Americans have been deeply divided along political lines in the past: the film Lincoln is all about the brutal factionalism preceding the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Why is the current Congress so divided and ineffective? I suggest that a major factor is the pattern of urbanization and voluntary self-segregation of households over the past generation.
Many analysts are focusing on ideological disagreements. However, compared to decades past, the range of policy options being proposed by leaders is quite small. Consider that income tax was first passed under Teddy Roosevelt in 1913; his nephew Franklin raised the top rate to 70% only 20 years later. And twenty years after that, Dwight Eisenhower raised the top rate to 91% to pay down the war debt! Compared to those massive new federal programs implemented by both Republican and Democratic administrations, Barack Obama’s proposals are extremely modest; he wants to perpetuate George W. Bush’s low tax rates for 98% of Americans. Even the ‘public option’ briefly supported in healthcare reform was fiscally modest. It was “socialist” if we think of Singapore and Britain as Socialist. It bore no resemblance to Soviet policies.
Denigration of the opposing party’s policies is an inevitable feature of open democracy; but the vilification of anything associated with Obama is remarkably intense today. I was most impressed when House Republicans were so intractable over the standard deficit-ceiling bill in 2012 that they actually damaged the credit-rating of the U.S. Treasury. What normally tempers extremist behavior is the need to remain electable. In this system, politicians were considered courageous when they stuck to principles that might cost them re-election. But today, rigidly ideological conservative Republicans stick to principle without apparent fear of electoral repercussions, even if they do damage to the country as a whole. Why not?
A big factor seems to be voluntary self-sorting of Americans into “like-minded communities.” Bill Bishop (2008) observed increasing voluntary self-segregation affecting elections in 2000 and 2004. Though both presidential elections were very close at the national level, there were very few local jurisdictions where the votes were close. Most jurisdictions—counties or cities—had majority/minority splits of 20% or more. What this means for Representatives in the House is that most are in “safe seats.” What it also means is that their constituents rarely know people who hold differing political views.
A recent indication of this pronounced mutual segregation was the apparent cognitive disconnect of Republicans at the loss of Mitt Romney/Ron Paul in the fall of 2012. Romney did not even write a concession speech. I suspect many of his supporters could not imagine that any one would vote for Obama/Biden, because no one they knew would vote for Obama/Biden. Likewise, such constituents might know that their representative is refusing to compromise on legislation, but the legislation might be seen as so ‘wrong’ that it is appropriate to stand on principle, even if it harms the economy and opposes the majority-opinion of the country as a whole. ‘Prevailing national sentiment’ is an abstract concept when is differs from the opinion of everyone you know and respect.
Media segregation parallels spatial segregation. In a world of subscription channels and internet ‘thincasting,’ there is no longer any unified national media. Thus, a person of any particular political stripe can ‘adjust their media channels’ to tune in those whom they agree with, and tune out those with whom they disagree.
This trend has serious implications for the American political future. At the moment, the issues of disagreement are minor (consider the 1865 question of the legality of slavery compared to current questions of revenue/expenditures and gay marriage). Will it be possible to accommodate substantially different policies for different jurisdictions, and remain a single country? If California passes single-payer health care, should Arizonans be denied medical care until they pay a hefty tax? The likely sticking point is the Fourth Article of the Constitution, by which states must recognize property and contracts from other states. But should we consider a national agenda that compels Americans to experience political plurality in order to promote a sense of citizenship?