The Bloom Briefing 10: Polarization and Gerrymandering; Betrayal of the White Working Class; Michael Brown
Welcome to the 10th edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, the focus is on political polarization and gerrymandering, Trump’s budget and healthcare plan, and racial injustices in policing.
Polarization as Founding Problem: The Federalist Papers on Factionalism
There are very real concerns about political polarization in contemporary America. A Pew report from 2014 showed that in 1994, 64% of Republicans 70% of Democrats were more conservative or liberal than the median of the other party. By 2014, these numbers had grown to 92% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats.
These concerns about polarization in American politics date back to the country’s founding. James Madison made reference to concerns about “factionalism” in Federalist 10 and 51. Federalist 10 lays out Madison’s understanding of factions, their ills, and the means required to mitigate them. Madison views factions as inevitable. Thus, the role of government must be to limit the consequences of factionalism.
“The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.”
Federalist 51 makes it clear that the role of limiting factions falls to the central government.
“It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.”
The national government is supposed to serve as a protection against majority factions oppressing minority factions within states.
It’s worth considering this argument in light of the current discussion of gerrymandering. The idea of gerrymandering is to maximize the political advantage that one faction enjoys in a particular state through the drawing of geographically absurd legislative districts. Federalist 51 could thus be taken to be a fairly compelling argument against gerrymandering. The role of the national government, according to Madison, is to prevent such tyranny. Perhaps the judicial ruling on Wisconsin's legislative districts is a good omen of the federal government fulfilling this responsibility.
Gerrymandering and Polarization are Mutually Reinforcing
Gerrymandering also exacerbates polarization. Parties in power have an incentive to draw legislative districts in such a way that they’re not competitive. This means that incumbents can be likelier to lose in a primary than they are in a general election, and it is infrequent that any incumbent would be challenged in a primary from the center. Primary challenges almost always occur from the more extreme wing of the party.
When legislative districts become essentially single-party, politicians can stop appealing to moderate voters. Their first objective is to prevent a primary challenge, and the easiest way to do so is by following the most extreme orthodoxy of the party. More extreme voters are more engaged in the political process (also Pew). Thus, politicians in progressive districts are pulled to the left and politicians in conservative districts are pulled to the right.
Local Polarization as Obstacle to Civil Society
This week at FiveThirtyEight, David Wasserman showed how polarization has been growing in even the most local of geographies. Over the last 24 years, the percentage of Americans living in counties where one of the major presidential candidates won by more than 20 percentage points (and 50 percentage points) has grown steadily. Now over 20% of Americans live in counties where one major candidate won by more than 50 points.
The localization of partisan politics is probably more illustrative of the changing geographic appeal of the parties than anything else, but it remains concerning. We know that exposure to different kinds of people reduces prejudices against others. Just as lack of exposure to people of color makes white people more likely to espouse racist views, so does lack of exposure to conservatives make people more like to have prejudiced views, like not being willing to welcome a conservative into the family (as the Pew research referenced).
The foundational problem with polarization at even the most local of levels is that then polarization becomes cultural as well as political. It’s not just that one has a political preference for certain policies, but that one believes one’s way of life is superior. This is the precise point of Jonah Goldberg, writing in The National Review last week (though most of the article is not that great).
“The country is indeed polarized. But it is more socially and politically divided than it is ideologically. The root of the disagreement has more to do with making sure “our” team has power. What it does with that power is, at best, a secondary consideration.”
This is the situation our country now has to reckon with. Electoral politics has produced what we might call cultural polarization. And we are unlikely to solve cultural polarization without fixing the electoral politics that produce it.
Parliamentary Democracy as Solution? A Note on the Dutch Elections.
Parliamentary democracy may be some guide in this endeavor. The recent Dutch election was emblematic of the potential virtue of parliamentary democracy. Geert Wilders, a populist demogague somewhat in the mold of Trump, was a threat to win the election. His Dutch Freedom Party finished second in the vote, but only received a small percentage of seats in Parliament because the vote was distributed across 28 parties on the ballot.
