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It's Hard Being Purple

The polar ice is melting at an alarming rate, but the political ice jam in this country isn't. While the public looks on with increasing disgust, a Democratic Congress can't get President. Bush and his loyal Republicans to budge on any key legislation. Health care for children has been vetoed twice, war funding reaches new levels, tax reform is stalled, immigration reform is dead, and a government budget bill is being held hostage. Even as we learn that public approval of Congress has sunk to 21%, lower even than Bush's dismal ratings, calls for meaningful progress between the two sides go unheeded.

In a country divided between red and blue states it's hard to be purple. A few years ago this didn't seem to be entirely the case. Average Americans held political views that weren't as extreme as either the far right or left. But the Iraq war has led to more polarization, and Bush's congenital inability to compromise with any opponent, which leads him to stubbornly follow failed policies, apparently out of spite, has made him far more a divider than a uniter. Yet there is a deeper historical trend at work.

Tracking the voting records of each congressional district, political scientists have discovered that red areas are getting redder and blue areas bluer since the Great Depression. That is, each district has become less flexible, and those that used to sway between one party and the other are now much more fixed. As a result, once a town has voted in a Republican or Democrat, the odds are hugely in favor of the incumbent. The main reason for this inflexibility, we are told, is demographic. People are moving to be close to others who agree with them.

The polarizing effect of birds of a feather flocking together gets stronger still. In Colorado, for example, Boulder is much more liberal than Colorado Springs. An experiment was conducted in which people from each town were asked to give their opinion of various political issues, rating themselves from 1 to 10 depending on how liberal or conservative their answers were about abortion, capital punishment, and other polarizing issues. The results were predictable. Boulder people gave more liberal answers than Colorado Springs people. Yet the interesting part was what happened when one person from each town was inserted into a group from the other town.

With a dissenter in their midst, each group became more intractable. Rather than being softened by the presence of someone who held a different view from their own, the two groups now gave more liberal or more conservative answers to each question than they had as individuals. Apparently the same thing happens on a mass scale. People who once disliked Bush now consider him a complete villain (reminiscent of the vilification from the right that Roosevelt got in the Depression). Republicans in the Senate threaten to wreck every bill they disagree with by means of filibuster. U.S. negotiators to the conference on global warming in Bali totally refuse to go along with every other industrialized country (America now being the only one that hasn't signed the Kyoto accord). Being purple used to be a sign of reasonable compromise. Now you are a traitor to your ideological group.

What to do? Neither side wants to budge. Feeling beleaguered, Republicans are refusing to criticize, much less abandon Bush, grimly holding on to their pride. Democrats are willing to let them hang, betting that this tactic will cause the country to vote more Democratic in the next election. Neither position is workable, however, as the continuing deadlock shows. The rest of us can't blame this stalemate solely on the politicians. As long as society becomes more polarized, compromise candidates have less chance of being elected, and most moderates don't even bother to run. Nobody wants to see purple on the ballot. The best hope for now is that the ice jam will break once the right-wing ideologues leave the White House. A headless Republican Party may be forced to abandon divisive politics simply because the problems facing us are too great to continue ignoring.

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