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Prince: The Biggest Problem When It Comes to Polarization

“As Mayor Koch used to say: ‘If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.'”

A column in The Globe and Mail put it best: “Today, feminism is not so much a movement as a grab bag for the usual assortment of progressive causes. ‘Free birth control and Palestine,’ one popular sign said, which about sums it up. If you believe in one, then you’re assumed to automatically believe in the other one.”

The author, Margaret Wente, might have been referring specifically to feminism, but her observation is emblematic of our polarized times. Knowing a person’s party identification these days tells us far more than it should. It can indicate with an alarming level of confidence where a voter stands on a litany of issues, many of which have little more to do with one another than happening to occupy real estate on the typed platform of the Democratic Party or the GOP.

If you identify as part of the conservative team, one can guess rather confidently that you support both low taxes and guns. And if you’re on the liberal side, you’re probably behind labor unions and against abortion restrictions, issues that do not necessarily seem all that related.

Sometimes this goes even further, and allegiance to one’s political team can lead adherents to support positions that even seem contradictory. Perhaps, one opposes “corporate welfare,” unless it applies to tax breaks for Hollywood or believes that government should stay out of one’s personal life, unless the issue is gay marriage.

Who can forget when the Democratic Party, the party of free choice, decided in the 1990’s to begin opposing tobacco use, and liberal leaders lined up in the lockstep behind the change? Parties take stances for a variety of reasons, many of which have more to do with electoral strategy than ideology, while voters scramble to rationalize away any apparent contradictions.

Commentators bemoaning our current age of divisiveness blame everything from gerrymandering to the polarized media. Perhaps, though, we should start with the obvious: it’s time for voters to take it upon themselves to remove their partisan glasses and treat issues independently from the positions the two parties have happened to stake out.

We live in a two-party system in a polarized age. Allegiance to party, as we know, clouds our objectivity, and we begin to see the world through the lens of our party. Take, for example, the chasm between voters when it comes to whether they believe Russia plans to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections: according to an NBC News poll conducted earlier this year, 80% of Democrats as compared to 34% of Republicans believe Russia is on the warpath. As the saying goes, “You stand where you sit.”

This natural inclination towards groupthink might be quite natural, but these times don’t help. As more and more candidates from the ideological extremes are elected to Congress (In 1971, an astounding 45.1% of the body warranted the classification of “moderate”; today, only 2.7% fit that bill), there is an incentive to hunker down and behave as strong partisans rather than reaching across the aisle.

From congressional leadership on down, the emphasis is on towing the party line rather than viewing issues separate from the party platform. Thus, it’s not surprising to observe formerly pro-life legislators such as Bob Casey (D-Pa) getting higher and higher ratings from pro-choice watchdog groups. A culture of stonewalling and party-line votes seeps down to voters, inflaming the preexisting, human tendency towards tribalism.

Muzafer Sherif and colleagues, in what became known as the “Robbers Cave experiment,” took a group of young boys from a similar middle-class, Protestant background in Oklahoma, arbitrarily divided them into two teams, and then had the boys compete in various activities from baseball to tug of war. The two teams, nearly identical in their composition at the start of the experiment, found themselves raiding each other’s cabins, burning the flag of the rival team, and refusing to eat together in the mess hall. Were it not for the intervention of the researchers, they would have come to blows on several occasions. If this is what happens to kids playing camp games, imagine what happens when ideology gets involved.

Viewing issues as they come rather than tailoring our opinions to justify the view of the party is hard. But we must do better than just mindlessly regurgitating our party’s pros and cons. As Mayor Koch used to say: “If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist”.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder at Merion West.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.