How today’s politics tear us apart


Americans need to get out more. We’re not only divided into different political parties, polls show; we are becoming different Americas.

That’s good for vigorous arguments, but it works against our ability to reach much agreement.

For example, the largest survey that the Pew Research Center has ever conducted on political attitudes reminds us of why 19th-century writer Henry Adams described politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds.”

Substitute “passions” for hatreds and I think Adams quote was right on target, although in some people it is hard to tell the difference.

Pew found Republicans and Democrats to be more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades. Partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive, too.

The divisions are greatest, the survey of 10,013 adults nationwide found, among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.

The number of people with consistently liberal or consistently conservative views on policy has increased, the poll found. Democrats tend to be more deeply liberal and Republicans more deeply conservative, with a lot less overlap than we saw even in Washington’s polarized 1990s.

And confirming what many of us already have noticed, the study found partisan patterns in housing preferences. Seventy-seven percent of “consistently liberal” adults preferred the “walkability” of dense neighborhoods and compact homes, while 75 perent of “consistently conservative” adults wanted more land and suburban McMansions.

Pew refrained from offering possible explanations for this increasing polarization, but I offer my own short list:

1. Homophily. That’s a term that sociologists coined in the 1950s for what most of us know as, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Homophily — love of the same — describes our basic human attraction to others who are enough like us to confirm rather than test our core beliefs and prejudices.

The concept is enjoying a comeback in recent years as a way to explain the American electorate’s apparent re-sorting of itself into self-focused tribes. Humans invented civilization to work together across tribal lines but that basic human impulse endures.

2. Computer Age Redistricting. Remapping used to be a rare art practiced by each party’s skilled Michelangelos. Now anybody with the right computer software can carve out districts that separate, say, the Fox News from MSNBC viewers. (See next item.)

3. Tribal media. That’s what I call the fragmentation of media in the age of cable TV news, AM talk radio, social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and targeted marketing like Amazon’s chained book recommendations (“If you liked … then you might like …”) that are tailored to the narrowest of tastes.

Endangered is the refreshing and often enlightening serendipity of running into unexpected ideas, people or experiences that one might encounter while browsing through a newspaper or bookstore. (Remember those?) Instead, it’s easier to slip into an information silo of news and views that reinforces what we already believe, correctly or not.

4. The Political-Media Industry Complex. Since the 1950s, political consultants have grown from a few dozen to thousands. Today’s revolving door for politicians into media stardom and back again illustrates how politics has become like sports, a congenial branch of the entertainment industry. Just as fans go all in for their favorite football or basketball teams, a new political culture encourages unblinking devotion to one’s political team — without any notion of compromise.

5. The Decline of Party “Machines.” Party bosses traditionally brought order, discipline and deal-making to their partisan teams. But do-it-yourself media and the end of such favor banks as earmarks in Congress have liberated maverick House candidates, in particular, to appeal to ever-narrower interests.

The demagogic TV commentator Howard Beale was undone by his TV bosses in the movie “Network.” In today’s real-life world, he’d probably be elected to the Congress.

Are we all doomed? Parties have to decide how they can reach across tribal lines in this new information-age landscape. Republican leaders are now debating how to reach out to minorities and women to win national elections. Democrats have to do the same to reach working-class white males and others in their post-Obama future.

Ultimately, though, our political future is up to the voters. The digital age empowers all of us. But with great power comes great responsibility, especially to ourselves to learn more about the world outside of our information bubbles.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com