Polarization and the vanishing middle

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including  his latest book, “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”

By Marty Rochester

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” 

— W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919

“The upright path is the middle path of all the qualities known to man. This is the path which is equally distant from the two extremes.”

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— Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Chapter 1, Law 4, circa 1170

We are witnessing the growing polarization of the American polity. The center is not holding, and we are going down a treacherous path. It goes well beyond a few crazies like Alex Jones and James Hodgkinson, beyond even the familiar Red vs. Blue state divide.

As a 2014 study done by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported based on extensive public opinion surveys, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” 

Such polarization has gotten only worse in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, with both the Republican and Democratic parties seemingly playing to their respective conservative/alt-right and liberal/alt-left bases rather than going after the middle of the electorate. And the middle itself is shrinking.

According to Pew: “The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades,” with liberals and conservatives disagreeing over “where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around, and even who they would welcome into their families.”

Still, “the majority [of Americans] do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation … and believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes,” the Pew study reports. 

The problem, though, is that a majority of Americans are not terribly involved in politics and, thus, do not set the climate of the political system. Those who are “the most engaged and active in the political process,” and hence play the lead role in governing, tend to be “the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous,” according to the Pew study. 

Interestingly, the latter include highly educated and knowledgeable elites who one might assume, or at least hope, would appreciate the nuances and complexities of public policy issues enough to avoid black-and-white thinking. But it turns out they are some of the worst ideologues, what the philosopher Eric Hoffer called “true believers.” In some respects, the masses exercise more common sense and common decency. 

Many explanations have been offered to account for the increased polarization — for example, the “big sort” that has resulted in droves of like-minded, liberal Americans gravitating to major “global” cities on the two coasts, leaving behind more conservative elements to populate the hinterlands, with further homogeneous clustering by neighborhoods; the structure of our electoral politics, in particular recent gerrymandering trends that have created noncompetitive (one-party dominant) congressional districts where representatives have no need or incentive for reaching across the aisle to compromise; and the decline of national media relative to cable TV, talk radio and other “niche” media that appeal to specific, narrower audiences. 

Regarding the media, no longer do we have shared national communal experiences such as Walter Cronkite provided when almost the entire country watched CBS News coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and the moon landing in 1969. 

Moreover, the mainstream media themselves have become more sharply ideological, the Trump administration laying bare their liberal bias; a recent Harvard University study that examined coverage of the last two presidents across 10 major TV and print outlets found the overall tone 80 percent negative during Trump’s first 100 days (with CBS, NBC, and CNN over 90 percent hostile) vs. only 40 percent negative during President Barack Obama’s first 100 days. 

What perhaps has most fostered polarization is the advent of the internet and social media, which tend to feed into and reinforce people’s predispositions, creating rigid, intensely held belief systems. Facebook may be the leading culprit, because, with more than 1 billion users daily, it has become the “largest and most influential entity in the news business” and “the most powerful mobilizing force in politics,” according to a New York Times Magazine article. Much of its impact is negative. As the articleobserves, it is “the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truth swirling about the rest of media.”

The Times gets it half right when it notes that in the last election, “social media created a right-wing echo chamber,” as a “media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media to transmit a hyperpartisan perspective to the world,” one where participants “cocoon themselves into self-reinforcing bubbles or confirmatory ideas, to the detriment of civility and a shared factual basis from which to make collective, democratic decisions.”  

The Times failed to mention that the “bubble” phenomenon is just as evident on the left, as liberal Democrats exchange mutually supportive emails filtered through the biased lenses of Slate, The Guardian, Huffington Post and, yes, the New York Times.

I am one of the few people I know who is not on Facebook, and I plan to remain a proud holdout. I tell my students not to waste so much of their time on social media. I also urge them to turn off Fox and MSNBC, because they are both a disgrace to journalism, though they are not alone. Watching the news, we seem to live in two alternate universes – one where, according to Rachel Maddow and Co., impeachment of the president is just a matter of time; and the other, according to Sean Hannity and Co., the president is the sole protector of the people against “the deep state” and its allies. 

I write occasional columns like this where I am willing to call out conservatives and liberals alike for being part of the problem of gridlock today (granted some readers will be quick to point out my ideological leanings). So I am trying to do my bit to counter polarization. Yet things are so acrimonious that my liberal friends admonish me for merely labeling Trump “reckless” as opposed to “dangerous,” a distinction without a difference except in what now passes for our national dialogue.

The choices we face should not be reduced to taking sides between the likes of Maddow and Hannity, much less Stephen Colbert and Ann Coulter. Can’t we restore some order and uprightness to our politics? 

As we observe the 25th anniversary of the LA riots, can we try to heed the words of that street-cred philosopher Rodney King: 

“Can’t we just all get along?”