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We Need to Talk: Deliberation in the Age of “Polarization”

We hear a lot from the mass media about how polarized the American people are, but we have to remember that the corporate-owned media are not neutral mappers of reality; they have their hands on the wheel and a vested interest in steering us towards policies that help their owners make money.

It’s hard to be optimistic when you hear a constant barrage of stories about how polarized we have become. For example, in this morning’s Washington Post, Chris Cillizza says:

There are lots of reasons that people these days tend to line up more uniformly behind one party or the other — redistricting, self-sorting, rise of the partisan media — but the outcome is the same: We, as a nation, agree on less than ever before.

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center showed that 92 percent of Republicans are more ideologically conservative than the median Democrat, and that 94 percent of Democrats are more liberal than the mean Republican. Compare that with a 1994 Pew study that found that the median Democrat was to the left of 64 percent of Republicans, and the median Republican to the right of 70 percent of Democrats. There is just not much middle ground left in America anymore.

For those who hope that government of the people, by the people, and for the people remains a possibility, this sounds depressing. However, we need to remember a few points. partisan

First, just because people endorse an ideological worldview does not mean that they are unable to think pragmatically. The study cited asked people to choose one of two sentences that frame issues in a polarizing way. While overall polarization has increased — which should not be a surprise given the media messaging — people are less absolutist in their thinking when faced with real human stories, rather than philosophical abstractions. We also know that when given a chance to deliberate face-to-face with other citizens, people are often able to find common ground.

Second, Cillizza comments on the beliefs of Republicans and Democrats, but a lot of people have left the parties and become independent. This is particularly true in the case of the Republican Party, which has marginalized moderates. We are seeing extremist views from the Republicans because the only people who are still with the party are more extreme in their thinking. Chaffee referenced this in the Democratic debate when he said his views are the same but the party left him.

Third, despite ideological polarization on some issues — the ones the media focuses ceaseless attention on — a lot of common ground exists within public opinion. For example, over 90% of American believe money plays too big a role in politics; 74% blame our economic woes on corporations moving jobs overseas; 72% blame risk-taking by Wall Street; 66% believe that our economic system unfairly benefits the wealthy; 62% favor the “Buffett Rule” that would increase taxes on incomes over $1 million; and I could go on.

This morning’s Post also featured a column by E.J. Dionne about his experience watching the Republican debate with a group of everyday conservatives. I found this anecdote thought provoking:

But the most instructive part of the evening came toward the end when Ross Terrio, a Manchester school board member, took the conversation to a different place, describing his response to President Obama’s time in office. “I have gotten so pessimistic,” he said. “I used to be such an optimistic person. Maybe Obama just sucked the life out of me.” Terrio, who works as a pharmacist, has no complaints about his personal situation but wonders how his neighbors with much more constrained incomes can make it.

[Jon] DiPietro [a libertarian-leaning business man] shared Terrio’s worries that the country’s problems might be beyond our ability to solve, especially if Democrats win the White House again. Terrio, for his part, wrote me later to say that he was pessimistic about the future “regardless of which party wins the presidency.” Reflecting his skepticism about the public sector, DiPietro said he had warned his daughters about a dark future in which “government’s going to be reaching into your wealth.”

We have still not recovered from the Great Recession caused by Bush administration policies and the unregulated recklessness of Finance Capital. President Obama saved us from the brink of disaster, but he has been left holding the bag, blamed for the economy not having fully recovered. The Republicans have successfully gained support by pointing the finger at Obama.

The quote also illustrates, however, the profound lack of trust in government that a lot of people — the vast majority of people — feel. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to some extent Hillary Clinton, advocate changes that would right the economic ship — return us to an era of shared prosperity — but given the tremendous injustices and outrages we read about every day in terms of what government and corporate bureaucracies are allowed to do, you can’t really blame people like Pietro for not trusting that he and other middle or working class people won’t ending being hurt even worse.

As a colleague of mine — a Republican turned Independent — likes to say, “The scariest phrase in the English language is ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”

In the end, the only solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy. We the People need to get involved, talk to each other about what needs to be done, educate ourselves about the issues, and demand that our representatives do what we want them to do.

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