Folks who grew up in Hawaii have likely heard family stories about parents’ objections to their children marrying someone who’s “different.” “Different” might have meant Korean, or Japanese or haole. In any case it was about race and ethnicity.

Still, as far as intermarriage is concerned, Hawaii has always been a walk in the park compared to the stigma attached to and laws preventing racial intermarriage in the continental United States.

The entire country has come a long way on this. Intermarriage is much more acceptable both in Hawaii and on the continent.

Overall, intermarriage is a declining family issue. What has replaced it is political party affiliation.

Voting booths 2014 general election

It’s not just how they vote. People’s views and behaviors are increasingly affected by the political party they identify with.

Brian Tseng/Civil Beat

There has been a large and significant drop in the percentage of parents who are okay with their children marrying someone from the opposite political party. In 1960 only 5 percent disapproved of such marriage.  In 2010 40 percent (50 percent of the Republicans, 30 percent of Democrats) disapproved.

This disapproval is part of America’s new form of political polarization. Today’s polarization is new because it takes on a different and deeper dimension. It goes well beyond incivility and difference. This new polarization is nastier and more encompassing. It is social and psychological as well as political. It goes where older forms of polarization never went before.

Political polarization itself is not new. Historically, political polarization in the U.S. has been more the rule than the exception.  The period from about 1950 to the late 1970s was the only time when bipartisanship was strong. (See the essays by Nolan McCarty, David W Brady and Hahrie Han in Daniel J. Hopkins and John Sides’ “Political Polarization in American Politics.”)

No More ‘Big Tents’

To understand how polarization has changed, let’s take a brief look at its older forms. Until the 1970s the Republican and Democratic parties had significant differences, but there were enough moderates in both parties to mitigate many of these differences. Everything was not so political. Many issues, including abortion, were not seen as political issues, certainly not as partisan ones.

At least three significant developments changed this. The first is that beginning in the 1970s the Republican Party began an asymmetrical move to the right — asymmetrical in the sense that the GOP moved much farther right than the Democrats moved left. Over time, the Republican Party has become both increasingly conservative and heavily ideological.

The second is that internal divisions within each party began to disappear. Abortion, for instance, became a partisan issue.  There are few anti-abortion Democrats and few pro-choice Republicans. If such people run for political office today, they will almost certainly lose.

Democrats and Republicans

Jared Rodriguez/

Third, once upon a time in those before-they-invented-the-wheel years when I was in graduate school, we learned that each of the two parties was a “big tent” large enough to accommodate a variety of views. That, we learned, was essential for winning elections.

Today these tents are smaller with more restrictive entrances.  Conservatives, you go here — the Republican tent. Liberals, you go to that other one.

Voters may not be more extreme today, but they are now much better sorted in the party system. Compared to those big tent days, conservatives are much more likely to be in the Republican Party. It’s the same with liberals and the Democratic Party. The centrist, moderating influence within each party has disappeared.

The effects of this sorting on Congress? Think of the total disappearance of Southern conservative Democrats and the disappearance of moderate Republicans from everywhere.

Now Democrats and Republicans strongly differ on packages of issues, making it impossible to pass legislation by unbundling one of these issues from the others. 

But, as the public’s changing views on inter-party marriage indicates, the new polarization goes far beyond Congress.

Not Just Wrong, but Morally Bereft

Despite the increase in the number of voters who call themselves independents, party identification has become a powerful guide in new ways. 

Partisanship increasingly determines a person’s positions on issues. “Voters are primarily changing their issue positions to match their partisanship rather than switching to the party that reflects their stance on issues,” wrote Nolan McCarty in “What We know and Do Not Know About our Polarized Politics,” in the Hopkins and Sides book.

For example, when the subject of mandatory vaccination changes from a scientific to a political issue, individuals switch their views about the science to match the views of their political party.

Party identification has increasingly become a significant way that people assess character. Before the new polarization, people disagreed with members of the opposite party but didn’t see them as enemies or an out-group or a threat to America.

Today, according to a number of studies (see Liliana Mason’s “Party Polarization Is Making Us More Prejudiced,” in the Hopkins and Sides book), party identification is now much deeper than just a political cue. It has become a deeply engrained psychological trigger that brings out strong expressions of hostility toward opponents.

“Voters are primarily changing their issue positions to match their partisanship rather than switching to the party that reflects their stance on issues.” — Nolan McCarty

People view the members of the opposite party as out-groups. Opponents are not seen simply as wrong. They are seen as morally bereft. Partisans demonize their opposition. Members of one party don’t simply disagree with an opposing candidate. They get angry with her. Think of how liberals talked about George W Bush or Republicans talk about Barack Obama. For that matter, think about how you talk about the opposition.

If that is how we now roll politically, it is easy to see why a mom and pop wouldn’t want their child to love and cherish to death do them part with “one of those people.”

There are strong parallels between how the rank and file and Congress manifest this new polarization.

Congress is no longer engaged in simply in the old form of polarization. Instead that institution is engaged in what Sean Theriault calls “partisan warfare” (“Partisan Warfare Is the Problem,” in the Sides and Hopkins book). In Congress it is not enough simply to defeat your opponents. You need to humiliate them. You don’t just question the opposition’s judgment.  You also question its motives.

What’s more, the Republican rank and file buttresses this warfare. Surveys over at least the past seven years show that close to 60 percent of the Republican public say that sticking to principles is more important than compromise. Only half that many Democrats agree with that.

That increases the likelihood of gridlock and backstops existing polarization.

Hawaii May be Different

In sum, polarization has changed both in form and in breadth. There is more hate, more anger, more partisan divisiveness, and more politics. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that now everything has become political.

The new polarization is the product of some deep and long-term forces that are very difficult to change. It has taken on a psychological dimension that is very difficult to modify. Anyone who has been through therapy can tell you that.   

Whether you consider Congress or the average person, the issue is far deeper than mere incivility. It is hard to be civil toward a person you hate, distrust, and want to humiliate.

This new polarization is not as evident in Hawaii because, given the weakness of the Republican Party here, there are few opportunities for it to manifest itself.

Has Hawaii changed the same way? Have those deep psychological and partisan structures developed here also? 

We really can’t say because there are no such studies of Hawaii. As I have argued before, we know precious little about Hawaii’s political culture. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know whether interparty marriage has become a bugaboo here?

If so, that could be a real problem for Republican parents because the Republican dating and mating pool is so small.

And that suggests why Hawaii may be different.

Even if these seeds of the new polarization have been planted in Hawaii, this new polarization is not evident because, given the weakness of the Republican Party here, there are few opportunities for it to manifest itself.

If the Republicans ran candidates who were as conservative, ideological, and as interested in political warfare as Congress is, they would lose because there are so few passionate, conservative-leaning voters.

People in Hawaii may not necessarily hate less, but that hate is less likely to manifest itself publicly and politically because here the Democrats are so strong that they don’t need to do that and the Republicans are so weak that the can’t.

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