The American political scene is often said to be increasingly polarized. States are defined as “Red states” and “Blue states”, terms which have come to embody a whole host of cultural connotations. Political-socio-cultural stereotypes abound. Both political parties have entrenched themselves in segments of American culture. A person’s political affiliation is accompanied by a whole slew of connotations and stereotypes. Political commentators such as Al Franken, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore have built lucrative careers off of preaching to the converted, telling them exactly what they want to hear.
This has led to the creation of a conservative and a liberal subculture in American society. These subcultures take a very dim view of each other, seeing each other in often comically harsh terms. As Charles Krauthammer described it, “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”
In America’s political atmosphere, buzz words and stereotypes have replaced actual debate and the intelligent discussion of issues. Political campaigns often do not center around convincing the most voters, they center around which side can “bring out its base” the best. Critical thinking takes a back seat to political pandering. In a party ruled by ideologues, those who exhibit independent thought are treated as outcasts. They are called traitors, and the term “moderate” becomes a dirty word in the minds of the party faithful. One political party has even coined a new political term for those who dare exhibit independent thought: “RINO”, or “Republican In Name Only.”
The leadership of the major political parties profit from this. Creating a political base means having supporters that you do not have to convince in an election. Creating a political base means that congressional districts can be drawn to have a strong majority of that base and avoid costly competitive elections. Creating a political base means that voters become ideologues to be mobilized rather than citizens to be convinced. All they have to hear are that a candidate is a member of their party, and then the vote for him or her. It is for people like these that a straight ticket option exists on so many ballots.
So politicians and political operatives do just that. They divide people, they cynically use wedge issues and pander politics to buy votes (be it welfare or social conservatism), and in general they try and sharpen the differences between the ends of the political spectrum. The two parties feed off of each other, with each one attracting members turned off by the other party.
But how does the political leadership of a party profit by dividing people against each other? How do they gain by effectively decreasing the number of people they can recruit into their party? To answer this question, let us make an analogy with a far more deadly form of polarization.
In his haunting Bosnian War memoir My War Gone By, I Miss It So, British writer Anthony Loyd describes the process by which radical militants on each side of the conflict would gain supporters. In pre-war Bosnia, ethnicity and religious affiliation were often very fluid things, with lots of intermarriage between ethnic groups. A popular saying was that “a Muslim is a Yugoslavian who doesn’t go to a mosque, a Croat is a Yugoslavian who doesn’t go to a cathedral, and a Serb is a Yugoslavian who doesn’t go to a church.” And yet, within a few years these people were killing each other in a brutal ethnic war.
After Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia, hard-line leaders emerged on all sides. However, most of the population still had not taken sides. To goad them along, a local commander would attack the other side’s civilians. The other side would respond by retaliating against the commander’s own civilians. These people then began to look towards the commander for protection from the other side. In this way, the factions in Bosnia expanded their power base and gained supporters.
Now, this is a far more extreme example than what is happening in American politics today. In America, attack and retaliation is primarily rhetorical. But the same basic concept still applies: By attacking the other side and provoking retaliation, political actors draw support to themselves by saying that the retaliation proves how dangerous and crazy the other side is. Both political extremes feed off of each other in this manner.
This process is essentially anti-democratic. Pledging loyalty to cause and ideology restricts independent thought. It leads to a mindset which says that my party is always right and your party is always wrong. Rather than being determined by reasoning and analysis, a partisan’s positive opinions are determined by the accepted norms of their party and their negative opinions are determined by the positions of the other party.
The presence of these people benefits both parties. Blind political alleigance is better for them than having people ask hard questions about their platforms. Building and maintaining a “base” which can be relied on for votes, money and volunteers is easier than having to earn every vote.
I’m not calling for the creation of a third party here. I believe the two-party system is the natural product of the American political system and is a major factor in the stability of that system. I’m just calling for us all to critically examine our views on a regular basis. I’m calling for us to determine who we vote for based on critical evaluation of their platform and track record, not their political affiliation. It should be our goal to never use the “straight party” box provided on our ballots. In fact, that option should be removed from all ballots.
Having a democratic form of government is a burden of heavy responsibility. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves, to think critically, and to apply education and critical thought in a fair manner to our public officials. And this is a responsibility that Americans from all political stripes have been shirking.