According to a recent Pew Research Foundation report, liberals and conservatives live in different worlds. The report depicts a society where finding common ground to confront shared problems is all but impossible. Pew’s research provides empirical evidence for the common-sense notion that America’s political culture is broken.
The report details how those on the Left and the Right do not talk with one another, have separate social networks, different values, consume different news media, live in neighborhoods with politically like-minded people, and possess different attitudes about America’s changing ethnic and racial demographics.
The report notes that "far more liberals than conservatives think it is important that a community have racial and ethnic diversity (76% vs. 20%). At the same time, conservatives are more likely than liberals to attach importance to living in a place where many people share their religious faith (57% vs. 17% of liberals).”
Most importantly, the Left and the Right cannot agree on basic facts about the nature of empirical reality. Movement conservatives are immersed in a fantasy land of mythological thinking on a range of issues from global warming and science to the economy and foreign policy.
Liberals and conservatives are also unable to agree on the nature of the common good and the role to be played by the social compact in American life.
As Pew’s new report suggests, how can a society come together to solve its problems if its members cannot agree on basic facts?
While little discussed in the report, attitudes about race and the color line are central fissures in polarized America. The oft-discussed “browning of America,” and the country’s changing demographics, are a source of anxiety for many white Americans. The ahistorical claim (whiteness is an expanding and adaptive racial category; there are “white” people today who would not have been considered white in the earlier parts of the 20th and 19th centuries) that in the near future white people will no longer be a majority group in the United States is a potent tool for white conservatives to mobilize their base through division and fear.
A sophisticated and nuanced understanding of American politics requires that one grapple with white supremacy’s enduring power to shape the political terrain of the United States. Extreme political polarization is a reflection of how the Republican and Democratic parties have positioned themselves on questions of race and social equality. The Democratic Party is identified as the party of “racial minorities.” The Republican Party is almost exclusively white. Consequently, both organizations have crafted political strategies which they believe best leverage their voting public.
The Democratic Party is more inclusive and seeks to maintain and expand its support among people of color. The Republican Party has chosen from the Southern Strategy of the late 1960s onward, to use white identity politics, and a mix of overt and covert racist appeals, to mobilize white voters.
The Tea Party, the most powerful faction in the GOP, is a typical example of that process: its members are more racially resentful, have higher levels of white racial animus than “mainstream” conservatives, and are beginning to think of their political interests in explicitly racial terms.
And because the Republican Party is increasingly dependent on a shrinking base of older white conservatives voters, its leaders have decided to pursue a strategy of voter suppression, harassment and intimidation to limit access to the franchise by non-whites as a way of gaining an electoral advantage.
Racial attitudes and partisanship are deeply intertwined: together they have created the highly polarized American public.
The election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, has been the political equivalent of pouring gasoline on dynamite. Obama is both black and a Democrat. He is the public face and leader of the Democratic Party. This is a perfect storm for white racial animus and extreme partisanship by the white right and the Tea Party GOP.
Hofstader’s famous “paranoid style in American politics” has combined with white supremacy and a right-wing propaganda machine to create a state of derangement among conservatives where the madness of birtherism, their Benghazi fetish-obsession, “death panels,” the Tea Party GOP’s embrace of the neoconfederacy and the American swastika (i.e. the Confederate flag), talk of secession and nullification, right-wing domestic terrorism, and an unprecedented lawsuit by Speaker of the House John Boehner against a sitting President, are accepted as normal politics.
Perhaps even more troubling, is how this destructive and seditious behavior is elevated as virtuous and “patriotic” by the right-wing media.
The symbolic power of a black man and his family in the White House, as well as Obama’s power as President of the United States, are unacceptable for contemporary white conservatives because their America was, is, and must always be a white republic. As demonstrated by recent research from UCLA’s Michael Tesler, the election of Barack Obama has activated “old-fashioned racism” and white racial resentment to such a degree that they now over-determine how white voters decide their partisan affiliation.
After at least two full decades of being unrelated to party identification, both old fashioned racism and anti-black affect have once again become significantly linked to white partisanship in the age of Obama.
The reaction by movement conservatives to the election of Barack Obama has destroyed any hopes that America is now a “post-racial society” or has moved "beyond race.” Tesler’s research on the relationship between white racial animus and partisan identification offers a chilling warning for the future of American politics along the colorline:
With Barack Obama now the Democratic face of partisan politics in America, though, the party identifications of the next cohort entering the electorate could be much more racialized. If the effect of Obama’s prominence is, in fact, to racialize this generation’s partisan attachments, the logical consequence would be a renewed alignment of party identification around race and racial attitudes in the years ahead.
If political polarization is threatening to break the American political order, the power of white racism and white racial resentment will make the United States’ politics even more dysfunctional.
