April 20th, 2019


Why we can't get along

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published June 21,2018

Why we can't get along

The Stanford alumni magazine may not widely be considered one of the leading journals of life in the United States, but turn the pages of its most recent edition and you will find an examination of perhaps the most important issue in American civic culture today. 

The cover headline is “One Nation Divisible.” In a series of essays over a dozen pages, Stanford scholars seek to explain whether Americans are more or less polarized than before (mostly more), what that means (mostly not good), and why we find ourselves at this fraught moment (it’s complicated).

So as a public service, here are a few telling passages from these essays, along with a few thoughts from this typist, who no longer is so sure that what he has been peddling in this column for the past couple of years is as clear as it was when he pushed the “send” button:

People can take centrist positions on policy issues yet still evince a deep dislike for opponents with similar preferences. Shanto Iyengar and Neil Malhotra

An important insight: Those mushy-middle-ground mediators aren’t the selfless saints we mushy-middle-ground commentators have been saying they are.

The political class is the public face of politics. These highly sorted, politically active people are those whom you see, hear and read about on television and the internet. But they are not representative of the broader public; they are abnormal (as are most of you reading this article). Morris P. Fiorina

There he goes again: Mo Fiorina, Allegheny College ’68, is one of the smartest political scientists in the country, mostly because he isn’t focused entirely on the political elites.

[P]artisan voting in Congress is the historical norm rather than the exception, and partisan voting in the past has been more intense than in the present.David Brady

What? Things were worse before? Try the 1861 Senate vote to expel Southerners from the chamber or the 1935 vote on the Wagner Act securing the rights of unions.

[P]olarization has increased the most among the groups that use social media the least.Matthew Gentzkow

Oops, there goes another favorite shibboleth of the commentary class, the notion that social media has caused polarization. Next someone will tells us that social media isn’t the cause of the coarsening of our political dialogue. (Maybe we should make that point now: Social media is a pipe. It doesn’t create the fluid that passes through it. But it does make it easier for bilge to move.)

While we think of such resistance as a Southern phenomenon, the backlash of the 1960s was, in fact, a national countermovement. And it was that pressure, or more accurately the political opportunity afforded the GOP, that began to shift the party steadily to the right on matters of race. Doug McAdam

He is speaking of “white backlash,” which was harnessed by Richard Nixon in 1968 (and by Republicans who followed him). But it is important to remember that as a congressman, Nixon had what Mr. McAdam describes as “an impeccable civil rights voting record.” He extracted some of the teeth of the Voting Rights Act. Thus the Solid South of the Republicans is built on as cynical a base as the Solid South of the Democrats was.

The old working class that had been at the core of the progressive coalition from the 1930s onward was, in the meantime, losing jobs and status as a result of globalization and technological change. Simultaneously, a new upper class, defined by higher education and urban residence, had emerged, many of whose members had very different attitudes from the old working and middle class toward religion, family and patriotism. This new elite encompassed the leadership of both political parties as well as a large part of the mainstream media, think tanks and other key parts of the Washington establishment.Francis Fukuyama

Throw away all those explanations for Donald J. Trump’s presidency, including mine. In three sentences, the man who was wrong about the end of the Cold War being the end of history is right about the Trump ascendancy and the earthquake the 45th president has created in the capital. And in this striking passage he sets out the internal dynamics of the presidential election of 2020.

The Democrats have become a diverse collection of urban groups ranging from poor service workers to knowledge-economy professionals. The Republicans have become a coalition of exurban and rural groups ranging from manufacturing and natural resource extraction interests to evangelicals. Elections have come to feel like existential battles between different sectors of the economy and different ways of life.Jonathan Rodden

This has been true before, to be sure, and this passage explains the rise of Ronald Reagan along with the Trump phenomenon. But it is the last sentence — on “existential battles between different sectors” — that posed the greatest threat to the country in 1932 (when Franklin Roosevelt was elected), in 1980 (when Reagan won the White House), in 2008 (when Barack Obama became president) and today (in the battle zone of the Trump presidency). No one today is updating Thomas Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” exhortation from his 1801 Inaugural Address.

As voters become increasingly dissatisfied, we can only hope that politicians respond by recommitting to bipartisan deliberation and negotiation. We can hope that citizen dissatisfaction fosters political engagement through activities such as protest, mobilization and pressure on public officials. Democratic institutions are the best, and only, way to resolve crises of democracy. Didi Kuo

So after seven analyses, here, finally, is a prescription for change. This month’s Gallup Poll makes for sobering reading for the political class. Congressional job approval is at 17 percent, down from 20 percent earlier in the year. Mr. Trump’s job approval is at 43 percent.

And, as Mr. Rodden wrote in his essay, “An urgent question for the United States, with its history of geographic sectionalism and civil war, is whether the two-party system can continue to function if the parties are little more than labels organizing a bitter geographic conflict.”

That question has been posed often in American history. This time it truly is urgent. The midterm congressional elections to be held in less than six months may be, in the argot of these professors, a midterm examination for the political system. With any luck, and with a little spirit of compromise, it will not be the final exam.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.