June 6, 2012

The Pew Research Center has just released a new survey showing what people have been saying all along, that our political parties have become increasingly polarized over the last few decades;  Republican voters have become a lot more consistently conservative, and  Democrats have become significantly more liberal. At the same time, differences of opinion between age groups, genders, classes, etc, have remained stable.

Part of this seems to be due to more moderate people leaving the parties altogether, becoming self-identified Independents; though even among Independents, those leaning Republican have gotten more conservative and those leaning Democratic have gotten more liberal.

It isn’t clear, at least from my cursory glance at the survey, to what extent people within each party have changed their minds about the issues, and to what extent people have kept their opinions and simply switched to the part that better reflects them. Clearly a lot of the latter has been going on; white Southern conservatives for instance used to be notoriously loyal to the Democratic party, and have now largely become Republican. A lot of moderate-to-liberal ex-Republicans here in New England, at the same time, have switched to Dem or Ind, saying that in fact their party has left them by pursuing a Southern/Evangelical strategy. But I think that on certain issues, like for instance matters relating to sexual morality, there has also been change within our partisan sub-cultures; positions have been evolving, as the President has said of himself.

To some extent this increasing polarization was a deliberate goal of the Conservative Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s; there was a feeling that we’d be better off if the parties stood for coherent ideologies, so voters could know what to expect when they elected someone from one party or the other. The Goldwater candidacy not only represented in itself a triumph of conservatism within the GOP, it sealed the triumph by beginning the abovementioned process of Southern white voters giving up their former (going back to the Civil War era) party loyalty. Once the Southerners were in the party, it became a lot harder for liberal/moderate Republicans to retain any influence at all. Of course Goldwater himself didn’t seal the deal for the party as a whole, he just created a rationale that linked opposition to civil rights with traditional Republican economics; he made it possible to say “I’m not a racist, I just don’t think government should be controlling who people can hire or do business with.” He opened the door, but in 1968 the Deep South reverted to its “Dixiecrat” voting habits; it took another four years for Nixon to sweep the whole South, including the parts that had shown Republican tendencies earlier but then reacted to Goldwater the way the rest of the country did.

And there was Vietnam. Failure of the Democratic party to manage the split in opinion between the anti-war youth and their “Greatest Generation” elders created a sense among many Americans that as extreme as Goldwater Republicanism was, the extremism of Democrats on the left was more dangerous. And there were the sexual issues. A lot of voters who never for a moment embraced GOP economic doctrines nevertheless embraced the party itself as being more patriotic and more devoted to traditional life-style values. To some extent we’ve gotten beyond that, as the sixties youth have aged into the demographic mainstream, at the same time mellowing in some ways – largely giving up our anti-capitalism under pressure of reality, while keeping our old belief in radical equality and sexual freedom; learning to respect those who serve in the military, while remaining dubious about militarism as an approach to foreign policy.

So here we are. That’s all I have time to write today; more later.



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