Polarization and its discontents

by on June 22nd, 2004

It is quite clear from the fact that only half of eligible voters regularly turn out to vote in presidential elections, that the so-called fifty/fifty split does not divide Republicans from Democrats, but rather Republicans and Democrats, on the one hand, from people who would rather not vote Republican or Democrat, on the other.

As I have argued elsewhere, “political polarization,” as it is widely understood, is little more than a myth, a media virus, which substitutes for real explanation of social and political reality.

It seems more and more mainstream commentators are willing to question the prevailing sense that “Americans are deeply divided,” culturally, politically, and ideologically. Many of the folk who argue that Americans are not deeply divided do so by pointing out that it is only certain politicians, core constituents of the major parties, and the media’s chattering classes who are so divided. The point was recently made in the CS Monitor when Richard Harwood remarked that he comes across few people “with red or blue faces.”

Though they hardly ever play up the point, when these commentators dissolve the horizontal divide among the populace, they often reconstitute a vertical one between this newly unified national constituency and the nation’s elite policy and opinion makers, while totally ignoring the voter/non-voter dichotomy.

Even the New York Times has begun to question the polarization meme in this vein, asking, “A Nation Divided? Who Says?,” and asserting that “most voters are still centrists.” Kevin Drum is happy to conclude from the article that, “perhaps our increasingly bitter rhetoric is a sign that many of today’s worst disputes are actually pretty trivial.” This statement must be qualified, however. Today’s worst disputes between Republicans and Democrats are actually pretty trivial. Imagine if Democrats put half the effort into opposing the current administration’s incompetence in Iraq and the war on terror as they’ve put into holding up a handful of Bush’s judicial nominees.

This does not mean, however, that “the major issues” have been settled for good. It means there is no “opposition party” in the US government, just sham antagonism and quiet collusion. Whether the Republicans or Democrats have the majority in the Congress or control the White House, it’s the duopoly that’s in power. And that’s a major issue, even though the media don’t cover it. Drum’s line of thought leads him to say, “This isn’t to say there aren’t any big issues left.” Such locutions reveal the extent to which the mainstream clearly agrees with the conclusions of Francis Fukuyama when he declared that history had reached it’s end, that no further invention in the realm of human government and politics was possible, that “the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved upon.” But isn’t this an historical illusion not dissimilar from that of the bureaucrat who wanted to close the patent office because everything had already been invented?

A recent dispatch from the Washington Post shows how the mainstream media tend to misconstrue discontent with the political status quo as a perceptual flaw on the part of the voter. The piece points out that a recent Panetta Institute poll (pdf) contains both good and bad news for the Kerry campaign. It’s headlined, College Students Favor Kerry, but Apathy Grows. We read:

The poll found 42 percent of college students backing Kerry, with 30 percent for Bush and 4 percent for Ralph Nader. Kerry’s challenge will be getting them to the polls Nov. 2. “There is a downward trend in the perception that voting is a way to change society,” the Hart analysis says. “In March 2001, almost half [47 percent] of students felt that voting in elections for president was a way to bring about a lot of change in society.” Only 35 percent now feel that way. “Few American college students believe that politics is very relevant in their life,” the survey found.

This, apparently, is the “apathy” referenced in the headline. However, if you are of the opinion that voting in a presidential election (which this year basically means voting for either Kerry or Bush) will not bring about much change, you are probably right. And if you desire such change, it makes sense that politics, but especially presidential politics (which, in the two party system, runs the gamut from A to B) would have little relevance to you. But this is not necessarily the product of political apathy. It could just as well signal disenfranchisement from and disillusion with the two party system, with its inept leaders, with the trivial debates and petty spats inherent to Republican/Democratic party politics. The myth of voter apathy allows the mass media to continue to conflate two-party politics with politics as such. It is noteworthy that few, if any, polls ever specifically ask respondents if they consider themselves to be “apathetic” about politics, preferring instead to let the pundits draw that conclusion.

If 42% support Kerry, 30% support Bush and 4% back Nader, that leaves a full quarter of college students who are either undecided, want to vote outside of the three top choices, or will not vote at all. Subtract now those who don’t particularly like the candidate they’re planning to vote for, i.e. those who will primarily be casting a negative vote against the other candidate(s), and support for the duopoly parties turns out to be pretty shabby among the young. Ah, the wisdom of youth.

Charles Sanson