The shooting at a congressional baseball practice was a ghostly example of the political polarization that is ripping this country apart. Political scientists have shown that the U.S. Congress is now more divided than at any time since the end of the Reconstruction period.
The depth and nature of partisanship is simply so disturbing. People on the other side of the divide are not just wrong and to be argued with. They are immoral and must be punished.
This is not about policy. The chasm between left and right during much of the Cold War was far wider than it is today on certain issues. Many on the left wanted to nationalize or regulated the whole industry, and on the right, they openly advocate a total rollback of the New Deal. Compared with that, today’s economic divisions are relatively small.
Partisanship today is more about identity. People began to define themselves politically less by traditional economic issues than by identity— gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
Add to this mix social class, something rarely spoken of in the United States but a powerful determinant of how people see themselves.
Last year’s election had to do with social class, with non-college rural voters reacting against professional, urban elites.
The dangerous aspect of this new form of politics is that identity does not lend itself easily to compromise.
When the core divide was economic, you could split the difference. If one side wanted to spend $100 billion, the other side wanted to spend zero, there was a number in between.
The same is true with tax cuts and welfare policy. But if the core issues are about identity–culture or religion, immigration and official language, then compromise seems immoral.
American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is not middle ground between Sunni and Shiite.
Increasingly, there is little discussion about substance, mostly ad hominem attacks, often involving race, religion or ethnicity.
Today, everything becomes fodder for partisanship. Conservatives have pilloried the play, raising outrage among people who have never seen it, saying that it glorifies the assassination of a president.
Instead of trying to silence, excommunicate and punish, let’s look at the other side and try to listen, engage, and when we must, disagree.
The majority of Americans understand that social inequities exist and that discrimination against socially marginalized groups is still a serious problem.
By that, it means that more than half of Americans believe this thing to be true.
The gap is huge. While just less than one in three Republicans feels that is a lot of discrimination against Black people in the United States, almost eight in ten Democrats support that statement. That’s what political polarization looks like and the trend is more exaggerated among voters.
Republicans and Democrats are not just divided about whether these inequities exist. And that is a humongous problem.
Gun control, abortion, climate change, immigration, healthcare– the list of issues about Americans are at one another’s throats seems endless. Who can use the bathroom is now a federal case. It is us versus them politics. Even those who enjoy a spirited argument suffer from polarization fatigue.
But there is no relief coming. Americans are highly polarized and have grown more so.
We may blame politicians, big donors, activists or ideological media for this.
But they are just intermediaries. And they are not the source of polarization.
Who to blame then? Is this something temporary or permanent, that will come to pass?