Evil Empire.  They are being forced into our local arenas.  As in spectator sports that have always provided outlets for the passions and disappointments in the daily lives of fans, we are lining up in opposing political camps.  That not only provides more opportunities to vent our frustrations, but also, given the lack of a common danger, we have less incentive to moderate and soften our conflicts with each other.

Here is where real, underlying social issues come into play, the second reason for our increasing polarization.  The gap between the rich and the poor has been growing.  This is reflected in one way by the growing disparity between workers salaries and the lavish compensation packages of top executives, but more generally in the increasing erosion and fragmentation of the middle class.  As a result, two increasingly distinct and identifiable interest groups are emerging.

This is not simply the rich versus the poor, of course, those who have and those who don’t.  If that were so, the rich would not stand much of chance.  It is a matter of identification and aspiration, those who do not want their opportunities diluted by taxes to provide social safety nets for the poor, those who emphasize the importance of sacrifice and discipline in getting ahead, who are convinced they will succeed and are motivated by the achievements of others, the stories of hyper-successful geeks and those who have worked their way up the ranks.

On the other hand, there are those at the margins of our national prosperity who tend to be left out, those sinking in status, and those troubled by our unequal access to security and protection against suffering.  Many also don’t like the picture that is emerging and want a more equal society, but they, too, increasingly have no choice but to side with the underdogs.

There are plenty of exceptions, but we are gradually separating out into two teams, each with their diverse complement of fans.  And they are engaged in a desperate battle to claim the future.