Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ideology, acrimony get in the way of finding solutions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 25 January 2015 
I believe making good political decisions and good public policy need robust discussion, not “acrimony, accusations, and aspersions,” (Mike Varney, 2015). Unfortunately, recent research by the Pew Research Center does not bode well for robust discussion in our political arenas. In a report titled “Political Polarization in the American Public” ( Pew demonstrates a trend toward more political polarization among Americans, “Today 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” That Democrat and Republican elected officials are becoming more ideological, less moderate and less cooperative with each other is obvious. Supposedly the larger body politic doesn’t like it and wants more cooperation and less posturing. Except the public is becoming more like that, too.
One can quibble over how Pew measured polarization. Indeed, I think some of the choices suffer some wording problems and for anyone who takes a scalpel instead of an ax to such statements, the “test” is crude ( Nevertheless as Pew has measured liberal and conservative ideology, polarization is occurring.
Polarization doesn’t appear to be a problem identifying what the important issues are ( Two-thirds or more identified these as important issues for the next two years: terrorism, economy, jobs, education, and Social Security while less than 40 percent identified global warming or global trade as a priority. And Democrats, Republicans and Independents agree on what the top challenges and priorities are. All three list terrorism and the economy as a top policy priority, both Democrats and Republicans list improving the jobs situation. Social security is a top priority for Republicans and Independents. The specific solutions are starkly different and reflect the polarization.
“Compromise” and possibly developing better policy by incorporating elements of the competing views is unfortunately nearly impossible when there is little common ground between the groups. According to Pew, the more consistently liberal one is, the more likely they are to prefer urban environments, while the more consistent conservatives prefer suburbs or the edges of small towns. This is not just social separation but physical as well; its de facto self-segregation. Indeed, Pew labels the phenomenon “ideological silos” where half of consistently conservative and 35 percent of consistently liberal people indicate it’s important that they live where most of the people share their political views and 63 percent of consistently conservative and 49 percent of consistently liberal people indicate that most of their close friends share their political views. In terms of what is important to people about the community they live in, everyone agrees that being near family, good schools, having access to the outdoors for fishing, hiking and camping are important, but for consistently liberal folks, so is access to the “arts’ (73 percent) while for consistent conservatives it’s not (23 percent). Perhaps this explains why there seem to be few conservatives in Hollywood.
Most distressing is the antipathy between the groups; 79 percent of consistently liberal folks hold negative views of the Republican Party, just under half, “strongly unfavorable” views. Consistently conservative people hold similar negative views of the Democratic Party, 82 percent unfavorable, with over half “strongly unfavorable.” Half of consistently liberal people view the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. A whopping two-thirds of consistently conservative people view the Democratic Party that way. I wonder how consistent liberals view the National Socialist Movement (white supremacist party) and how consistent conservatives view the Socialist Workers Party? This antipathy extends to individuals; nearly a quarter of consistent liberals would be unhappy if a family member married a Republican and 30 percent of consistent conservatives unhappy if a family member married a Democrat.
I can see the increasing polarization leading to extremism where even members of the respective sides do not and really cannot question their own positions due to accusations of heresy and apostasy. In short, their beliefs become articles of faith. Questioning the beliefs is viewed as a weakness. The beliefs are no longer held “rationally” but emotionally, similar to how people with racial or sexual prejudices respond to contrary evidence to their prejudice; evidence to the contrary only hardens their belief(s). This kind of insularity contributes to “group think” and an increasing narrowing of perspective. Don’t we tend to scoff at the insularity of Saudi Arabia and North Korea?
Before shootings, beheadings and bombings started between the Sunni and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, IRA and Loyalists, and other polarized violent groups, did ideological polarization, silos and antipathy between the groups come first?

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