Friday, January 9, 2009

Rampant Individualists and Puritanical Ideologues

I. Rampant Individualism

In William Hudson’s book, American Democracy in Peril, he introduces us to a problem with American democracy that stems from the radical individualism of US culture. The unique political history of the United States has created an entire mythos of individualism – Tocqueville noticed it early on in America and it continues to pervade our culture. Models of heroic individualism abound from Clint Eastwood’s character “the man with no name” to Science Fiction’s Luke Skywalker (Hudson, p.59). For better or worse Americans perceive their success and failure as determined solely on the basis of their own ability and hard work (p.60).

Tocqueville was wary of this brand of individualism. He feared that by concerning themselves only with their own affairs, always succeeding and failing alone, people would neglect larger problems which required the cooperation of the community as a whole (p.63). However, Tocqueville also believed that the people of the fledging United States possessed a counterbalancing remedy to the problems inherent in an individual centered society: mass involvement in civic and social associations. Interactions in civic institutions such as Town Hall meetings, cultivated the necessary empathy and perspective which helps create a sense of community necessary to cooperation in addressing social ills (p.64). He calls this the “habits of the heart” necessary for democracy (p. 64).

Hudson introduces us to Putnam’s theory of “social capitol” (p.76). Social capitol is the accumulation of networks of interconnectedness, trust, and reciprocity that benefit people. In a study of communities in Italy, Putnam found that communities with high levels of civic involvement had more effective governments and were economically prosperous – better school systems, better economic development, better health care and environmental protections (p.76). In America Putnam has discovered that social capitol is alarming low (p.77). It follows that in modern communities, as in older American ones, civic involvement has had the effect of creating a personal stake in the success of government institutions; Thus, bringing the need for individual success into better alignment with the success of the larger social body.

However, even the benefits of social interaction, cannot produce the necessary perspective if Americans choose to follow their individualistic impulses and section themselves off in geographic regions of like-minded individuals. According to Hudson US culture has become suburbanized (p. 67). Schisming themselves off from society as a whole, Americans are no longer interacting with people from different socio-economic positions (p. 67). People are no longer acquiring the requisite empathy for solving national problems and become positioned in camps of mutual self-interest.

The prisoner’s dilemma manifests itself as communities lose out on maximal outcomes by competing rather than cooperating (p.69). The bidding wars between Logan and Providence each new grocery store serves as an example. By cutting taxes and fees, both communities lose lots of potential revenue, because they’re narrowly self-interested and must ensure some level of economic development. However if the two communities cooperated and determined some mutual incentive package, both communities would be able to maximize revenue while still attracting businesses to their community. This prisoner’s dilemma also plays out in the Congress where individual-focused, rights-rhetoric abusing advocacy groups dominate the discourse and drown out the voices for broad-based social reform (p. 70). Rampant individualism prevents the broad consensus necessary to bring meaningful reform to fruition.

II. The Polarization Debate

In Red and Blue Nation Nivola and Brady explore the possibility of increased in polarization over the last few decades in attempt to determine both the extent of polarization and the possible impacts to US of A politics. While somewhat irresolute in their analysis, Nivola and Brady give us the benefit of eliciting several important sites for examination of whether or not polarization will intensify.

Ultimately, I think the analysis trends in favor of increased polarization. Large cultural trends are sorting the American people along party lines. The end of the Dixiecrats ended a line of strong socially conservative Democrats and allowed a political purification of sorts to occur in the political platforms of the Democratic and Republican candidates. While a few key politicians remain centrist and allow the gears of Congress to continue grinding, the majority of Congress members have now divided themselves into ideological camps along partisan lines (p.20 - 22). Nivola and Brady analysis agrees that to the degree to which polarization has occurred, it happened along ideological lines. In fact, there has actually been “depolarization among Americans when classified by age, education, race, sex, and even religion” (p.8). However, among partisans polarization has drastically increased, most likely as they follow cues from the national politicians (p. 8-9). Roe v. Wade and the Iraq War have created deep disagreements that transcend age, race and gender (p. 11).

