Thursday, June 26, 2014

Political Polarization: Why it Threatens Democracy

The political polarization that’s paralyzed Washington doesn’t end at the Beltway, said Dan Balz in A major new Pew Research study has found the nation is more ideologically divided “than at any time in our recent history,” with the percentage of Americans who are hard-core liberals or conservatives doubling over the past decade.
Political polarization is even shaping Americans’ “everyday lives,” as liberals and conservatives sort themselves geographically into Red and Blue tribes and associate almost exclusively with like-minded people. For conservatives, the “ideal community” is rural, with sprawling houses and wide-open spaces; liberals favor smaller homes in diverse urban settings where you can walk to school and Starbucks. The two sides view one another with outright antipathy, convinced that the other tribe poses “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” So now comes “the chicken-or-egg question,” said Ron Fournier in National Is a polarized electorate pushing politicians to extremes? Or are hyperpartisan leaders “driving voters to ideological corners?”

Blame some of it on talk radio and cable news, said Charles M. Blow in The New York Times. “Profit-driven provocateurs” get ratings and make money by stirring up passions and demonizing opponents. In these echo chambers, there is no room for nuance or dissent, and the mere hint of moderation is considered a betrayal. The good news is that 40 percent of the public still falls in the middle of the spectrum, said Linda Killian in The Wall Street Journal. These folks are not getting riled up by Fox News or MSNBC and have moderate views on such issues as gun control, immigration, and Obamacare. The bad news is that the reasonable middle is turned off by partisan politics and thus is largely apathetic. If centrists remain on the sidelines, “there may be no fix to our polarized politics.”

Paralysis by partisanship endangers a central premise of democracy, said Bruce Stokes in CNN .com: “the ability to make decisions through compromise.” It also has “profound implications for the rest of the world.” When the planet’s sole superpower can’t achieve consensus or adopt consistent policies on major international economic and security issues—from free trade to military engagement—the result is inaction and confusion. All in all, the bitter acrimony now dividing the country isn’t politics as usual. “It’s something different.” And it should worry everyone.

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