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Sunday, October 24, 2004
More on the Red and the Blue

By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 1:19 pm

Some have read my analysis of the current state of partisanship in the United State and have missed my point (for example: Pennywit as well as a few commenters).

First off, saying that we are not radically polarized as a citizenry is not to say that there isn’t nastiness out there-of course there is. It is likely the case that at the extremes in both parties that there are more intense feelings than in the past-which accounts for any number of unpleasant behaviors. I would further not that a proliferation of news outlets, and especially the internet, have allowed us to learn more of these events and sentiments than ever before. But close competition, as a rule, increases such nastiness. This is normal. If you know you are going to win by big margins or if you are are going to lose by big margins, the incentive to be nasty is highly dimished-but you have nothing to gain by being nasty. If the margins are close, not only does enhanced nervousness lead to additional nastiness, but the fact of the matter is that nastiness in that context might sway undecideds (and, it can also backfire).

Second, just because we aren’t (as I have argued, and as empirical data demonstrate) ideologically polarized doesn’t mean we can’t have a close election or that that election won’t have a fair share of nasty behavior it in (from thuggery to litigation).

The bottom line is not about an event (this election) but about broader political behavior and, more specifically where the rubber meets the proverbial road: and that is in public policy.

To wit, Pennywit takes me to task for my assessment of the current politcal climate:

Let’s explore this thesis a little further. Taylor’s most recent post is actually a follow-up to this Thursday piece, in which he talks about the differences between division and polarization. Taylore notes the various similarities between candidate positions on several issues, as well as the willingness of some voters to cross party lines, and even similarity of behavior of each party’s members of Congress.

However, Taylor’s thesis here floudners on one crucial point: His evidence is all drawn from near the center of American politics, often among those that are apolitical or ideologically oriented toward the center, and does not take into account the emanations from either party’s extreme wing.

I would respond as follows:

1) I am not just arguing from the center-I am pointing out what actually happens in Congress despite the presence of unified government. If the two parties were truly as polarized as the breathless press coverage and partisan political rantings of both sides would have us to believe, one would expect to see far more radical policy-making than we have seen. Where is the radical policies from the last 4 years? No Child Left Behind? BCRA? (whether one likes said legislation or not, they were both bipartisan bills) The tax cuts are the closest to ideological policy-making of a stereotypical sort that I can think of.

The Iraq policy might be argued to be part of an ideologically driven (i.e, “neocon") perspective, but it passed congress with widespread bipartisan support.

In short, if one wishes to argue that the country is an divided as never before, one has to back that argument with actually proof or ideological polarity in policy-making.

2) Depending on how one wants to define “the center” the truth of the matter is that is where most voters reside. Further, in terms of public approval, there is general support for tax cuts, the welfare state, increased educational spending, and for the military. Where is the ideological polarization in public demands?

3) One cannot deduce ideological polarization from electoral polarization. The two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. This may well be counter-intuitive, but it is nonetheless true. If the two candidates/parties running are not representative of ideologically extreme positions, then division over those candidates cannot be attributed to ideological polarization.

4) The presence of lawyers, hateful people, or even passionate partisans does not necessarily translate into a demonstrated polarization in the general population (where, I would note, that somewhere between 40% and 50% won’t even vote this year-hardly sign of widespread extremism).

5) Anecdotes of extremism aren’t proof of anything.

The bottom line: we can hae a nasty election and also have a citizenry that isn’t ideologically polarized-too many people are conflating the two. Indeed, I would caution perspective: if the goal is to evaluate what “Red” and “Blue” american really means, one has to look at more than just the election.

The short version: the election itself is not a microcosm of all things political in the US.

Filed under: US Politics: 2004 Campaign

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  1. I think I understand your point a little better now. But your example

    …other countries where signs of division and political discontentedness manifest more in the form of tanks and AK-47’s

    is flawed. That doesn’t require what’s been referred to lately as “a closely divided electorate". That just requires a minority that’s very unhappy and willing to be pretty nearly anything to get their way.

    The Bolsheviks were a tiny minority. And there were, in fact, fewer of them than there were of the Mensheviks. That doesn’t mean they didn’t use force to overthrow a government.

    Comment by Dave Schuler — Sunday, October 24, 2004 @ 3:15 pm

  2. Indeed. But has the alleged major division in our country come anywhere near to spawning that level of discontent? No, it hasn’t. Hence my point.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, October 24, 2004 @ 8:52 pm

  3. MOre importantly: any such manifestation would be considered utterly unacceptable by the vast, vast majority of people in the society. While revlutionaries are small in number, revolutions only take place with significance acquiescence from the general population.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Monday, October 25, 2004 @ 6:29 am

  4. Glad you said that. I’ve left a comment on two blogs recently that basically said “calm down, people, there isn’t going to be another civil war.”

    Comment by Kathy K — Tuesday, October 26, 2004 @ 7:28 pm

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