When political compromise is suspect
The odds are that the extremely close national election wasnât close at all in the place where you live.
And thatâs a problem.
For the past four decades, Americans have been self-segregating into communities where they are increasingly likely to vote with their neighbors in overwhelming majorities. In 1976, only a quarter of voters lived in a county where either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford won by 20 points or more. By 2008, 46.7 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties.
This year, the national margins narrowed still further. But more than half of all voters (52 percent) lived in a county where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more.
Whatâs true in counties is also true in states. In 1976, there were 20 states where either Ford or Carter won by five points or less. In 2008, there were seven.
This year, only four.
The problem with this increasing self-segregation is that there are now few places where voters (or their representatives) must fully contend with those from the other party. There is more danger (both socially and politically) in disappointing like-minded neighbors than in compromising with those who live elsewhere. Compromise isnât rewarded in like-minded communities.
Compromisers are suspect members of the tribe.
And politics has much more to do with tribe than policy. Columbia University political scientist Donald P. Green says that people choose their political party the same way they choose their friends. They arenât picking among policies. They are joining a social group â they are finding the people they would like their sons or daughters to marry.
Ways of living increasingly vary from place to place â and those differences align with political party. Demographer Ron Lesthaeghe has found an increasing correlation between family formation patterns and the presidential vote, for example. In U.S. counties where women marry later and there are more cohabitating couples, Lesthaeghe found, the Democratic vote is higher.
Americans are polarizing even in the way we talk, says linguist William Labov. He has found that regional accents are strengthening. And those differences in accent follow political divisions.
In this setting, Green writes, elections become âforums for intergroup competition contests between them and us.â
That has changed the purpose of politics from settling differences to giving people a chance to assert individual distinction and the righteousness of their group.
We donât want to settle conflict. We want to âtell our story.â
âPolitical action,â writes French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, âis now less an issue of resolving conflicts between adversaries and more an issue of collectively facilitating individual action. This is a new political constraint.â
No kidding. So, without time for a cup of coffee after the election, the familiar (and oftentimes confounding) divide has reappeared with President Barack Obamaâs presumed first choice for secretary of state and the âfiscal cliffâ debate.
Even the deaths of 26 children and teachers in a Connecticut school couldnât bridge our tribal differences. When the Pew Research Center asked if it was more important to protect gun ownersâ rights or control gun ownership, 69 percent of Republicans said the former and 72 percent of Democrats agreed with the latter.
These divisions, because they are baked into our way of life and the nationâs geography, are almost impossible to change. Candidates Obama and Romney spent more than $1.1 billion each in the few months before the election. In the end, a grand total of 208 counties out of more than 3,100 voted differently in 2012 than they did in 2008.
The Democrats hired the smartest of the sharp pencil boys in psychological and social media research to cajole, lure, manipulate and massage the vote. They were the best â and exactly 11 counties that voted Republican in 2008 switched allegiance and voted Democratic in November.
Over the last 100 years of presidential elections, on average, 24 percent of counties switch allegiance from the vote in the previous election, according to statistician Robert Cushing. This year, it was 6.7 percent, a 100-year low.
Thatâs the change that a smidgen more than $2 billion will buy you in todayâs America.
Politics once looked outward, at social problems. Congressional leaders slugged out their differences in decision-making rather than striving to mirror us from the most flattering angle. We were voting in support of something other than our own personal brands.
Expressive politics may well show âwho we are.â But what then? Thereâs all that other business we never seem to get around to.
ILLUSTRATION: MATT MAHURIN
PHOTO (Insert Middle): Voters cast their ballots for the presidential elections at a polling place in Richmond, Virginia, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (Insert Bottom): Customers view semi automatic guns on display at a gun shop in Los Angeles, California December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Gene Blevins