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21 October 2023

Why the USA is Polarised

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics, History
I have long been fascinated by political history and have read many fine books both on general history and on major leaders. I've read biographies of British prime ministers from Salisbury to Churchill, Eden, MacMillan and Thatcher. I have read several biographies of leading US presidents from Washington, Adams and Hamilton through Lincoln to both Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson and Reagan. As to the giant figures in 20 century politics I have read biographies of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini; Franco and De Gaulle; Mao Tse Tung and Deng. Looking at political history through the prism of individual leaders however may lead to a misleading view of long-term trends. In one party states like Hitler's Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China then the emphasis on the leader is almost certainly correct as views of individuals are controlled and those who seek to oppose the single party state soon find themselves in serious trouble. But in a democracy like the USA, the UK and many other European countries today the roles of the political parties are more important.

But parties change and the changes can sometimes take place in a surprisingly short space of time. I recently read an astonishing book about politics in the United States “Why We’re Polarized” by Ezra Klein.[i] The book was published in 2020 and of course many things have happened since then that have changed political life and Klein in an edition published only the following year revisits some of these issues. “Why We’re Polarized” came out in January 2020. Then came the pandemic which killed more than 500,000 Americans and millions more globally. Then came Jo Biden's victory in the democratic primary, followed by his victory in the election. Then there was the Capital insurrection on January 6th 2021 followed by the second impeachment of President Donald Trump and the first months of Joe Biden’s presidency but that was plenty of tragedy and tumult to test the framework of his book.

Nevertheless, that framework is compelling. Ezra Klein is the editor at large and cofounder of Vox, the award-winning explanatory news organisation. Launched in 2014, Vox reaches more than 50 million people across its platforms each month. Previously, Klein was a columnist and editor at the Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC and a contributor to Bloomberg. Klein explains how different groups of Americans can see politics through such different lenses, examining how various psychological mechanisms allowed committed partisans to rationalise almost anything their party does.

When Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election in 2016, she wrote a book called What Happened. This was her effort to understand how she fell short and at its core is the belief that something extraordinary occurred in 2016 - an outcome beyond the boundaries of the normal give-and-take of American politics, an aberration that must be explained. To be fair something strange had happened. Donald Trump won the election. During his campaign he constantly showed the sort of person he really was. He mocked John McCain for being captured in Vietnam and suggested Ted Cruz 's father had helped assassinate JFK; he observed his whole life had been motivated by greed; he made no mystery of his bigotry or sexism; he called himself a genius while retweeting conspiracy theories.

Even Trump's team didn't believe he was going to win. Plans were afoot for him to start a television channel after his loss and then came election night. He won the Electoral College even though 61% of voters in Election Day exit polls said he was unqualified to hold the presidency; Trump had lost the popular vote by millions of ballots and his Electoral College margin rested on a fraction of the population. Clinton wrote “If just 40,000 people across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania had changed their minds I would have won.”

Klein thinks this is the wrong question. Instead of asking how Trump won they should have been asking how Trump was close enough to win. How did a candidate like Trump who showed contempt for the party he represented; an unfitness for the job he sought, get within a few thousand votes of the presidency in the first place?

But on closer analysis the 2016 election was not very different from other elections in recent history. In the exit polls in 2004, the Republican candidate for president got 55% of men. In 2008, he won 48% of men. In 2012, 52%. And in 2016? Trump got 52% of men, precisely matching Romney's performance in the previous election. And the story is similar among women. In 2004, the Republican won 48% of female voters. In 2008, he won 43%; in 2012, 44%. And in 2016? 41%. Lower, but only two percentage points beneath John McCain in 2008.

If we look at this through race rather than gender we get a similar story. Trump promised to sweep in after the first Black president in American history and put America back to where it was, to build a wall and make America great again. And yet, in 2004, the GOP candidate won 58% of white voters. In 2008, he won 55% of white voters. In 2012, he won 59% of white voters. And in 2016; 57%. He even won about the same percent of Hispanic voters despite frequently complaining about Hispanic immigrants. In 2008 the Republican candidate won 44% of Hispanic voters. In 2012 the Republican candidate won 27% of Hispanic voters and in 2016, 28%.
Overall, the results in 2016 mostly looked like 2012 and 2008 and 2004 despite the curious nature of the winning candidate. What this demonstrates is that voters ultimately treated Trump as if he were just another Republican and that demonstrates the enormous weight party polarisation now exerts on American politics. The country is so locked into its political identities that it seems there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force them to change their minds. Klein is not really writing about people which is why I made the point about leadership at the beginning of this blog. He's really making the point about systems.

