Transpartisan Note #104
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
Signs of discontent with our polarized politics are everywhere: survey data on voter opinions; the number of citizens registering Independent (43%), more than either Democrat or Republican; even larger numbers of people alienated from the major parties (as many as two-thirds of age-eligible citizens avoiding association with either party, more than the combined numbers of both).
Despite signs of discontent and increasing efforts to promote a collaborative politics — and increasing reports of transpartisan undertakings in local venues such as those reported by James and Deborah Fallows in their book Our Towns — it is hard to see more than fleeting signs of the transpartisan vision taking root in promoting greater collaboration in national politics.
National politicians seem to be playing a game that minimizes or disregards the concerns and interest of their local communities. One place to search for possible explanations for this local national disconnect begins with revisiting the causes and role of conflict.
After World War II, social, cultural and political polarization first appeared during the 1960s over policy failures on race and Vietnam. Demands for self-expression were changing all social relationships, and tradition was retreating everywhere.
Relationships based on self-expression tend to be torn by conflict especially compared to those influenced by tradition. During the sixties the mass media became a major influence on public perceptions of political events, and the media’s business model — marketing audiences to advertisers — systematically encouraged them to report on and thus encourage conflict.
The forces promoting self-expression and weakening tradition — fueled by the forty-hour work week, interstate highways, communication technology, the birth control pill, and increasing incomes — drove the final third of the 20th century. These same forces have accelerated in the 21st century.
The greatest changes in the past seventy years involve a weakening of adversity. People’s material lives have continued to improve. Throughout history, until the end of World War II, the threat of war and of economic privation actively promoted strong and active, social cooperation and individual responsibility. As peace predominated American life and material poverty declined individuals felt less pressure to cooperate and more desire to express themselves.
The end of war, as a social norm for the United States, first became symbolically obvious when President Johnson said we could fight the Vietnam War and still have ‘guns and butter’. During wars before Vietnam, we only had guns; there was no butter. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of the declining role of war in shaping the national identity was the end of the draft in 1973.
While many people remain economically ‘poor’ in the U.S. their poverty is only relative compared to other countries, where people are much poorer. (According to the Census Bureau September 2017 poverty report the official US poverty rate is 12.7 percent, with an estimated 43.1 million Americans living in poverty.)
The US poverty problem is relative rather than absolute. This relative poverty creates a subjective challenge in place of the previous objective challenge. People can stay alive. But they appear to have (and in fact have) fewer economic assets than those they see around them, especially on TV.
Technology has played an obviously huge role. The scale of change is especially obvious from the details of change. An example is the invention of the transistor, which made it possible to build electronic devices that were originally enormous then became small enough to fit into one’s pocket or purse right next to the birth control pill.
Continued reading: Challenges of Gaining Transpartisan Traction, Part 2