Politics is ubiquitous. It’s not simply because it is election season and political ads are about to run 24/7. It is more fundamental than that. It is the reality that American society — including every institution, product, television show, and neighborhood — has become politicized. At least this is the conclusion of several recent academic studies. For some this politicization is good, but the reality is that such politicization has also produced the polarization that has come to characterize contemporary politics and American society.
Even the most casual observer of politics recognizes that the American political system is polarized. Several studies confirm this. The Pew Research Center’s June 2014 reports, “Political Polarization in the American Public” and “Beyond Red v. Blue: The Political Typology,” aptly describe not only a polarized government but also an electorate. Congressionally, for the first time in years, even the most conservative Democrat is to the left of the most liberal Republican. A generation or two ago, both parties had a range of ideologies it could count among its members. This is no longer the case. The two major parties have moved from the traditional place as coalitions of diverse viewpoints to more European-style ideological political entities. While the Pew Research notes that those who consider themselves Democrats have moved further to the left in the last few years, they are only catching up to the rightward drift of Republicans that took place in the 1980s. Both parties have sorted themselves out, at the same time moving further toward opposite ideological poles.
Pew also reports that the polarization is not simply a trait of the parties. The electorate has similarly polarized. Increasingly, Democrats or Republicans describe members of the opposite party as a threat to America. Members of both of these parties are becoming entrenched in their positions —describing themselves as solidly liberal or conservative or Democrat or Republican — and they are expressing increasingly stronger attitudes of intolerance against members of the opposite parties.
The Pew study, along with a recently published paper by communication scholars Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood in “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” show how Democrats and Republicans discriminate against one another socially. Asked if they or their children should live next to, work with, date, or marry a member of the opposite party, growing percentages say no. Finally, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new report “Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthening Our Democracy” also documents both the growing gap between the two major parties and a frustration among many voters with the all-or-nothing stance Democrats and Republicans exhibit.
The upshot of these four reports confirms the journalistic description of a red and blue America. Yet that red and blue is more precise and deeper than many understand. At the presidential level, one can point to red and blue states, but even within Republican ones such as Texas, one sees real Democratic enclaves in cities such as Austin, San Antonio, and increasingly Dallas. California finds Republican places such as Orange County. Even in Minnesota there are solidly Republican and Democrat areas. States are really polka-doted, with specific cities or even neighborhoods demonstrating ideological stratification. All of this is confirming a trend that Bill Bishop’s 2004 book, “The Big Sort” described: Americans are politically sorting themselves out geographically. They are choosing to live in one-party neighborhoods and near people with whom they ideologically agree. This trend explains why, for example, there are probably fewer than 20 seats in U.S. Congress this year that really could shift from one party to another. Or why in Minnesota perhaps no more than a dozen of the state house races are two-party competitive. Even good redistricting will have a difficulty fixing this trend. The result is that the big sort has now created so many safe, one-party districts that officeholders have few political incentives to compromise.
But the polarization goes even deeper than this. Evidence points to the fact that Democrats and Republicans watch different news shows (MSNBC versus Fox), prefer different movies, have different patterns of pop culture consumption, and even shop and dine along contrasting lines. Consider the battle line between Wal-Mart and Costco. For many liberals Wal-Mart is the evil empire. The way it pays its employees, its impact on neighborhoods, the products it sells, all are detestable to many Democrats who boycott the store. Costco evokes the same feeling among many Republicans.
Politically, we are what we consume. Karl Rove figured this out in 2004. Republicans were the first to understand how to overlay political turnout maps with marketing data. There are powerful correlations with, for example, car ownership and whom one votes for. Show me a person who drives a Subaru and I will show you a liberal Democrat. Or show me a person who has an ATV or a snow mobile and I will show you a Republican. Obama in 2008 and 2012 built on all of this with GPS cellphone and social media technology to identify his supporters. Understanding how to use consumer data to identify and mobilize voters is the future of micro-politics.
Finally, consider yet another aspect of how this polarization has occurred. The demand to make businesses socially responsible has been beneficial, but it also has opened up corporations to be charged with political tasks or responsibilities. They are asked to promote human rights, not pollute, support same-sex marriage or increases in the minimum wage. But the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, along with the recent Hobby Lobby case, also took the politicization of the corporation to a new level.
Corporations are now persons with the right to expend money to influence campaigns and elections, and they have free exercise of religious rights. Businesses, depending on how they act and spend money, will be seen as Democrat, Republican, or Christian or not companies. The people they hire, the products they sell, the clients that patronize them, will sort themselves out by ideology or religion. This is especially true among a new generation of millennials who consider the political character of a company when making employment and consumption choices. Potentially no longer will businesses be judged by the quality of their products but by the ideological colors they have. Partisanship and religion will become marketing tools, alienating many consumers, trivializing faith.
Political philosopher Michael Walzer once argued that the defining mark of modern society was about erecting walls of separation. We separated the public from the private, secular from the spiritual, and business from politics. We did that in the name of peace, toleration, and in seeking to work and live together. But if the four studies above are correct, the walls of separation are falling down. It’s all political now, and that is not good.