Before his recent death Sen. John McCain sent a letter to the American people saying in part, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”
His words were the guiding light for his eulogists as well as for national good government organizations like No Labels (motto: “stop fighting, start fixing”). Bipartisanship is doing what’s right for your country even if it is unpopular with your party.
Sounds terrific, so rational, so patriotic. Who doesn’t support this?
Answer? The American people.
John McCain represented an increasingly rare breed of politician who would at least occasionally rise above partisanship.
Flickr: Gage Skidmore
Much evidence indicates that those sentiments are wishful thinking. People are a lot more comfortable with their partisanship and much less interested in a common ground or a middle ground than the eulogists think.
“Do you want to choose a different path?” The New Labels manifesto asks. “A path that includes a problem-solving president and a functioning Congress. A path that includes a new governing process where we actually agree on where we need to go as a country — and then collaborate to find a way to get there together.”
Most people might not reject that path outright, but when you look closer at what they value and how they vote, well then …
Here are four reasons why the anti-tribalism view doesn’t square with what’s going on in the minds of voters.
• First, the 2018 midterms are driven far more by partisanship and polarization than by a desire for moderation and mutual problem solving.
A recent survey showed that Americans increasingly prefer politicians who won’t compromise. In 2018, 53 percent preferred politicians who stuck to their guns. A year earlier only 39 percent felt that way.
Republicans have felt this way for a long time. It is now also true among Democrats.
• Second, there is only a little sentiment for a more moderate third party, but there is much stronger sentiment in favor having of more extreme, ideologically pure parties.
According to a recent poll, most people don’t think the two parties are doing an adequate job, and two-thirds want a third party.
But only about one-third of the respondents wanted a centrist party. Twenty percent wanted a party to the left of the Democrats, and the same number wanted a party to the right of the Republicans.
In short, the desire to move to the extremes is greater than the desire to move to the center.
“The only thing you’ll find in the middle of the road, are yellow lines and dead armadillos.” — Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas
• Third, those who consistently vote for one party or the other — that’s most of us — show no signs of abandoning their choice. Just a little less than a quarter are unsure about their party choice.
As the survey’s authors put it, “Partisans are not about to abandon their party; most value what makes their party distinct from the other major party.”
What’s tribalism to the common ground advocates is in fact a vital source of information for most voters.
• Fourth, social polarization, one of the biggest drivers of partisanship, continues to increase.
As Andrew Gelman and Judith Azari put it in their analysis of Donald Trump’s victory, polarization has become the political version of Moore’s Law, which says that every time the semiconductor manufacturers have run out of ways to squeeze more computing power on a chip, they come up with something new. Whenever it starts to seem like there is no more room for Americans to polarize, something new comes up.
They go on to say: “In the wake of the victory of Donald Trump and the loss of Hillary Clinton, it will be difficult for moderate leaders of either party to persuade primary election voters to set aside their hearts and choose the purportedly safe option.”
The 2018 midterm races are showing that the GOP has become Trump’s GOP.
As for the 2018 Democrats, we need to be careful here. Overall, moderate Democratic candidates have done better than their progressive challengers from the left. But progressives have pulled off some amazing and surprising upsets and have played a key role in the take-no-prisoners drive among Democrats.
The U.S. Senate race in the very red state of Texas is a good example. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat, is running surprisingly well against the conservative incumbent, Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s campaign is not based on his wish to seek common ground but rather on mobilizing the passion of the base.
“The only thing you’ll find in the middle of the road,” O’Rourke says, “are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”
Think about your own beliefs. Dig a little deep here. You may talk a good game about getting rid of the gridlock and maybe even express the need for common ground.
But ending gridlock and finding common ground, filtered through your own partisan lens, means this: The other side, which you do not trust, needs to come around to your view.
And moderation? Well, yeah — if it involves the other side coming to its senses.
How likely is it you progressives would have ever voted for John McCain? Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz has a reputation for working across the aisle. How likely is it that you Republicans out there vote for him?
The advocates of the common ground approach are like preachers advocating an act of faith.
But those espousing it need to understand that they are not preaching to the choir.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.