Political polarization


By JONATHAN GURWITZ

New York Times News Service

Perhaps you’ve succumbed to the belief that political divisions in the United States are deeper and more rancorous than ever. If so, a group of historians is at the ready to disabuse you of that notion.

Whether you’ve arrived at the point of partisan despair from the left or the right, a professional commentary class will remind you that Vice President Aaron Burr, a Democratic-Republican, shot and mortally wounded Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist; that Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks beat Republican Sen. Charles Sumner senseless in the Senate chamber; and that Obama versus Romney or, for that matter, Trump in 2012 doesn’t hold a candle to Adams versus Jackson in 1828.

A handful of colorful anecdotes, however, don’t dispel the feeling that something is terribly amiss in today’s political environment — something more than a clash of huge personalities, and something less than the big ideas that animated the Republic.

Statistician Nate Silver predicted the results of the 2008 and 2012 general elections with remarkable accuracy. In December on his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times, Silver turned his data-driven analysis to the issue of political division.

Silver looked at presidential voting by congressional district from 1992 through 2012. He found that the number of districts won by a landslide — those that deviate from the national result by 20 percentage points or more — nearly doubled over that period, from 123 to 242. During the same period, the number of swing districts — those in which the presidential vote deviates from the national result by five or fewer percentage points — fell from 103 to 35.

Far more landslide districts on both sides, and far fewer swing districts. What accounts for this?

Part of the explanation has to do with redistricting in 2000 and 2010. Republicans and Democrats in state capitals across the nation have gotten far more effective at drawing lines that serve partisan interests. Gerrymandering used to be an art. Now it’s a computer-oriented science.

“Redistricting alone did not account for the whole of the shift,” Silver wrote, however, while laying out data that should put to rest the anecdotal evidence mustered to diminish the significance of today’s partisan divisions. “Instead, polarization has increased even after accounting for the change in boundaries.”

Silver doesn’t offer an explanation for increased polarization, though he points in the direction of one.

“The differences between the parties have become so strong and so sharply split across geographic lines,” he wrote, “that voters may see their choice of where to live as partly reflecting a political decision.”

This is a theme fleshed out by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing in their 2009 book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” Technology and social media have only accelerated the pace at which this clustering is taking place. In addition to the real world, Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into like-minded, ideologically self-reinforcing communities in the virtual world.

The problem of factionalism was foremost among the concerns of the Founding Fathers. “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states,” James Madison wrote optimistically.

Today, however, the quality of leadership is demonstrably worse, and anyone with a smartphone or an Internet connection can, as Madison wrote, “practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.”

 

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