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I’m not the first to notice that the political divide has been growing in America. Surveys by Pew Research Center show that citizens/voters have moved further away from the center toward the extremes on both sides.
It’s evident that not only does the American public hold less of a mix of liberal and conservative values, but the center of this political divide has also moved dramatically on both ends of the spectrum. In simple terms, it means that Americans are less willing to consider the other side of debates, preferring to stay entrenched in the group think of their political affiliation … Not only this, but partisan animosity is on the rise—81% of Republicans and Democrats find those belonging to the other party equally unfavorable. In fact, both parties have seen a 28 p.p. increase in ‘very unfavorable’ views of people in the other party, compared to 1994. America’s Political Divide 1994-2017
America’s political divide occurs across all major political and social issues. For example, on the economy Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think it unfairly favors powerful interests. Widening income and wealth disparities, now at their highest levels in a century, contribute significantly to differing views on the benefits of capitalism. On the environment most agree that there is growing evidence for global warming but while three-quarters of Democrats think human activity is the leading cause, only one-quarter of Republicans think so. A majority of Democrats think that world peace is best achieved by engagement and negotiation while Republicans prefer less engagement and a stronger military. Wide differences exist between Democrats and Republicans on their ideas of government aid, racial equality, immigration and homosexuality. On the major issue of the day, the coronavirus, there is agreement on both sides that the health issues are serious and require widespread response. However, nearly 90% of Democrats disapprove of President Trump’s handling of the crisis while nearly 90% of Republicans approve. Democrats are more likely to believe the crisis will have a major impact on the economy and on their personal finances. Overall, rising partisan animosity renders President Lyndon Johnson’s Biblical plea from the 1960s – “come let us reason together” – quaint and out of touch. There seems to be little chance of coming together given the hyper divisions we see today.
In the late 18thcentury the Marquis de Condorcet suggested a potential paradox or defect in any democratic voting system. Later the Condorcet paradox was expanded and refined by Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow in his Ph.D. thesis Social Choice and Individual Values. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem in its simplest form can be demonstrated as follows.
In the simplest case of the voting paradox, there are 3 candidates, A, B, and C, and 3 voters with preferences listed in decreasing order as follows.
Voter 1: A B C
Voter 2: B C A
Voter 3: C A B
By majority rule for 2-candidate votes, A beats B, B beats C, but C beats A. Majority rule works for an individual selecting consistently among the 3 candidates but not necessarily for the “social choice” in any general sense.
The Impossibility Theorem does not state that such flaws must make democracy untenable but that it may do so. Democracy is less likely to work well when the individual values of the population are at opposite extremes and passionately held and that seems to be the case today. What is fatal to a society is when one side gains power they act in their personal interests ignoring the other side. Anger and frustration build until a “civil war” of sorts breaks out. Conservative writer Rod Dreher wrote an extended essay on this subject using the Spanish Civil War as a real world example.
There are many other notable examples including the American Civil War that continues to influence our politics even today. Such examples, large and small, are not hard to find.
Even well-educated Americans have knowledge gaps about their nation. For example, did you know that Catholic-Protestant strife caused a cannon battle in the streets of Philadelphia in 1844? It happened during “nativist” ferment between long-settled Americans (mostly Protestant) and new immigrants (mostly Catholic). A Catholic bishop protested that all children in Philadelphia schools were forced to learn from the Protestant King James Bible. Rioting and burning of Catholic homes erupted. Federal troops with cannons were sent to keep peace. Angry Protestants took cannons from ships at the wharf and fired back. More than 20 people were killed.
The Cristero War about which Graham Greene wrote so eloquently in The Lawless Roads and The Power and the Glory is an example from Mexico. [See The Roots of Religious Extremism in Mexico]. Many such explosions of passionate partisanship have been based on religious differences. [Note the old maxim not to discuss politics and religion around the dinner table. In reality, such discussions when civil are what make democracy work. It’s the civility that is hard to come by especially today.] Perhaps this is why the famed author and Americanophile Alexis de Tocqueville felt so strongly about the separation of state and church. He was a friend to religion and believed that separation was the best way to protect it. Rod Dreher points out that one’s political views may be informed by one’s religious views.
To elites in his circles, Kingsfield continued, “at best religion is something consenting adult should do behind closed doors. They don’t really understand that there’s a link between Sister Helen Prejean’s faith and the work she does on the death penalty. There’s a lot of looking down on flyover country, one middle America.
“The sad thing,” he said, “is that the old ways of aspiring to truth, seeing all knowledge as part of learning about the nature of reality, they don’t hold. It’s all about power. They’ve got cultural power, and think they should use it for good, but their idea of good is not anchored in anything. They’ve got a lot of power in courts and in politics and in education. Their job is to challenge people to think critically, but thinking critically means thinking like them. They really do think that they know so much more than anybody did before, and there is no point in listening to anybody else, because they have all the answers, and believe that they are good.”
Of course, but the need to listen and respect differing points of view goes both ways and is required for a truly democratic society to survive. There are some disagreements for which there seems to be no middle ground, abortion for example. In that case what is a truly democratic society to do? Agree to disagree? Impose one side’s view on the other? Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem seems to apply in such a situation. And, where does that leave a democracy?
I don’t know where we are headed as a country but the large and growing political differences and inability to bridge the gap seem inevitably to lead us in a dangerous direction. What can happen, as Rod Dreher so eloquently points out in his excellent essay, is akin to the Irresistible Force Paradox (i.e. what happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object). The question may be a fraud or unanswerable in philosophical terms but there are too many practical examples today to ignore it. Look no further than what recently happened in Wisconsin. One comment on Dreher’s essay (by Luis from Portugal) speaks to the Faustian bargains that occur in these situations. Take the religious right’s support of Donald Trump. Some fervent Christians seem to believe Trump will protect them from the heretical left in spite of his obvious non-Christian behavior. The cost of that protection may be the loss of their Christian values. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?
There can be positive outcomes if (as Kipling reminds us) “you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” In spite of a tenuous relationship between President Obama and the American Catholics over birth control, homosexuality and abortion, Pope Francis and Obama were able to find some common ground. It’s possible but not easy and conservative Catholics just like conservative Protestants feel they are between the devil and the deep blue sea.
This is a time to remember that there is never a perfect solution and that, to paraphrase Voltaire, the perfect can often be the enemy of the good. That said, the fault lines are drawn like it or not. California Governor Gavin Newsom just this week reminded conservative Republicans that unbridled power comes with a cost. The cost could be California (and some of its liberal friends) withdrawing from an increasingly hostile nation. Whether the withdrawal turns out to be metaphorical or actual will depend on the response to Newsom’s rhetoric (which sounds like a trial balloon). Like it or not we live in a new world folks. Democracy as we know it may be too weak a force to hold together the extremes. Let’s hope the famous words of W.B. Yeats aren’t truly prophetic.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.