When political compromise is suspect

By Bill Bishop
January 7, 2013

The odds are that the extremely close national election wasn’t close at all in the place where you live.

And that’s 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.

What’s 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 isn’t 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 aren’t picking among policies. They are joining a social group — they are finding the people they would like their sons or daughters to marry.

Ways of living increasingly vary from place to place – 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 “forums for intergroup competition contests between them and us.”

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 don’t want to settle conflict. We want to “tell our story.”

“Political action,” writes French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, “is now less an issue of resolving conflicts between adversaries and more an issue of collectively facilitating individual action. This is a new political constraint.”

No kidding. So, without time for a cup of coffee after the election, the familiar (and oftentimes confounding) divide has reappeared with President Barack Obama’s presumed first choice for secretary of state and the “fiscal cliff” debate.

Even the deaths of 26 children and teachers in a Connecticut school couldn’t bridge our tribal differences. When the Pew Research Center asked if it was more important to protect gun owners’ 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 nation’s 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 – 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.

That’s the change that a smidgen more than $2 billion will buy you in today’s 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 “who we are.” But what then? There’s 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

5 comments

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“Columbia University political scientist Donald P. Green says that people choose their political party the same way they choose their friends. They aren’t picking among policies. They are joining a social group — they are finding the people they would like their sons or daughters to marry.”

He’s right. And “we, the people” are wrong. Wrong because the solution to the woes our nation faces today aren’t going too be resolved by “people”. Why? Look around you. Do you see any change in “our” current static political dysfunction? I don’t.

Are you hearing the voice of ANYONE with credible answers? I don’t. You get too many people and no leaders with answers and you have a mob. That’s not working well in Syria today, is it?

Isn’t it pretty obvious that we can’t just keep doin’ what we’re doin’ and expect different results? Isn’t it pretty obvious that is we want different results, that we’re going to change what we are doing (and NOT doing)?

Unfortunately we’re not going to get any help from professional politicians. Their agenda is primarily to keep getting re-elected. AS long as they can do NOTHING and still get re-elected, that’s the safe thing for them to do. Lobbyists like things just as they are because they control much of the “mother’s milk” of re-election, the money of special interests. The influence they thus buy is transferred from American citizens who have not complained.

The “bottom line” is that no one is looking out for America as a country or the Americans who supposedly “own the place”. If we don’t do something pretty radical pretty quick this country is going to quickly become another failure in a long list of those in history who have simply ceased to “matter”, a shing “city on a hill” that can’t pay it’s own rent.

American voters are going to have to start actually thinking for themselves again instead of socially regurgitating a “party platform”. The party doesn’t exist that precisely matches the many different opinions and belief, many conflicting, each of us actually. It is differing individual interests and hopes and desires that give life it’s infinite texture and richness. We don’t all seek the same mate or the same food, or enjoy the same movie; so why are we so bashful about expressing specific expectations and establishing specific limitations on a government well on it’s way to becoming master of all that we have or ever will?

We’re EACH going to have to think about what WE want government to do instead of letting politicians and bureaucrats tell US (and send us their bill). Each increase in America’s debt ceiling tells us LOUD AND CLEAR that the present “system” isn’t working. Since BOTH parties agree it’s unsustainable, that’s a start.

We need a majority consensus as to the NEEDS our government will be responsible for. Sunset everything else. America can afford everything it NEEDS. But no country has ever had the wealth to afford everything it’s “people”, many of whom are NOT citizens, WANT. Isn’t that obvious? But our politicians have sold us on the idea that “all things are possible” NOW! Ain’t so!

The separation of wants from needs is not a political process. It’s a process that begins with acceptance that we can’t do everything we might like to. We MUST somehow separate out that which MUST be done. We MUST then prioritize available funding so that available funding is budgeted to keep America the best place to be born and live a good life only as far as it goes. America must again learn to live within it’s means.

This is a very simple process, once we accept America’s limits. The many decisions that MUST eventually define an “agreed common policy” among ALL Americans must be made with due considerations of right, wrong, and common sense; with due deference to what is possible and what is impossible.

As individuals and as a country we have come to expect perfection today. Can’t happen, folks. Maybe someday, but twe’re not there yet. But that’s no reason not to work toward that goal a day and some dollars on “layaway”. That’s what our parents and their parents and all of our forefathers did. That’s what has brought the average American a life unthinkably better than theirs was. We can continue steady progress into the future.

We need to better realize just how far we have come in just the last fifty years, as compared to thousands oof years before; and how fast our current rate of technical progress and collective knowledge is propelling our society more and more rapidly into an uncharted future. It’s time to stop, talk, and agree where we’re going ratheer than keep the “pedal to the metal” hanging on with our fingers crossed that all will work out.

The Chinese “word” for “crisis” is two characters. One means “danger” and the other, “opportunity”. Some things never change. So let’s open our eyes and minds, look ahead and try to regain control of our “runaway train” and steer it to a sustainable and ever better future.

As they said over and over again in WW II” “We can do it”!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Since when has self-determination been a negative thing? Perhaps since people stopped doing what the powerful want.

Compromise is one thing among “friends” and quite another among foes. Make no mistake, ever since America decided that “diversity” was a positive goal, as opposed to assimilation, we have been making ourselves into a country divided in many, many ways. Every diverse political entity ever known to man has been rife with conflict. Why is it at all reasonable to expect the USA to be any different? It is not.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Darn good post there OOTS.
Term limits for congress are the absolute first requirement. Immediately followed by campaign finance reform. Then we can start changing the government with, as the Beatles said, Evolution instead of Revolution.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

If you think the voters of US are lethargic and mindless you should see the country I live in. Here the people riot in the streets often and repeatedly but then go back to polls and vote in the same corrupt monkeys who are making their life hell. It is both bizzare and a tragedy of human race that we cannot pick a leadership who has our interests at heart.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

This largely is the challenge of multiculturalism – the recent election shows dramatic division by ethnicity. Whether that challenge can be met will tell the tale.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive