When Animosity Is Expected (2016 Jan)

by Barry A. Liebling

In 2015 academic investigators Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood published a paper in the American Journal of Political Science that argues that the animosity Democrats and Republicans have for one another is higher now than at any time during the last half century. On the basis of four studies reported in their paper they conclude that Democrats and Republicans discriminate against one another and feel ill will not only in the political domain but also in the business and personal (that is, non-political) arenas. https://pcl.stanford.edu/research/2014/iyengar-ajps-group-polarization.pdf

It is noteworthy that the inter-party hostility detected by the authors may be an overestimation of Democrat-Republican animus in the real (outside of the academic laboratory) world. The investigators used “implicit measures” that gauge “attitudes that are uncontaminated by social desirability biases and … capture unconscious attitudes that are difficult to manipulate.” This means they had their research participants answer questions where responses that are counted as “hostile” are so subtle that the participants (and the writer of this column) might plausibly argue that no animus was intended. The possibility of “hostile” false alarms in the research is sizable.

Despite the possible difficulties with the investigators’ methodology there is a lot of independent evidence that supports their general conclusion. The news media is saturated with examples where Democrats and Republicans display not only rivalry but emotional antipathy for one another. Also, a year before the Iyengar and Westwood study was published the Pew Research Center reported on a large scale survey that documented that polarization between Democrats and Republicans is accelerating. http://www.alertmindpublishing.com/data/columns-for-2014/polarized-america-good-2014-jul/

Of course, personal animus between members of the two main political parties is not a good state of affairs. But it seems to be especially troubling to members of the mainstream, leftist punditry. Several commentators proclaim dismay that Democrats and Republicans are increasingly at odds. Recently, a BusinessWeek editorial lamented the rift and longed for the days where Democrats and Republicans would routinely “reach across the aisle” to work in concert so that government would “get things done.” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-17/why-this-year-s-christmas-season-is-so-angry

How should the increasing affective divide between Democrats and Republicans be interpreted? Here are some observations.

Most members of the Democratic party and the Republican party have little expertise or interest in political philosophy. Loyalty to a party to the largest segment of voters is parallel to loyalty to a sports team – based on habit and sentiment more than on carefully considered ideological positions. However, each party has some members who can articulate values which inspire their politics.

People in the Democratic party who think through their positions disagree on a host of particulars, but what they have in common is their misguided view of the proper role of government – the perpetual expansion of the welfare state. If there are problems in the country the default solution is government action. The state should enact new laws, “make investments,” and supervise people’s lives. Alternatively, when things are going well and citizens are generally prosperous, Democratic planners are convinced that the country could be improved if the government would “step in and make things even better.”

Republicans who articulate their desired policies are heterogeneous compared to Democrats. Some who view themselves as “mature and realistic” believe their proper role is to manage the welfare state more efficiently than the Democrats. Others, see themselves as “conservatives” who are intent on preserving old traditions (because they are tried and true) and slowing down new policies (because they are untried). Only a small proportion of Republican thinkers oppose the Democratic welfare state in principle. Those few appreciate and promote an agenda of liberty where the role of government is strictly limited to protecting individual rights.

The rift between Democrats and Republicans is due largely to the increase in both parties of members who are ideological. The antagonists in each party judge their own policy preferences as morally correct and the desired policies of the opposition as seriously flawed.

Notice that political polarization is an indication that the main parties are evolving in a serious way. They are really standing for philosophically different views of government, and by extension, attitudes about what constitutes proper actions in the private realm. And this explains why leftist commentators are especially unhappy with what is occurring. If Democrats and Republicans are just like sports teams (where their beliefs are not so different from one another) it is easy to bring about compromise. And a compromise between the Democrats who want many more government programs and the Republicans who half-heartedly say they want fewer programs favors the Democrats. The deal struck between the two parties will always be somewhere in the middle. And the result is that government gets more intrusive.

Also observe that the increased antipathy Democratic and Republican party members have for one another is explicable. Each side suspects (or knows) that what they consider to be the right way to act is inimical with their opponents’ strong preferences. They are discriminating on the basis of features that really count – the content of a person’s character. It makes sense that bad feelings will spread from the purely political realm to the everyday world.

Of course, in the long run it is not desirable for large segments of citizens to have animus for one another. This can best be resolved if those who understand the importance of liberty make their case persuasively to a larger proportion of voting citizens. Both Democrats and Republicans need to get a clear grasp of why freedom is essential.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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