These days it seems like we in America are dealing with a more polarized political landscape than ever before. Then again I’ve only been around during these days and haven’t gotten a chance to see those days first hand. But if we are experiencing a time of greater political partisanship, and I’d wager that we are, why is this the case? And, perhaps more importantly, how long will it last?
I would humbly suggest three reasons for our current state of affairs. First, many more Americans have much more than ever before and can obtain necessities much more quickly. Obviously many Americans still live below the poverty line and do not have all their basic needs met, but plenty of improvements have been made. For example, it is much easier to obtain things like a meal or clothing now, thanks to companies like MacDonalds and Walmart, and technologies like global shipping, the assembly line and refrigeration. I’m not saying these changes are without costs, but what I am saying is that someone can get their daily caloric intake for $3 at a Burger King, whereas back in the day plenty of frontiersmen were still doing the whole hunting dealy. This is important because with a greater percentage of the population finding it easier and easier to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families, there’s more time for getting angry about stuff. Take the Tea Party, for example. They wouldn’t have nearly the turn out they do at their rallies if their base was not as wealthy as it is. That’s not because there aren’t very many poor people, it’s because going to a rally isn’t cheap. Gas, food, accommodations, a car, airfare, taking time off work, these things cost money. And with more Americans having more disposable income, there is more time and money available for political uses. Just as most insurgencies only take root after a modicum of political opening and economic growth have begun, the abundance present in America (especially after WWII) has allowed more people the time, energy and money to become politically active.
Related to this is the fact that, as compared to 1776, a greater diversity of people have political power in today’s America. If there was less partisanship in early American history, a good portion of that was probably due to the fact that we didn’t like it when people of color or women talked too much. America continues to be a nation of immigrants, and with many of the more overt, de jure forms of oppression off the books, the wide range of ideas and world-views that arrive on our shores are more easily translated into political action. We aren’t anywhere near perfect, but the political realm is certainly more open today than it was 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. The term “citizen” encompasses many more people than it once did. For some reason, when politics was open only to rich old white Christian men there was a lot more to agree on. With a diversity of people comes a diversity of ideas, so it’s no wonder we live in more polarized circumstances.
Lastly, some of our difficulties in finding common ground with each other stem not just from a disagreement on the interpretation or implication of certain facts, but from a disagreement about the very facts themselves. With more sources of news (and “news”) than ever before, people can pick and choose the facts presented to them. Technology has granted every fool (this one included) the ability to expose the entire world to his or her ramblings. Cable news programs, blogs, newspapers and magazines all offer a variety of opinions but also a variety of facts (case in point: “Points in Case”, or this blog post, which cites absolutely no sources!). Today it’s completely possible to isolate yourself from any differences in opinion, getting news and analysis of all goings-on from a single perspective with a spin that matches your own*. When you have two people who are each exposed to their own separate facts and interpretations it becomes very difficult for them to see eye to eye.
The increase in the average American’s resources available for political purposes, an increase in the openness of the political system to people of varied backgrounds, and the diversity of facts and opinions available to support a particular perspective have all contributed to our current political climate. These changes seem unlikely to reverse their course any time soon. From what perspective I have, I do not foresee a huge drop in the average American’s ability to participate in politics, for either economic or social reasons (relative to, say, 1807). And the democratization of the media isn’t going anywhere either. In these polarized times it is unreasonable to expect “the other side” to adjust. Instead, it may be the overall political system that needs to change in order to accommodate the new political landscape.
*Sadly, there’s no such thing as a “no spin zone”. If you think you’re in a no spin zone it’s probably more likely that you just don’t notice the spin because you’re spinning in the same direction and at the same rate as the people you’re listening to.