Politics & Policy

Increasingly Partisan Americans Don’t Want ‘Unity’

Supporters of president-elect Trump face off with protesters near Trump Tower, November 20, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mark Kauzlarich)
They want to win.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic published an amusing piece by Molly Ball tracking a few members of Third Way, a center-left think tank, on their “post-election listening tour.” See if you can spot the flaws in their assumptions:

The trip was predicated on the optimistic notion that if Americans would only listen to each other, they would find more that united than divided them. This notion — the idea that, beyond our polarized politics, lies a middle, or third, path on which most can come together in agreement — is Third Way’s raison d’etre. It is premised on the idea that partisanship is bad, consensus is good, and that most Americans would like to meet in the middle.

This is classic, well-meaning liberalism: Bring people together, explore common concerns, and emerge with a (liberal) consensus. People don’t like division, the thinking goes. They want unity.

Or, maybe not. It turns out that most folks think their beliefs are fine and opposing beliefs are bad. Virtually the only thing everyone agrees upon is that Millennials are annoying:

Disdain for the young, in particular, was a constant, across demographic, socio-economic, and generational lines: Even young people complained about young people. “They don’t want to do the work, and they always feel like they’re being picked on,” a recent graduate of a technical school in Chippewa Falls said of his fellow Millennials.

It’s hard to build national political movements out of the idea that young Americans are entitled and selfish. You have to have something more. Yet time and again, the good folks at Third Way found that people simply “didn’t want to get along.” As one of the researchers said, “There’s an, I don’t know, blue-sky part of me that was like, ‘I’m going to go traveling around the country and see that we’re more about commonalities than differences, that we’re more about our desire to be together than to be separate.’ And I’m not saying that isn’t true. I’m just saying every once in a while it gets kicked in the ass.”

Third Way’s report on the trip was inexplicably upbeat — at least to Ball. In her telling there were lots of folks who expressed the view “that one side was right and that the other was the enemy; that other Americans, not just the government, were to blame for the country’s problems.”

This is one case where the anecdotes match the data. The evidence is overwhelming that Americans  are actively hostile to opposing points of view, and the hostility is rising:

As Republicans and Democrats like each other less and less (and as we wall ourselves off in so-called landslide counties, where one party tends to win by 20 points or more), the two parties tend to migrate to the ideological extremes. The gif below is instructive:

Differences are not by themselves problematic. Our founders built this nation from the ground up, recognizing that Americans can and should accommodate persistent and geographic, political, cultural, and religious diversity. A healthy federalism accounts for these differences and allows space for multiple “winners” in political and cultural debate.

We do not, however, have a healthy federalism. The combination of an overbearing central government, extreme political antipathy, and increasingly divergent political views adds up to, well, a huge mess.

In an insightful piece earlier this year, CBS’s Will Rahn wrote that “everyone, regardless of their political persuasion, seems convinced that their side is losing.” Politically, the Left is in full retreat, with the Democratic party at its lowest ebb in almost 100 years. Culturally, the Right looks at a Left-dominated academy, pop culture, and media and still feels as if it’s fighting a rear-guard action to defend the most basic conservative values. Even the allegedly ascendant populists are frustrated as their agenda stalls in Washington and their champions are cashiered out of the White House.

Rather than yielding to a sense that we have to learn to make accommodations for differences, these grievances are building a spirit of fury and rage, along with a will to dominate. Yet dominance is elusive. Yes, each side can win on one issue or another (as the Left has surged forward on LGBT issues, the Right has responded with its own string of victories on gun rights, and the two factions dislike each other more than ever), but the kind of political and cultural supremacy that both sides crave is impossible to achieve.

Are Americans ready to seek common ground? No, and they likely won’t be anytime soon. When the two sides are so far apart, compromise looks a lot like capitulation. We can either rediscover the wisdom of the founders — who built a republic designed to thrive in spite of differences — or we can continue down the current path. In other words, embrace federalism or embrace the misery, uncertainty, and strife of our current path.

I suspect we’ll choose strife.


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