The Death of Centrism

Our government has reached complete political gridlock thanks to unprecedented congressional partisanship. In the summer of 2011, Congress failed to raise the debt limit—nearly forcing the US to default on its debt payments—until the last moment, only four days before the deadline, because of the inability of Congress to reach compromise. During the Republican presidential primaries, the appeal of extreme right-wing candidates like Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum forced Romney to abandon his moderate past and adopt more extreme conservative values. And now Clint Eastwood is having conversations with an imaginary President Obama at the Republican National Convention as a way of slandering the President’s policies.

When did politics become a theatrical performance in American culture? Why has partisanship become so extreme? What role has the media and the rise of internet-use played in this alarming trend? What role do we, as US citizens, play in perpetuating these biases? Or perhaps more importantly, , how open are we to new ideas that stray from our previous political beliefs? How much of what we read in the news actually has the ability to change our opinion on a subject?

Political science research reveals two prominent trends in the US today:  partisan divisions as well as public distrust in the media have grown drastically in the past twelve years. Partisanship has literally doubled since 1997. The percentage-point gap difference in values between Republicans and Democrats was only 9% in 1997 (Pew Research Center). Today the difference is at 18%, an all-time high. Nearly all of this increase occurred during the Bush and Obama administrations.

Fueling the fire is the fact that members of both parties have become increasingly critical of their elected officials: 71% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats believe their party has not done a good job in defending conservative or liberal values (Pew Research Center). This means members of both parties want their officials to lean even further right or left than the status quo. Dissatisfaction among each party’s base pressures politicians to resist compromise with the other side.

But what is the underlying cause of the public’s dissatisfaction with political parties? Are Democrats and Republicans truly failing to defend liberal and conservative values? Have the political parties become outdated and ineffective? Or is some external factor affecting people’s opinions and perceptions about politics? Causation is always difficult to pinpoint but the recent changes in media—the primary way people learn about news and politics—must have some effect.

During the same period that partisanship drastically increased (2000-2012), a simultaneous increase in distrust of media occurred. The General Social Survey has performed opinion polls about people’s confidence in institutions, including the press, since 1973. While overall public trust in the majority of institutions has remained relatively stable over the past 40 years, there has been a marked decline in public trust of the media.

What changed? Simply put, media has become too big and too fragmented. The days of just a few news stations are long gone. Now viewers enjoy a plethora of choices: MSNBC, CNN, FoxNews, NPR, PBS News Hour, BBC, as well as local news stations. And that doesn’t even include the Internet, which has opened countless outlets for extreme views and tabloid style coverage. The result is that viewers tend to watch the news stations that confirm their own beliefs and read oversimplified coverage of the issues at hand.

However, that doesn’t explain why people so readily discredit news sources that don’t match their beliefs. It’s a commonly cited phenomenon among psychologists that people avoid beliefs and actions that oppose their preconceived notions in order to minimize cognitive dissonance. But this isn’t the only factor present in this situation—politicians themselves have played an important role in discrediting opposing media sources. As Jonathan Ladd, a political scientist at Georgetown, observes, “Party polarization has raised the stakes in elections. And polarization combined with the growth of partisan media options has created an incentive for party leaders and activists to discredit the mainstream media among their supporters.” This reinforces the tendency for Republicans to watch conservative news channels and Democrats to watch liberal news channels.

These developments in media—increasingly fragmented and partisan—mean very few Americans will change their opinions about a given topic because they can so readily discredit opposing views as untrustworthy. This inevitably reinforces biases and partisanship. The relationship between politics and media appears to be a two way street—both reinforce the partisanship of the other. Jonathan Ladd sums up this view well: “It isn’t simply that having rigid and partisan beliefs (or other correlated attributes) causes one to distrust the media. There is also substantial causation flowing in the other direction. Distrusting the media causes people to hold less responsive and more partisan beliefs.”

What does increasing partisanship and decreasing media trust mean for our government and country? The impact on the primary process was readily apparent during the 2012 Republican primaries—the partisan primary process (as opposed to the open primary process) insures that candidates are forced to adopt extreme social platforms to “energize the base.” This, in turn, causes the base to expect the extreme social platform moving forwards. Mitt Romney’s and Jon Huntsman’s experiences in the 2012 Republican primaries revealed that nominees do not win the primaries with moderate platforms. Huntsman stuck to his moderate principles—supporting civil unions for same sex couples and caps on greenhouse emissions—and struggled to maintain 16% of the Republican vote. Romney, meanwhile, abandoned the moderate policies of his terms as governor in order to beat radical right-wing candidates like Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, whose platforms stuck rigidly to extreme conservative values. Increasingly, it seems, politicians can no longer win elections on moderate platforms. The impact is that more partisan, uncompromising politicians are elected to office.

Because of these trends, Congress has reached political gridlock. More so than ever, it is nearly impossible to reach across the aisle and compromise. In his book The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, Mike Lofgren—a former congressional staffer for the Senate and House Budget Committees—explains why he decided to leave Congress, an exemplary insider account of the polarization in Congress that deserves to be quoted at length:

“I saw, just after the elections of late 2010, that the new Republican House was going to use the debt ceiling as a hostage to get what it wanted. When I listened to the rhetoric of some of the freshmen, people like Michele Bachmann, it became evident to me that they didn’t understand [that raising] the debt limit only meant we’re acknowledging the bills we’d already piled up, many of which were voted for by members of Congress already. People were saying well, it really didn’t matter, it’s not a big deal if we default. It is a big deal. And it was a big deal when Standard and Poor’s downgraded us, the sovereign debt of the United States, not because they don’t think we are capable of paying our debts to bond holders but because political gridlock is making it so. This kind of hyperpartisan atmosphere where nothing can get done—the burden became greater than the reward.”

Increasing partisanship and widespread distrust in the media has perpetuated—and continues to reinforce—political polarization and gridlock in Congress. We discredit news sources as untrustworthy if they don’t jive with our views. We blame our politicians for not defending our party’s traditional values. And then we wonder why nothing’s getting done in Congress. In the words of Clint Eastwood in his conversation with a chair symbolizing President Obama, “You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as bad as Biden.”

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