The Parties That Never End
John H. Aldrich is the Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University. His research specialties include American politics and political parties, formal theory, and metholodogy. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received grants from both the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Aldrich is the author of "Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America" (1995) and the coauthor of "Change and Continuity in the 2004 and 2006 Elections" (2007). He is also the coauthor of a new installment in the series, "Change and Continuity in the 2008 Election," due out in December 2009.
Question: How does America's party system compare to other democracies'?
John Aldrich: Okay, sure. So, broadly, there are two kinds of systems in the world. There are many-party systems and there are two-party systems. And our English cousins, both England, Canada, Australia, India, tend to have majority rule elections, rather than proportional elections and that tends to lead them to have two sort of competing parties. So in England, you know, it's been, you know, since the '20's, that anybody other than Labor or the Conservatives have formed a government and gotten a Prime Minister in the Cabinet, and so on. And so in that way, it's very much like ours. They have problems very much like ours as well. There's one lesson to learn from them, and that is that the two parties at various times in history, recent history, were criticized for being too extreme. The conservatives under Thatcher, the Labor Party until the coming of, what's his name, Gordon Brown and his predecessor, I'm blanking on his name right now, and what they did was they moved, they took a much more moderate stance within the range of opinion within the Labor Party, took a much more moderate stance, and that's what's happening now in the Conservative Party, a more moderate leadership, even within the same range, a less extreme and a more moderate leadership has softened some of the edges. Otherwise, it's a system in many ways very similar to ours and the degree of differences are really quite similar between the two parties. If you go to other systems in which there are multiple parties, it's odd but it still tends to break down that two parties generate most of the leadership of the system, even though there are multiple parties around. For example, in Israel, which has election laws that should lead to the largest number of parties and indeed there are quite a large number of parties in that system, for many years, Labor and Conservative were the only source of prime ministers, leaders, of the country and they took opposite positions and it looked kind of like a two-party system embedded in a multi-party system in which there were, many people had voices in the - their congress, but only two were effectively governing the country.
Question: Can our system ever be reformed?
John Aldrich: Yeah, no. Not easily, right, and not in the short run. So, the principal problem is that, so we had two things that happened, one of them was just a sorting, I talked about southern Democrats essentially, you know, gained the Republican Party. In some sense, that's just taking, you know, members of Congress who were painted blue and we re-painted them red. And in New England, you could say the reverse, you know, red you painted blue. But, and that's just a resorting and that's fine, and everything would be, you know, much easier, if that was the only thing that happened. The thing that got more problematic was that it became harder and harder for moderates to win elections. And so not only did you sort people differently into reds and blues, but you moved them apart. And so you took out a range for moderates and there's very few moderates now, that's why people are so focused on, for example, people like Olympia Snow, she's one of the few, you know, Republicans from a basically Democratic area and thus has the kind of appeal that can go, you know, she can win elections as a Republican in what would otherwise be a Democrat area because she's one of the few people there in the center. And there are just so few of them. That's been the difficult part. The question is how would we get a viable center back and that's a very difficult question to figure out. The difference between the '60's and now, another difference between the '60's and now was that Republicans and Democrats divided on some issues, other issues, they were all intermingled and, you know, Republicans and Democrats were on the same side, opposite sides, all mixed up and they were not partisan issues. Now, virtually every issue is partisan. And that extends to virtually everything that comes up has a partisan twist to it, is very difficult. And we can't, you know, also forget the presentation of issues and that's, you know, if you think back to the '60's and '70's, news was Walter Cronkite and he talked to everybody. Now, the network news is a much less significant factor, it's not summarized by a Walter Cronkite kind of figure and people have their own news to listen to and it's as polarized as the rest of the world. It's a very difficult thing and it's very difficult to see how to unwind it, except of new issues come up that do cut across party lines that would break open some of the, the sort of rigidities we currently have and allow for some movement to come up that provides for the possibility of at least some degree of overlap between the two parties, some common ground between the two parties. Some way in which you could begin to see the value of bipartisan as well as purely partisan politics.
After another fiercely contested election, political scientist John Aldrich wonders whether America's polarized politics will ever change.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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