White racism has a blast effect which hurls shrapnel at the common good and sabotages efforts to find shared solutions to issues of public concern. If as the Pew Research Center suggests, polarization has in fact broken American politics, then white racism is central to that outcome.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin is an excellent example of how racial segregation and political polarization have combined to create a dysfunctional politics. Milwaukee is (depending on the measures used) one of the most segregated cities in the United States. It is also in a highly contested swing-state where Republicans and Democrats battle for votes in counties and districts which are typified by strong partisan attachments and racial homogeneity. The Journal Sentinel’s special report on political polarization in Milwaukee explains how:
The city of Milwaukee is "majority minority," with blacks and Hispanics together (56% of the city's population) outnumbering whites. But the suburban counties of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee are less than 2% African-American and less than 5% Hispanic. The decades long migration into those counties has been almost exclusively white, and that has shaped the political map....
When political scientist Katherine Levine Einstein looked at metro areas with the most polarized terrains, she found they all ranked high in black-white segregation. As the nation has grown more diverse, the voting gap between whites and nonwhites also has grown. Milwaukee is more politically segregated than almost any other large northern metro.
"Racial segregation really is driving political segregation," says Einstein, a Milwaukee native and Boston University professor who is writing a book on political segregation in metropolitan America…
However, there are politically “neutral” projects, such as improving public transportation, roads, and water projects that should cross divides of race and party.
In Milwaukee, and other cities like it, this is not the case.
Professor Katherine Einstein offers a dim prognosis:
Einstein spoke Thursday at a one-day conference on "Dividing Lines," a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series charting Milwaukee's growing political chasm. Marquette University Law School and the Journal Sentinel sponsored the event.
Einstein said her research showed political polarization can hinder regional cooperation.
“Things like mass transit, affordable housing, when they’re done on the regional level,” can enhance life for not just those in inner cities, but also for those in the suburbs, she said…
“When we’re trying to predict political polarization in metropolitan areas, the real story is race,” Einstein said.
Einstein said that more racially segregated areas show much higher levels of political polarization. Milwaukee is among the most racially segregated cities in America.
She said more politically polarized metropolitan areas exhibit more fragmented transit systems and are less able to plan together.
Discussing trends for the future, she asked, “Is there any room for optimism?”
She quickly answered her question: “Not really.”
The extreme political polarization documented by the Pew Research Foundation, and its relationship to white racial resentment and old fashioned racism, reflect a series of choices made by policy makers, the media, and other political actors on the Right.
Political polarization is part of a broader move in the Age of Austerity, neoliberalism, and the resulting “culture of cruelty,” to gin up white racism and racial resentment as a means of destroying the social safety net, criminalizing the working classes and the poor, and transferring more public and private resources to the 1 percent and the plutocrats.
The Republican Party’s language of “makers and takers” is a not too subtle cue that mobilizes white racial hostility and resentment towards black and brown people, as well as the poor and working classes, who are depicted as “useless eaters” who are “stealing” the resources of “White America” and a parasitic 1 percent—that latter being a group that through rent seeking behavior (see the Great Recession slogan “too big to fail”), corporate welfare, and a rigged tax code are extracting far more wealth and resources than they are contributing to American society.
The Republican Party’s long-term project is to destroy the legitimacy of the federal government.
The election of Barack Obama is a convenient means to that end: white hostility toward the United States’ first black president can be used to persuade white conservative voters to support policies that do not serve their economic interests. Unfortunately, for too many white American voters, the symbolic politics of white supremacy are more compelling than finding shared solutions to common economic challenges and problems across lines of race, class and party.
The Tea Party GOP’s efforts to “make the government weak enough to drown in a bathtub like a baby” have been advanced through unprecedented levels of obstructionism in Congress, as well as overt racial and hyper-partisan hostility toward Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, respectively.
The White Right’s politics of racial resentment and ideological extremism will continue for a number of reasons. White racial anxiety about changing demographics is pushing aging white voters into the arms of the Tea Party GOP. An assault on the voting rights of black and brown people, the young, as well as the poor and working classes, is amplifying the power of white conservative voters.
New research by Amy Krosch and David Amodio of New York University has suggested that as resources become scarcer, white Americans will become more racially tribalistic as a sense of racial group interest and threat is activated. This provides an incentive to continue with the politics of austerity because those policies could potentially convert white voters to the Republican Party.
The Republican Party’s perverse, destructive and irresponsible behavior will both continue and increase in the future because said actions pay political dividends.
The Pew report on political polarization in American politics is a warning about a future where austerity, racism and political polarization have destabilized and shattered the centrist norms that once made American democracy a model system for the rest of the world.