Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The 3 causes of polarized politics -- and how to fix 2 of them

Citizens registered as an Independent, Democra...Image via WikipediaTo my mind, there are three basic causes of our highly polarized perception of contemporary American politics, and at least two can be fixed with relative ease. (Be forewarned, I'm about to engage in an exercise of armchair political analysis. Here there be anecdotes; data junkies need look elsewhere.)

Beyond the general tribal nature of the human condition to pick a side and stick with it regardless of the facts -- I point you at sports fandom for base evidence of the trend -- American politics seem especially rancorous, divisive and partisan these days because of...
  1. Improved political polling and voter data analysis
  2. Gerrymandered districts
  3. Expansion and fragmentation of news sources, especially television

Let's start with the improved political polling.

Karl Rove once famously spoke of building a permanent Republican majority in the United States not based on actual changes in the political leanings of the American populace, but on controlling voter turnout.

While sources differ on the exact breakdown of the American electorate, something around a third of us are Permanently Republican/Conservative, another third are Permanently Democrat/Liberal and another third are Independent Moderates who'll vote for either party based on the candidate and the issues. Rove's grand insight was that he didn't have to win the Moderates, he just had to discourage the Liberals and the Liberal-leaning Moderates from coming to the polls while encouraging Conservatives and Conservative-leaning Moderates to show up and vote.

How do you energize one side and demoralize the other? Attack ads of the most vile and despicable sort. Flare up wedge social issues, question patriotism, impugn character and above all paint your opponent not as someone with whom you disagree, but as a cartoon supervillain bent on destroying everything you hold dear. Your side turns out in droves to defeat the enemy, while the other side finds itself unable to muster support for a less-than-perfect candidate.

While Rove may have pioneered the modern data-driven form of this tactic, it's hardly a Republican-only maneuver anymore. We've stopped arguing the merits of our ideas and instead engaged in a full-on ad hominem war of attrition between the American political Left and Right. Luckily, there's an easy fix.

Compulsory Voting:
A system by which a failure to vote results in a fine for the eligible voter. Several nations operate under compulsory voter systems today, including Australia, which boasts a 95-percent voter turnout for federal elections. If an eligible voter fails to cast a compulsory vote, he is given the opportunity to explain his absence (illness, for example) and failing that is fined the rough equivalent of $20.

Were the US to undertake a similarly effective compulsory voting initiative, the voter-turnout game is plausibly over and we'll have one less reason to engage in these spurious character-assassination ads and tactics.

Let us turn now to gerrymandered districts.

Here are some of the most egregious examples of manufacturing districts to give one party or the other a decided registered-voter advantage. The result of creating these geographically absurd one-party voting districts -- besides ensuring that a party incumbent is almost impossible to unseat -- is to provide a haven for blatantly partisan candidates.

If only a Republican or only a Democrat can reasonably get elected in a given district, the general election becomes a formality and the party primary becomes a race to determine who is the most Republican or most Democratic. In other words, district gerrymandering creates partisan ideologues who have absolutely no incentive to negotiate with the opposite party -- it will likely displease the one-sided voter makeup of their home districts. Again, there's an easy fix for the problem.

Computer-generated districting (I'm particularly fond of splitline districting) creates the most geometrically, demographically and geographically simple and compact districts possible using objective mathematic rules. There is no room for partisanship in these algorithms and they'll do away with absurdly serpentine districts designed to lump a single party together. The subsequent result will be more (but not exclusively) politically heterogeneous districts that will in turn produce more politically moderate campaigns and candidates.

The final cause of our more partisan national political dialogue -- which, in truth, has become a set of dueling political monologues -- is the fragmentation of political media, particularly television.

With so many channels available and with the cost of content production continually dropping -- especially online -- there is no fiscal incentive for news providers to appeal to a broad, and thus moderate, audience. Whatever your political persuasion, you can find a news source that provides as much political affirmation as information.

Fox News is blatantly right-leaning, while MSNBC is openly left of center. CNN has tried to be relatively moderate and has thus plummeted to a distant third in the cable news race. Talk radio has evolved into a similar political duopoly of liberal NPR versus conservative AM talk sensations like Rush Limbaugh. Online, you can find any number of blogs attuned explicitly to your political tastes and never be forced to consume any opinions (or even facts) that don't jibe with your political philosophy.

Alas, there is no easy fix for this cause of partisanship. As CNN has shown, there is no money to be made in offering both sides of the issue. Voters don't want to challenged or even informed -- at least not on the shallow mediums of TV and radio -- they simply want to be reassured that their presumptions are correct.

That isn't a flaw in the media system, per se, but simply an acknowledgement of our own flawed human nature. McDonald's makes more money selling Quarter Pounders than it does salads; if that weren't true, McDonald's would be in the salad business. If there was money to be made in actually being impartial and objective, TV news networks would be impartial and objective. There isn't, so they aren't.

The fix for the third cause of partisan rancor in the United States is simply to expect better of ourselves and our candidates. With compulsory voting and objective districting, we'll have removed the most supportive crutches of partisanship, but we'll still need to learn to walk the moderate path under our own power.

Note: Post originally published 10/26/2010.

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