Speakers discuss political divides
By Angie Cho, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, August 10, 2012
The Gallup Poll editor-in-chief Frank Newport and Columbia graduate school professor and New York Times reporter Tom Edsall discussed the implications of polarization in American politics as part of the 2012 Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth summer lecture series in Spaulding Auditorium on Wednesday. America has become increasingly politically divided, with both political parties’ platforms becoming more extreme.
Edsall’s presentation, delivered first, was titled “The Roots of Division: Still Widening.” Edsall explained that polarization peaks in America whenever there are “issues that cannot be settled by compromise.” The last such peak was seen from immediately after the Civil War to roughly before the Great Depression, when tensions between farmers and industrialists, gold and silver and trade policy were difficult to alleviate.
Current “uncompromisable issues” that include abortion, gay marriage and taxation continue to split Democratic and Republican votes, Edsall said.
The increase of the minority vote from 13 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2008 has also continued to increase polarization along party lines. Republicans have only seen modest growth compared to Democrats, due to the nature of Republican policies.
“Blacks vote generally Democratic because Republican tax policy has little benefit for minorities, and the possibility of cutting public sector employment or social security would hurt blacks disproportionately,” Edsall said.
Only decades ago, members of Congress were more likely to reach across the aisle in policymaking, but today, they demonstrate more extreme and entrenched ideologies. According to Edsall’s data, Republicans have been the more aggressive drivers of polarization, but both parties have shifted away from moderate policies.
Although polarization has mainly been seen in Congress and other representatives that portray the “elite” of the political world, it is now starting to affect voters.
“The whole process of polarization goes top-bottom,” Edsall said. “We’ve seen a spread from voters heavily in the center in 1984 to a push out to the sides by 2008.”
Polarization has impacted people’s values, their politics, their issue stances and even where they live, according to Edsall. It has even impacted consumer decisions. A chart showed that Subaru and Volvo drivers were very likely to vote Democrat, whereas Jaguar, Lexus and GMC drivers were more likely to lean Republican. Even fast food restaurant decisions can imply something about voters. Popeyes Louisiana Chicken and Church’s Chicken eaters generally demonstrate Democratic values, whereas Cracker Barrel and Chick-Fil-A suggest Republican voters.
Newton’s lecture was titled “The Great Divide: America Splits into Two Partisan Groups.”
“There’s no question that data shows that the country is very polarized,” Newton said. “In result, we’re seeing a lot less agreement in Washington.”
While Newton did not describe this change as positive or negative, he said a party’s agenda should be addressed when looking at the implications.
“The real implication is on voting behavior,” Newton said. “With highly emotional people on either side, [President Barack] Obama and [Gov. Mitt] Romney both need to motivate their base rather than try to change unsupportive voters’ minds.”
Especially during election season, the public can see clearly targeted messages from both candidates that try to satisfy their parties’ bases and moderate voters.
“Obama and Romney both need clear direction, and it’s operative that they can’t solely focus on the base and can’t focus just on the moderates,” Newton said. “That’s the real challenge of their campaign managers.”
While Newton pointed out that this could “lead to major issues in America,” Edsall addressed the major impact on party politics looking into the future.
“The country is steadily moving towards a majority-minority situation, globalization is taking place, the dominance of the U.S. is not guaranteed economically, all while the country is becoming more liberal on social issues,” Edsall said. “This is a tipping point, an intensely bitter moment in American politics.”
Edsall said he predicts that this juncture is an opportunity for the Republican Party to make changes in its direction to ensure future victories.
“[The GOP’s] stance on culture and immigration alienate Hispanics and minorities,” Edsall said. “They can’t maintain these views and be a fully competitive party over time. They may win this election but most strategists know they can’t keep it up.”
This “difficult process of change” is one the public saw the Democratic Party undergo when it lost several consecutive presidential elections in the 1970’s, according to Edsall.
Edsall was less optimistic about the nation’s fiscal direction moving forward. The economic advantages of automation and globalization may cause problems in the future.
“I don’t see either Romney or Obama having an answer for the economy, and there may not be an answer,” Edsall said.
Bruce MacDonald, chair of the ILEAD’s summer lecture series, said that this particular lecture drew one of the largest audiences of the summer.
This summer lecture series includes 13 speakers, the most in the history of the lecture series.
MacDonald, who personally chooses the subject of the lecture series, said he chooses the speakers based on the topics that the committee wishes to cover, such as statistics, impact on education or historical context.
“Even though we don’t pay enough to be competitive, we tend to get a lot of speakers because we find people who have a passion about their subject or some connection to Dartmouth College,” MacDonald said.
The presentations were the fifth installment in the lecture series, called “Polarization: A Dangerously Divided America.” The remaining lectures will take place on Aug. 15 and Aug. 22 from 9 a.m. to noon in Spaulding.