Stanford Progressive

The Generational Evolution of Partisanship

By Danny Zuckerman, published May, 2010


Lost in the celebration of last month’s health care legislation is the question: how did we get to a political environment where a historic bill would pass with literally zero Republican votes? Headlines the next day exalted the huge win for Obama and for Democrats, reflecting that governing right now is so heavily about political battles that the issues themselves take a backseat.

This has not always been the case: both Medicare and Social Security, two Democratic programs that this healthcare bill has been compared to, were passed with heavy majority support from Republicans. The degree to which the two parties have entrenched themselves against each other right now is worrisome. As Americans across the spectrum become more disenchanted with government, it is worth examining what has caused us to end up in this position.

The deep polarization can be tracked back to the 1960s, an era that both abstractly and very specifically affected the nature of today’s politicians. Many of our representatives today grew up in an atmosphere of political rebellion and radicalism, where fierce and even violent opposition of the establishment was the norm.

More concretely, the success of the civil rights movement precipitated the homogenization of both parties. Through the 1960s the South typically voted Democratically, but the Civil Rights Act dramatically realigned allegiances. Just before signing the bill, President Lyndon Johnson said, “I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” The success of civil rights legislation alienated Southern Democrats who felt the party no longer supported their interests; the South quickly became a Republican-dominated region while Democrats congregated in the North. Currently, there are zero Republican congressmen from the New England states, and the South is similarly low on Democrats. With this geographic reorganization there are fewer intra-party differences, so both take harder lines against each other and more ideologically stubborn stances.

The increasingly radical rhetoric and refusal to compromise has been fueled by two features of our decade. The first is the loss of trust in politics. While in the 1990s polls showed that most people trusted government, by the mid 2000s they reflected majority distrust. This has given sway to politicians renouncing the status quo, from Barack Obama’s successful change campaign to Sarah Palin’s tea parties. Any sign of moderation or compromise, in the eyes of politicians, will be seen as working within the system that the public dislikes, making radical sentiments and firm ideologies appealing.

The second contributor is the rise of the Internet and cable television. In the mid-20th century there were very few sources of news and the public relied on and trusted them. In the current era of hundreds of differentiated news and entertainment sources, society has adapted to tune out the mundane – anything boring is ignored. The only way to be memorable in a society flooded with information is to be remarkable. The public notices radical policies and platforms, so moderation is weeded out. Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin – all essentially media personalities – have become the biggest figures in the Republican Party by standing out with their extreme positions.

Fortunately, the future of politics does not lie in Palin’s tea party – comprised of an older white demographic resentful that they’re power and interests are in decline – because that movement is famous not for its enormous popularity (no one really knows how big it is) but because it is extreme and noteworthy, and in today’s media society that is what gets covered. Rather, the future resides with the rising generation, nurtured not in the extremist 60s but the comfortable and moderate 90s.
David Brooks, a journalist and political commentator, has described the current generation of college students as that of the “organizational kid” – students not prone to rebel or question authority, not extreme, but exceptionally qualified, tolerant, smart, capable and eager to work from within established organizations. We have grown up in a period where institutions have overwhelmingly worked and supported our needs, in contrast to the rebellious nature of the 60s. This generation is more liable to cooperate and improve our current institutions than take up a radical approach against them.

Today’s political environment reflects the experiences of its leaders, most of whom find radical stances and agitation perfectly natural. This is what has led us to the extreme partisanship that saw historic legislation pass without a single vote from the opposition party. This atmosphere is dangerous, but it is unlikely to persist. Politicians change to reflect the desires of the public, and as younger generations steeped in cooperation rather than rebellion become both the leaders and the constituents, politics will evolve to provide a more collaborative and bipartisan Washington.


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