Polarized Politics: How Extremists Have Taken America Hostage

A half century ago, neither political party disproportionately consisted of those who favored a my-way-or-the-high-way approach. Unbending ideologues did not make it into leadership positions. Today, it may be the only way to get elected -- for one of the parties.
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In the most recent polls, an overwhelming 68% of the American public want a compromise on the debt ceiling. Break down those numbers by party, however, and a different picture emerges. 81% of Democrats want a compromise compared to only 53% of Republicans. Even more strikingly, 53% of the Tea Party oppose a settlement compared to 42% who favor it. The Tea Party, in opposition to the majority of the country, the majority of the Republican electorate and the weight of professional opinion, takes the my-way-or-the-high-way approach. What is going on?

The short answer is that the Republican leadership, in general, and the Tea Party, in particular, is designed to be a party of extremists. That is, the modern Republican party is built on its appeal to those most likely to see the world in black and white. Giving power to the true believers of any stripe is dangerous, and the debt limit makes visible a decades long process that increases the risk that the country will become ungovernable.

The debt ceiling is a perfect issue to illustrate the intransigence of the new group because the underlying issue is meaningless. The ceiling is an artificial restriction that essentially says that after Congress has passed a budget and the U.S. has borrowed money in accordance with that budget, it cannot make payments on the debts it has already incurred unless Congress increases the debt limit. Ordinarily, Congress raises the debt limit without much fuss. It has done so over 70 times since the limit was enacted in 1917 and, indeed, 17 times during the Reagan Administration alone.

While increasing the debt limit is therefore meaningless, the failure to raise the debt ceiling is not. The refusal to make monthly payments on debts already incurred marks one as a credit risk. Ask anyone who misses an occasional monthly payment on their credit cards. Interest rates go up, even if the debtor has lots of money in the bank. At the national level, the mere threat of default -- the signaling that the U.S. is not a reliable borrower -- could play havoc with national and international markets.

So why risk it? Because it is what true believers do. The conventional wisdom is that we are living through a period of greater political polarization. It is true that Congressional districts have become more polarized, with more safe Republican and safe Democratic districts. It is also true that the views of members of Congress no longer overlap much, with virtually all Republicans to the right of virtually all Democrats on substantive positions. People with different views, however, are capable of compromise. The substantive differences between Democrats and Republicans do not explain why they can't reach an agreement especially on an issue like the debt limit where there are many intermediate solutions. Abortion, after all, can be cast as murder; the only issue for the debt limit is the price that can be extracted for the vote.

Understanding the stalemate therefore requires understanding the modern Republican party and how it has been assembled. The result is not a parallel construction of liberals versus conservatives. It is rather the construction of one party (and only one) designed not to compromise.

First, with respect to substance, the Republican party has become dramatically more conservative while the Democratic party has not become similarly more liberal (See Hacker and Pierson, Off-Center). Republicans have been able to do so and still win elections principally by adopting policies that increase turnout and those policies tend to be the ones that fire up the base and attract deep pocket funders. The principal difference between the outcome of the 2008 and the 2010 elections, for example, was the identity of those who showed up at the polls.

Second, the appeal to the base involves an appeal to those least likely to compromise -- and Republican partisans are more inflexible than Democratic partisans. An intriguing study attempted to determine whether political orientations were inherited by examining the difference between identical and fraternal twins. It described conservatives (irrespective of their positions on individual issues) as those "yearning for in-group unity and strong leadership." They desire clear, unbending moral and behavioral codes, a fondness for systematization, a willingness to tolerate inequality and an inherently pessimistic view of human nature. In contrast, those with a more liberal political orientation tend to be more tolerant of out-groups, and to take a more context-dependent rather than rule-based approach to proper behavior. They also demonstrate more empathy, optimism and "suspicion of hierarchy, certainty, and strong leadership." The polar opposites in this typology are the true believers v. the flip-floppers. While the jury is out on how conclusively the twin studies establish a genetic component, other studies tend to find that such preferences are hard to change and influence perceptions of facts as well as policies. 64% of Tea Parties, for example, incorrectly believe that President Obama raised taxes in comparison with 34% of the country overall.

Third, Republicans have adopted an intentional rhetorical strategy that tends to appeal to those who prefer fixed, unbending values. According to linguist George Lakoff, for example, conservatives celebrate the "strict father," who enforces relatively fixed and hierarchical values, while liberals prefer the "nurturing mother" who makes context-based decisions designed to promote individual well-being.

Fourth, with the multiplication of cable TV channels and internet sites and the decline of the mainstream media, we increasingly listen only to those with whom we already agree. 63% of Tea Parties, for example, say that they get the majority of their political and current events news on television from the Fox News Channel, compared to 23 percent of Americans overall.

Finally, these effects are greatest for those with the most influence. Polarization on issues -- and values preferences -- are dramatically greater for political activists and the more educated generally than for the rank and file. Tom Ferguson explains that the big increase in political contributions has come from conservative big money donors who both respond to and shape the "no compromise" rhetoric (*For more on how money drives polarization, see Lynn Parramore's ND20 interview with Ferguson).

A half century ago, neither political party disproportionately consisted of those who favored a my-way-or-the-high-way approach. Unbending ideologues did not make it into leadership positions. Today, it may be the only way to get elected - for one of the parties. That party has framed the debt limit as a matter of principle and used it to fire up the base. For a group inclined to see the world in terms of absolutes, compromise can accordingly only be seen as betrayal.

June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

*Re-posted from newdeal20.org.

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