Due to space constraints, I barely scratched the surface of how far into the gutters the political discourse remains in my first Understanding the News post last week. Here are the titles of a few recent sample threads on the Democratic Underground site: “Teabaggers: Tools of Bin Laden?” “FUCK YOU CONDI RICE.” “An Open Letter to Delusional Rightwing Folks.” Not to be outdone, here are a few excerpts from posters on the right-wing forum Free Republic: “These presstitutes make me sick!” “‘I had no hesitation about taking a human life’… Neither did Stalin. You can’t have a moral dilemma when you have no sense of morality.” “We all know his pappy is a commie, his momnie [sic] is a comie [sic] and that he aint a po azz black boy down fo de struggle. He was raised a privileged white communist punk by his rich ass grandparents.”
I edited these out of my original post fairly early on (and in fact I’m missing even more such comments as a result of my quick hatcheting) because anyone like me can cherrypick the worst comments from public forums where anyone can post like DU and Free Republic, but as I hinted at in my original post when I talked about how partisan views can be self-reinforcing, extreme viewpoints have a tendency to go unchallenged, and hence increasingly legitimized, on partisan forums. For one thing, extreme viewpoints tend to be more vocal about it. This isn’t just a tendency inherent in the positions themselves (the status quo is more of an outrage the further your own position is from it). Consider a hypothetical Democratic message board, with posts from various parts of the spectrum represented. Some posts may be very moderate, others may be all-out Marxist, but they all share one thing in common: assuming there are no trolls, they are probably all in disagreement with the Republicans. Indeed, to feel strongly enough to sign up for an explicitly Democratic message board, one is probably not terribly moderate.
That means there are certain micro-level issues that all of the board’s members are in agreement on. Whenever there is a thread on one of these micro-level issues, the extreme Marxists and the relative moderates will have scarcely any difference between them, in theory. But on issues that might produce more controversy, the moderates are less likely to speak up, because they might be construed as agreeing with the enemy. (In my experience, individual posters tend to have less individual identity on the most popular political message boards.) On the other hand, those that hold relatively extreme positions just on the fringes of what is considered acceptable are allowed to speak freely. Their positions are legitimized, allowing new frontiers to be opened and eventually closing off more moderate positions as the social controls against dissent take effect.
Despite the seeming demise of any principles with which to define and control society – from the naked greed of large corporations to the demands for rights coming from any corner large and loud enough to be heard – the tendency to make such rules, and form societal associations organized around these rules, is endemic. We find it anywhere you look in society, wherever cliques or subcultures are found, and one ignores or underestimates this basic tendency of human nature at their peril. Right now such tendencies have put us on the brink of the abyss, and while I’m still not certain what needs to happen, something definitely needs to happen. Congress will only find the middle ground when America as a whole will, so let’s put together each side’s solutions and the problems with each, and find a way to solve those problems, reason out why one solution is ultimately better than the other, find a solution that incorporates the best of both sides, or at least come to an understanding of each position.
In addition to everything I suggested in my original post, this will require a voice for moderate voices that can recognize the merits of each side and point out their flaws, and hopefully suggest synthesized solutions. The aim is not so much to convince either side so much as to provide a voice for the silent majority in the middle. But for the same reasons mentioned before, moderates tend not to care as much about politics, at least if they’re prone to seek compromise, because they tend not to have very solid views (given their propensity to waver between them) and tend to be okay with whatever comes out, if they even pay attention to politics given how little they care about them. And once again, they’re not likely to escape charges of bias, and may even show some real bias if they become increasingly convinced one side is superior to the other. The entrenchment of our political positions works to keep them from leaving the trenches, and I don’t know how to break the cycle.
I will say that our present system of electing our government on a geographical basis, though it appears reasonable at first glance, does not encourage healing the divide or giving a voice to moderates. Political positions have always been partly geographically determined, whether it was the north being against slavery and the south being for it before the Civil War, or urban areas being more Democratic and rural areas more Republican now. The result is that, even without much gerrymandering, districts have a tendency to become “safe” for one party or the other, which does not encourage and, with our increasing partisan divide, may even discourage the election of moderates. This makes it easier for Congress to reflect the partisan divide in the rest of the country; moderates do get elected, but they do not tend to have much of a voice, especially since their districts may be more vulnerable, and they risk being demonized on the national level among their nominal peers, as Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter know well; better to give the leadership positions to those more likely to stay in Congress longer. (I don’t believe changing this necessarily requires amending the Constitution, which to my knowledge only governs the division of representation among the states, not that those representatives need to be elected by geographic sub-divisions.)
The geographical system of electing our Congressmen is not the only aspect of our electoral system that furthers the divide. Our “first-past-the-post” plurality system of voting discourages the formation of more than two parties, as should be obvious to anyone who sat through the effect of Ralph Nader on the 2000 presidential election; any viable third party needs to be able to attract exactly as many people from each side. With only two parties, polarization is all too easy; with at least three, one party can synthesize the best ideas of the other two and come up with some ideas of their own that might be better than that suggested by either side. There are ways to address both problems, but I’ll save them for future posts because they’ll take quite a bit of explaining.