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May Your Tribe Decrease

By Sheila Kennedy on April 8, 2016 in Civic Blog
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This post was originally published on the blog, sheilakennedy.net  on April 23, 2015 and is republished here with the permission of the author:

In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:

Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates.

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.

The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.

In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelagothe editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.

According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.

Sheila HeadshotSheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is the Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.  

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