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More Politics Means More Conflict

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Tags U.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

10/28/2014Ryan McMaken

NPR recently reported on a June 2014 journal article in which political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood conclude that one’s political affiliation is now the primary source of group polarization in America, outpacing even race as a major source of conflict.

The Report Findings

Iyengar and Westwood write, according to NPR:

Research shows: More and more residential neighborhoods are politically homogenous. Partisan politics has become a key indicator in interpersonal relations. There is a greater tendency by parents these days to raise objections to a son or daughter marrying someone who supports the opposing political party. "Actual marriage across party lines is rare," the report points out. "In a 2009 survey of married couples, only nine percent consisted of Democrat-Republican pairs."

In the report itself, we also find that the reasons for such strong segregation between the two groups is not based on “favoritism” of one’s own group, but on “animus” toward the other group. In other words, while ethnic favoritism can often be explained by familiarity with the culture of one’s own co-ethnics, the political division is driven primarily by outward-looking hostility. One could reasonably conclude then, that in such cases, fear is a major consideration in regarding the members of the “other” political group.

Past Ideological Divides

While partisan divides have always been non-trivial in American society, fifty years ago, they were regarded as generally weak. In addition, during the nineteenth century, partisan divides were important, but were less important than other issues such as the North-South or urban-rural divide, ethnic origin, and religion.

Such non-political variables have long been recognized as a determinant of one’s political affiliation, and rightly so. But now one’s political affiliation may be working in reverse, determining what states people live in, what neighborhoods they choose, and who they associate with in general. In other words, one’s politics was once determined by non-political realities, but politics now determine one’s non-political life too, determining potential spouses, friends, neighbors, and even business associates.

Politics now rivals, or has even replaced, family group, ethnicity, or community of origin as a determinant of one’s behavior and everyday preferences.

The More Powerful the State, The Higher the Stakes

Iyengar and Westwood attribute this growth in partisan animosity to the rise of negative campaigning and “news sources with a clear partisan preference.” The rise of overtly partisan major news channels may be relatively novel, although anyone familiar with Nixon’s 1950 campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas might be skeptical of the proposition that negative campaigning is something new.

It appears more likely that the rise of politics to a position of prominence in the daily lives of an ever-greater number of people is the fact that the political stakes are, in fact, very high.

In a society where a government is weak, decentralized, and unable to enact the more radical wishes of any majority group, a losing side is less likely to regard the winning side as a genuine threat to one’s daily life. Winning or losing elections remains important, but is not considered to be determinant of the losing side’s ability to keep one’s property, livelihood, and way of life relatively safe from the winners. On the other hand, if a state is very powerful, and the winning side is able to regulate, tax, and coerce in an ever more heavy-handed fashion, the stakes of each election are very high indeed.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that while Americans vigorously debated proposed laws and new candidates, the losing side invariably and immediately accepted the outcome of the election. This is often interpreted as some kind of devotion to the wonderfulness of democracy, but it more likely reflects the fact that the losers (assuming they’re whites who enjoyed full citizenship) knew that it was unlikely that they would face any real reprisals from the winning side. Unlike many regimes at the time in Europe and Latin America (such as Revolutionary France), losing a political contest in America did not entail exile, executions, or separation from one’s property. The American state (at that time and place) was simply too weak to do such things.

Consequently, one could ignore politics (for the most part), and daily life was governed more by economic, religious, and familial interests.

In modern America, however, this is not the case at all. With pervasive government spying, police statism, a bureaucracy that can shut down your business at any time it likes, and a health care system that forces one group of people to pay for the sexual activities of another group, the political stakes are very high indeed.

It is no wonder that partisan group now regard the other side with fear and loathing. Who can say what misfortunes await us in case the other side wins?

Now, many keen observers of politics will note that there’s indeed precious little difference, in the big scheme of things, between the political parties. Anyone who’s paying attention can see that party elites get along fine while most of the rancor can be found among the naive rank and file. There’s a reason for this. Regardless of who wins, virtually nothing will be contemplated that might lead to meaningful reductions in regulation, taxation, or the punitive excesses of the criminal justice system. The larger trend in the growth of the state overwhelms any tiny adjustments that DC is willing to make in the present political climate.

Nevertheless, the enormous size, power, and scope of the modern American state, and the knowledge that it extends to every aspect of life, has made it plausible to even the most ignorant partisan that the next lost election may bring with it enormously high costs and even destruction to one’s way of life.

Diminish Conflict by Weakening the State

Iyengar and Westwood assume that the partisan divide is problematic, as does most of the mainstream-media commentary. Yet the proffered solutions only range from tame to pointless, usually involving education or “greater personal contact” between groups, as if the problem of state coercion is nothing at all but something in our imaginations. The real solution lies in greatly weakening, dismembering, and decentralizing the state (through secession, nullification, and the end of majority rule) to the point where the political winners cannot wield immense power over the losers.

Image source: iStockphoto.

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