Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Polarized Politics: A Good Thing -- Get Used to It.


It’s a very polarized country.  Get over it.  In many ways, it is a sign of our growing political maturity.

Two very large political movements are contesting for political power right now.  I don't have to explain who they are.

It used to be that two political coalitions, in the forms of political parties, confronted each other.  Each party was a coalition of disparate elements; each contained both liberal and conservative wings.  There was some overlap.  In places in the country where the parties overlapped on policy, it was possible for a citizen “to vote the man, not the party.”    And it was possible for Congress to be governed by a bi-partisan majority.  In the old days, an independent was a moderate and a moderate was an independent.  The news media tried to occupy a middle moderate space.  There was this space above politics where the wise and educated looked down on the noisy propaganda of political factions, and determined what the best policy would be.  All of the powerful opinion-leading institutions, the church, the media, the columnists, business leaders aspired to be in this space above politics.

That political environment is gone. It was killed by quantity and quality of grassroot political information made possible by new media.  Everyone now can both spread and receive political information.  Freed from the constraints of non-partisan neutrality, information, argument, rumors, facts, pictures, memes, cartoon, essay, rants and diatribes now flow freely.  It is happening at every technological level: from the conservative oldsters sending around their chain emails to the radical hipsters tweeting away.  

The two political parties have morphed into grass roots movements that are far more self-conscious and self-aware than ever before.  Partisan political media, whether its Fox News or MSNBC, or blogs, or online magazines, now function as mass educators.  Fox News gives Archie Bunker all the arguments, facts and anecdotes that he can take to the dinner table.  However, the Meathead is equally well-equipped with information from Daily Kos and MSNBC. Partisan media is political education for the grass roots of a broader movement. 

If you look at this situation from above, from the lofty heights of the elite, you worry about these “epistemic bubbles” -- two separate intellectual universes.  Very few people read both sides of the story or channel surf between Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow.   

But viewed from the bottom up, more people than ever in history are politically engaged, and informed.  I remember the situation when I was in high school.  The only sources of political information were the local newspaper (The Youngstown Vindicator), the three national networks which had 30 minutes of news every night, 5 minutes of news on the hour on the radio, ripped and read by the DJ and magazines, most of which tried desperately to avoid being caught on one or another side of a burning issue.  

It may have been the Golden Age of American television journalism for the elite, but the grass roots were not getting much information, analysis and argument.

The constant ferment of information and argument have transformed the two parties into two ideological movements.  It has forced an ideological coherence on the parties.  Witness the GOP primaries this year: policy diversity was discouraged because the GOP base had pretty much made up its collective mind on their party’s policy positions.  

The same is true among Democrats.

The Red Team and the Blue Team have become coalitions of people and communities united around policy, philosophy and narrative.  They have a common understanding of their own interests, policies and allies they need to advance those interests.

As a nation, we are getting serious about politics, moving beyond the happy thought that "we all the same things, but only differ about how to get them". 

In reality, people want different things and will ally with others who want what they want.  This is a good development.

It’s a new stage, and it is only going to get more interesting.

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