Media and Polarization


The Pew Center released a new poll with some fascinating conclusions. Our country really is far more polarized than ever before. This no surprise but what was fascinating to me is this other chart, which demonstrates how much of the country is not interested in either the extreme partisan position or in participating in a political process they see as fixed.


Even though the percentage of voters on the extreme right and left is growing, it still represents only 20% of the potential electorate. But those who are the most extreme are exactly the folks who turn out at the polls.

Holding deeply negative views of the opposite party and its leaders is correlated with political participation, and this is particularly true among Republicans in the current context. Republicans who hold a very unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party are 18 points more likely than those whose opinion is mostly unfavorable to say they always vote.

So what is the difference between the relatively benign atmosphere in the early 1990’s and our current poisoned chalice? I would argue that the rise of hard right talk radio and Fox News has made the difference. Andrew Sullivan writes of spending an evening watching Fox News.

Look: I know I may be a total sucker for even hoping to see some semblance of fairness and balance on Fox. But it’s still shocking to see programming designed not to uncover reality, but to create a reality in which no counter-arguments are ever considered, and in which hysteria is the constant norm. MSNBC is almost as bad, of course, but with CNN as the new Discovery Channel, the entire possibility of a balanced newscast has disappeared from cable – and from the lives of most Americans. Again, this is not new. But as it continues, it intensifies. And as it intensifies, the possibility of governing all of the country recedes into the distance.

This is a civil war without violence. And we are two countries now.

However, there may be an interesting development that could radically effect the 2016 election and that is a populist reform revolt against the elites of both parties. Writing in the National Journal, Ron Fournier notes that Eric Cantor’s defeat was not so much a product of a revolt against immigration reform as a revolt against crony capitalism, for which Cantor was the poster child. Fournier quotes Doug Sosnick (Bill Clinton’s political director), who feels the populist anger from both right and left could coalesce around a number of issues.

Which side of the barricade are you on? Populists from the right and the left—from the tea party and libertarian-leaning Rand Paul to economic populist Elizabeth Warren—are positioning themselves among the insurgents. Sosnik pointed to six areas of consensus that eventually may unite the divergent populist forces:

  • A pullback from the rest of the world, with more of an inward focus.
  • A desire to go after big banks and other large financial institutions.
  • Elimination of corporate welfare.
  • Reducing special deals for the rich.
  • Pushing back on the violation of the public’s privacy by the government and big business.
  • Reducing the size of government.

If those six issues are the platform for victory with the vast “silent plurality” that represents the middle of American politics then I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is prepared to embrace this program. Clearly Rand Paul could run there, but my own distrust of Paul as a “Manchurian Candidate” from the Lew Rockwell fringe of Libertarian politics, who is trying his best to look reasonable, makes me demur. Which of course leads back to Elizabeth Warren, who could run a populist campaign that just might be a winner.

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2 Responses to Media and Polarization

  1. Fentex says:

    A thing that bugs me with popular analysis of events such as Cantors ousting and the E.U’s recent elections of minority right wing nutcases is that analysts seem to think the voters involved all support the platforms of the people they elected.

    They seem to think Cantor was discarded because voters want the Tea Party platform, that UKIP won seats in Europe because people are virulently anti-immigration.

    I think it is more likely that these are protests against business as usual, with the protest candidates being chosen.

    And those politicians who think the answer is to adopt the elected’s platforms (such as Republicans adopting Tea Party rhetoric) have entirely the wrong end of the stick and making exactly the sort of asinine error that leads countries into fascism which only a minority of idiots actually wants.

    The proper way to counter protest is to fix the core problem – but of course that requires a desire to. Sadly I am left suspecting the reason politicians adopt their opponents insane platforms is their ambition to govern is shaped by a will to profit so attacking the source of wealth is not an option for them. It certainly isn’t something one could expect of Hillary Clinton who is as tight as tight can be with the establishment.

    But who else can there be? Surely she will have a lock (presuming she wishes it) on the Democratic nomination and surely any Republican is currently unelectable?

  2. Alex Bowles says:

    David Carr seems to get it.

    It’s now clear why the primary defeat of the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, came so completely out of the blue last week: Beltway blindness that put a focus on fund-raising, power-brokering and partisan back-and-forth created a reality distortion field that obscured the will of the people.

    Note the construction. Not “the preference of the people for one unsatisfactory platform rather than another even more unsatisfactory platform.” Just…the will of the people. Which is becoming very clear.

    The problem – for Washington – is that it’s the last thing they want to acknowledge, meaning the blind spot Carr refers to is more like deep denial.

    Generally speaking, this is not the condition of people in a stable position.

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