Another affect on polarization is the increase in Congressional “safe-districts” combined with the effect of direct primary elections. Whether the increase in safe-districts is due to gerrymandering or Fiorina-style Congress members focused on constituent service is largely unimportant. Either way, Congress members’ policy options are much less of a liability in general election. The general community is thus relegated a degraded position in relation to the primary voters that the candidate needs to get re-elected (p. 26). Primary voters are more issue-oriented and more likely to be strong partisans than people in the general electorate (p.26). The safer-congress people become the more important it is for them to “cover their flanks” by listening to the demands of increasing polarized partisans (p. 27).

This could be bad, as Nivola and Brady predict that as polarization increases so to will the gridlock of Government, systems of entitlement, the abuse of the court system, and popular distrust of government (p. 35 -41).

Nivola and Brady present several instances which play well with the theme of American individualism propounded by Hudson. For instance, Nivola and Brady recognize that along with the creation of Congressional “safe-districts” there has been an increased level of self-sorting at an intra-district level which is sifting people into politically homogenous zones. This contributes somewhat to Hudson’s argument that suburbanization is being driven by an individualistic search for like-mindedness. Nivola and Brady refer to this increase in geographic and partisan like-mindedness as “territorial differentiation” (p. 45).

Likewise, they explain the apparent polarization of the American electorate as a result of the splintering of American media due to advances in technology (p. 17). This is another link in the territorialization of US culture. As highly individualistic creatures, Americans select media which comports to our predispositions. Just as Americans move to be surrounded by people like themselves, they also demand media which reflects their individual perspective. The affordable automobile made geographic political territorialization possible – Now television, cable channels and the internet have made it possible to territorialize the byways of mass communication. In both instances, advances in technology have allowed Americans to satiate their desire to express their unbridled individuality through the matrix of consumer choice.

III. Purist Ideologues

According to Professor Fiorina, the polarization or “Culture War” currently happening in the US is not one of deep irreconcilable differences among the population in general (p. 92). Normal people, or the people who make up the majority of the electorate, are moderate and ambivalent in their politics (p. 94). They cluster in the middle between conservative and liberals. Polarization has not occurred among the general public, in fact rather than seeing more conservatives and liberals, there is actually a greater proportion of moderates than ever before (p. 95). The battle which is taking place is marked by the “ascendancy of the purists” (p. 93).

Only the most interested people are willing to take the time to get involved in government. With the decrease in political involvement, due to decreases in material benefit by breaking down party power and increased reliance in mass media, makes this general rule more applicable than ever (p. 94 – 95). The people who are willing to get involved are those who are driven by a strong ideology. Thus, the most interested tend to be the most liberal and most conservative portions of the electorate (p. 100). One consequence of this is through the selection of candidates in primary elections. Candidates are driven to appeal to the margins of the political spectrum in order to win (p. 103). On this point Nivola, Brady and Fiorina are all in agreement – primary elections “stoke the flames of polarization” (Nivola and Brady p. 26).

Fiorina goes on to describe the ways in which every public institution from how from local government to the halls of Congress has become the realm of purist crusaders (p.100). The Natural Areas Program in San Francisco is a perfect example. This local agency was given a little power to protect the environment by eliminating alien species. Accordingly they began removing trees from local parks and replacing them with poisonous oaks – naturally occurring, but extremely unpopular to the general public (p.101). These special interests are “hi-jacking democracy” according to Fiorina, by diverting attention from the issues that most concern typical Americans (p. 100 – 103).

Fiorina and Hudson certainly agree that special interests, not interested in broad consensus solutions, have hi-jacked Congress and government in general. However, Fiorina style polarization is much more dangerous than the polarization of Nivola and Brady. In Red and Blue they say that polarization may actually be a good thing because it provides a clear choice for the American electorate (p. 14). However, if polarization follows Fiorina’s model, the issues that matter will never be the focus of elections because they’ll always be marginalized by the distorting clamor of the purists (p. 101). Also, Fiorina’s purist looks a great deal like Hudson’s radical individualist in that both are more focused on a narrow agenda and disinterested in policies designed to benefit society as a whole.

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