Friday, September 24, 2010

Government by the People

Not sure if this is going to end up being a long post or a short one, since it's really more about a question than any sort of answer. And probably a question that a decent bit of empirical research could solve, but hey, we're all about a priori here. What I wanted to know was whether or not Americans are really polarizing, as many commenters would have us believe, or whether we're actually getting a political discourse which accurately represents how diverse Americans really are. Start at about 1:20. Specifically the sections about polarization and why.

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  Jimmy Carter here isn't specifically talking about the American people when he says Washington is polarizing, but the way Brian Williams walks from that point to the next about how people think Barack Obama is a Muslim illustrates how people move from the one view to the other. I wonder if that's correct.

What if, as a possibility, America has always been a diverse place. The history of this country would lend some credence to that idea, given that in the past we have actually had a Civil War due to what people felt at the time to be irreconcilable differences. And perhaps it's because I don't have proper perspective (being an American obviously tints my perceptions of Americans), but I feel like we've got a pretty strong history of loud public debate and discussion, from the Civil Rights movement to the anti-war movement to the Beer Summit to any number of other issues. Of course, many things we should be discussing and debating don't get debated productively, but the conversation has always been there. One gets the feeling that there are many different Americas, many different perspectives on what our society should look like, and many different constituencies making up the nation. Further, one gets the feeling that we've always been this way.

But how does that match with what seem to be facts about increasing political polarization in government? It seems like we as a nation managed to get on so much more smoothly in the past.* If it's true that we didn't use to be so starkly divided, then why are we seeing that transition, especially if it's also true that America has always been a place of diverse viewpoints?

It seems possible to me that what we're seeing is not an increasing polarization, but an increasing democratization. It's no secret that the America of the past was a much worse democracy than the one of the present. Say what you like about increases in campaign contributions, President Carter, but I find it hard to believe that increasing contributions could balance out the fact that more Americans feel more free to vote than even just fifty years ago. It was less than one hundred years ago that women got the vote, and just one hundred and fifty years ago more than half of the population of South Carolina was enslaved. By any reasonable metric, more people are more free and more able to be part of the citizenry than in the past. And maybe that this increase in democratization is causing more diverse elements of America to be represented.

Further than this, I feel like the internet is also an important engine of democratization. People are able to get involved with like minded activists in a way that was prohibitively hard in the past. Many of us know of someone who never was significantly involved in politics before who has taken up with it because of the increasing availability of information. Of course, it may be that people are only listening to people they already agree with, but that doesn't change the fact that they seem to be getting more involved.

So, what does this mean for polarization? Well, if the politically active group of America's past all looked pretty much the same (and this is true. They tended to be rich white males who voted in rich white males who in turn campaigned to win the votes of more rich white males), then you'd expect them to be able to make deals and compromise with each other; it was more the case that cultures and values were aligned, and it was just a matter of effectively executing those values in government. But now, if we're getting the kind Government by the People that truly represents America as the diverse and large nation that it is, you'd see a withering of compromise, a growth of polarization. The various polities that are flexing their political muscles just might not feel they have enough in common with each other to work together. They'd feel like those who rule in government are a "them" and not an "us". Which is pretty much what you see these days (and what I remember seeing when Bush was in office). Maybe the culture wars and the high flown rhetoric and the rank stubbornness are not signs of American being polarized by some kind of media or corporate interest. Maybe they're signs of America showing its true diverse colors. Maybe we're a nation where some people believe in witchcraft, some people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories, some people believe that Bush went to war in Iraq to finish his dad's business, some people believe that Obama is a Muslim. Maybe our great challenge as a growing democracy is going to be finding a way to bring all those people into the same room and convince them their interests are aligned. The dedicated class of career politicians are listening to us, now, trying their damnedest to give us what we want. We should probably try and figure out what that might be.

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