April 15th, 2024


America isn't as divided as it looks

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published March 22, 2019

If I had to describe 2019 so far, I would characterize it as The Year Political Polarization Started to Erode. I know that sounds counterintuitive — aren't partisans at each other's throats on social media all the time? — but bear with me.

There is some data to support my point. A recent poll about regulating the tech industry, an issue which could prove to be one of the most important of our time, asked: "Do you agree or disagree that tech companies have too much power and should be more regulated?" Some 16 percent of Republicans said they "strongly agree," while 13 percent of Democrats did. And combining those who "strongly agree" and "somewhat agree" gives an identical figure for both parties — 46 percent. This is the near-opposite of polarization.

More generally, both parties also seem to have converged in thinking that fiscal deficits are fine and more government spending is a good thing.

How about foreign policy? Consider the trade negotiations between the U.S. and China. Right after the 2016 election, President Donald Trump was considered a China hawk. Now he is a relatively dovish voice, pushing for a deal. Has Trump moderated over time? Yes, but it's not just that.

The Democrats have become more hawkish on foreign trade, and in late 2018 Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his fellow Democrats urged Trump not to back down in his dealings on China. Another significant foreign policy issue this year, although it did not command ongoing headlines in the U.S. media, was the altercation between India and Pakistan. The U.S. has been active in behind-the-scenes negotiations, but those activities have not led to major partisan disputes.

Beyond the U.S., there are some signs of the decline of polarization. You might think Brexit is a clear example of political polarization taking over a country. But the leaders of the two major parties — Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn — both seem to favor it, albeit in complex and halting ways. The British public seems to have "Brexit fatigue," just wanting the issue to be over with. That's probably bad, but it's not evidence of polarization — in fact, it may be the opposite.

As I am writing this, no one seems to know what will happen with Brexit. But it's clearly not a question of one side against another. Rather, there are so many moving parts and complex positions, including the May deal, something called "Norway plus," hard Brexit, postponement and reassessment, and a second referendum (I'm not even counting the many views on the Irish backstop). If Brexit were a simple, polarized, two-way battle, it probably would have been settled long ago, with one side or the other proving its strength.

To be sure, there are areas and issues where polarization has risen: your opinion of Trump, for example, or Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or more generally the debates surrounding political correctness and the culture wars. But there's an important lesson in here — namely, that there's only so much polarization to go around.

Some issues are becoming increasingly polarized, others less so. Perhaps those two trends are related.

If this is true, what might be the explanation? In many ways political views serve as focal points for alliances. Political movements — whether progressive, conservative, Trumpist or libertarian — "stick together" to some extent because they have common bonds intellectually, ideologically and, often, practically.

But there are litmus tests, of varying importance, for who counts as a member of a group. The tighter some intellectual bonds become, the more others can be allowed to loosen. Maybe abortion and the #MeToo movement really matter to you, and you meet someone who agrees with you about those issues but happens to differ on the optimal rate of tariff protection. You probably have enough in common to form an alliance.

The internet has probably pushed us to organize around the issues that we feel most intensely about. But that same realignment has freed up a lot of space for dissension and creative rethinking (not always for the better) along both ideological and policy dimensions.

The more extreme and ugly polarization gets on some issues, the more room there is for political evolution and even bipartisan compromise elsewhere. It's a kind of partial collapse of polarization — exactly how you'd expect things to look when profound change is afoot.

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Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

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