There are many different types of polarisation possible, but the one Klein focuses on is political identity and that leads to a term that ought to be useful, but it's become almost useless - identity politics. It's impossible for people to speak seriously about how they engage with one another without discussing how their identity is shaping that engagement. But unfortunately the term identity politics has been weaponised. It is most often used by speakers to describe politics as practised by members of historically marginalised groups. If you are Black and you worry about police brutality, that’s identity politics. If you're a woman and you worry about the male-female pay gap, that's identity politics. But if you are a rural gun owner decrying universal background cheques as tyranny, or a billionaire CEO complaining the high tax rate demonises success, well that's just good old-fashioned politics. Identity becomes something that only marginalised groups have.

Klein sets out to demonstrate that something has changed. Superficially American politics appears to have been stable. Effectively a two-party system in which the Democratic and Republican parties have dominated elections since 1864, grappling for power and popularity the whole time. Again, superficially it might seem that it has always been that way with Democrats and Republicans slandering each other, plotting against each other, even physically assaulting each other but the Democratic and Republican parties of today are not like the Democratic and Republican parties of yesteryear. There is something genuinely new. Back in 1950 the American Political Science Association Committee on Political Parties released a 98-page paper entitled “Towards a more responsible two-party system”. it complained that the parties contained too much diversity of opinion and work together too easily, leaving voters confused about who to vote for and why. Klein demonstrates that polarisation isn't something that's just happened, it was planned.

Politicians as far apart as Richard Nixon and Robert F Kennedy both saw that it would be disastrous if the two major political parties divided into what would be called a conservative - liberal line. Nixon said “The strength of the American political system is we have avoided generally violent swings and administration from one extreme to the other and the reason we've avoided that is that in both parties there has been room for a broad spectrum of opinion.” Robert F Kennedy warned that “The country was already split vertically between sections, races and ethnic roots so it would be dangerous to split it horizontally between liberals and conservatives.”

In 1964 when Barry Goldwater campaigned to be the Republican candidate, he promised that if the Republicans nominated him “the election will not be an engagement to personalities. It will be an engagement to principles.” Of course, he won the nomination, campaigned on what was a strongly right programme and got absolutely destroyed by Lyndon Johnson. So, in 1964 Republicans campaigned on a strongly right programme and got nowhere while in more recent elections they've done the same and won their share of power.

What this means is that if you're a Democrat, the Republican Party of today poses a much sharper threat to your vision of a good society than a Republican Party 30 years ago. It includes fewer people who are like you, and it is united around an agenda much further away from yours. The same is true, of course, for Republicans looking at the modern Democratic Party. That this is recent can be seen when we consider that both presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W Bush signed legislation raising taxes that would be unthinkable in today's Republican Party, where almost every elected official has signed a pledge promising to never raise taxes under any circumstances.

Reagan signed in an immigration reform bill that today's Democrats venerate, and today's Republicans denounce. He said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” Yes, Reagan said that. President Bill Clinton famously ran against the left wing of his own party and worked with congressional Republicans to slash welfare and balance the federal budget. During his second term, he proudly declared that “the era of big government is over.”

The book is 300 pages long and it is impossible for me to go into all its detail in a blog that is only a fraction of that length, but it is one of the very best books I have read on political history, and I've read a great number. I commend it to you.

N.B. This blog is focused on the USA because it’s based on a book that is entirely focused on the USA. But what of the wider question as to whether the rest of the leading democracies are polarised. Well, certainly the Far Right is growing in influence and in some cases power as in Hungary, Poland, Italy and potentially Germany which given its history is a frightening prospect. This trend is largely driven by the rise of immigration exacerbated by the ridiculous policy of the Schengen agreement in the EU which means these countries cannot control their borders. This has had a disastrous impact on a traditionally stable country like Sweden which now has the highest murder rate in Europe owing to the growth of immigrant criminal gangs fighting over the illegal drug trade.

The UK was never in the Schengen area but has a not much better record in controlling its borders and while the political focus is on those illegal immigrants who arrive by small boats this is a fraction of the net immigration that we have experienced in recent years. Despite that the Far Right is not a major factor in the UK and a recent study showed it was at the lowest level in the whole of Europe. However, when the Labour Party got taken over by the Far Left it was annihilated in the subsequent general election. The new leader Sir Kier Starmer, despite his own background as a staunch Socialist, has done everything he can to make the party look like a traditional conservative one. At the recent Labour Party Conference held earlier this month only 3% of the delegates represented trade unions while 28% represented businesses.

[i]Why We’re Polarized” Ezra Klein Profile Books 2020

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