There are a handful of major conservative and a handful of major progressive parties, each of which received some non-negligible share of the vote. As political scientist André Krouwel put it, ““In our party system parties are very close together on the left or right so most people have not a strong preference for one party but a lower preference for two or three parties.”
In the Netherlands, then, political affiliation and cultural attitude are kept distinct. One can be "of the left" or "of the right" without existing in a right-left binary that treats the entire other side as a real and present danger to the country.
Trump’s Betrayal of the White Working Class is in Full Swing
Aside from the first, this week was perhaps the most revealing of Trump’s presidency. The first week told us that Trump was serious about all that racist stuff he said on the campaign trail (border wall, Muslim ban, Bannon in the White House, etc.). This last week has showed us that Trump isn’t serious about being a servant of the white working class.
Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece about how the American Health Care Act (AKA Trumpcare) will cut healthcare for large numbers of America’s poor whom Trump promised to serve on the campaign trail. As we know, the white working class, particularly in the upper Midwest states that voted for Trump, is experiencing an opioid epidemic. Obamacare required health insurance providers (and Medicaid) to cover mental health services, including things like addiction treatment. Trumpcare wants to undo those requirements, leaving many people unable to afford health insurance plans that cover addiction treatment.
Similarly, Trump’s budget cuts funding entirely for three entire agencies that are committed to economic development in predominantly poor, rural, white communities: The Northern Border Regional Commission, the Appalachian Regional Commission (deep dive on this one here), and the Delta Regional Authority.
While these are by no means the agency cuts about which we most ought be concerned (The State Department seems like it might be hurt by a 28% reduction in funding), they do pose an interesting question about how far Trump (and Republicans) can push against the economic interests of the voters who support them.
This thesis – that conservative white working class voters vote Republican on culture (see above) rather than economic self-interest – was popularized by Thomas Frank in his mid-2000s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. Because these voters vote on culture or values, the Republican Party has been able to capture their votes by speaking that language while engaging in policies that run counter to their economic self-interest (e.g., lower taxes on the wealthy; cuts to social welfare programs; etc.).
Is there a breaking point at which white working class voters will accept the economic arguments of the left (e.g., everyone should have healthcare) despite the left’s embrace of multiculturalism, secularism, and internationalism? Four years of this administration will surely give us an answer on that question.
On the Death of Michael Brown:
I was prepared, in the context of a recently-released deposition of Darren Wilson from December, to write a piece about how yet again the narrative that we heard in the press was all wrong. But that article exists already (and is worth reading).
Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart issued a comprehensive rebuttal to the narrative that this new testimony suggests Darren Wilson is legally guilty. (In case you’re thinking Capehart is conservative crank, his subsequent article was, “In America, We’re All Someone Else’s Babies.”) These represent fairly reasonable alternative points of view on how to interpret the events of that day. The first says that Wilson is morally guilty. The second says that he is legally innocent. Those two things need not be mutually exclusive.
Maybe this case, more than any other, has the opportunity to open discussion about the role of police in society. The Obama DOJ said that the legal outcomes of this event are acceptable. When the DOJ says, "O.K.," it creates cognitive dissonance with our convictions, and we either need to reexamine our convictions or reevaluate the values we accept that led to such an outcome.
What’s not up for debate is that the Ferguson Police Department is full of racists. The newly released deposition reveals that the use of the N-word was commonplace among the FPD. And, as Brandon Ellington Patterson reported in Mother Jones, the DOJ report of the FPD contains some pretty telling statistics on their racism:
"The report found that African Americans accounted for 93 percent of arrests made by Ferguson police despite being just 67 percent of the city's population; that black residents were more than twice as likely to have their cars searched during traffic stops despite being more than 25 percent less likely to be caught with contraband than white drivers; and that some discretionary citations like "walking in roadways" were issued nearly exclusively to black people."
Those statistics, which look similar for many police departments in many cities in many parts of the country, should shake us to the core. The police work for us. We are all complicit in this injustice.
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