Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates bemoans the decline in political civility in Washington DC.
He compared this capital’s “oversized egos and undersized backbones” with the “low-key, self-effacing demeanor . . . steadfast integrity, common decency . . . moral and political courage” of Brent Scowcroft, the 86-year-old former two-time national security adviser and Gates mentor who was being honored at the Atlantic Council dinner. Gates was among the speakers.
So Gates bemoans the passing of a more genteel age in which the divisions weren't as deep and there was a greater sense of common interest and shared identity. One might ask what caused these deep changes in American political culture?
Scowcroft’s virtues “seem to be increasingly quaint” in this town, Gates said, comparing them with the “zero-sum politics and ideological siege warfare [that] are the new order of the day.”
Zero-sum politics: Seems like it mirrors our increasingly zero-sum economy, no?
Ethnic diversity is celebrated on the American left. Yet greater ethnic diversity is one driver of this trend toward lower civility in politics. As Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has shown: ethnic diversity lowers trust and social capital. When people don't trust each other they compete more in the political arena and compromise less. Ethnic groups try to use government as a tool to take from others. Other ethnic groups fight back. They do all this with euphemisms and shadow boxing. Though the Left certainly tries to call the Right racist as a tactic in these political battles. That further deepens bitterness and is itself an uncivil tactic.
Competition and markets are widely celebrated across the political spectrum as producing efficiencies and innovations that deliver great benefits and surely they do. But much greater competition and efficiency in political markets makes for more divided electorates, less cooperation, and greater incivility. Many innovations in persuasion aim at cheaply and efficiently reaching niches for small marginal advantages. Specialists in campaign techniques know how to push hot buttons in small slices of the electorate to win small but key electoral advantages. So of course they hit those hot buttons.
Technological advances in communications and computing have enhanced the ability of political factions to compete in many ways. Availability of more information channels enables more narrow casting and so fewer political messages aim at appealing to a broad electorate. Where we once had a moderate liberal dominance of the news we now have a more fractured media. Technological advances made this fracturing possible. We couldn't have Fox News competing with the liberal news shows when there was no cable TV. But now with the proliferation of cable TV channels, the shift of AM to talk radio, and the enormous variety of the web sites (where every web site is effectively yet another channel) people can find their way to communities of like minds where experts pitch them messages that enhance and activate their hot buttons to deepen divisions and swing elections.The amount of data that can be collected on people and funneled out to select target audiences also enhances divisions. Political advertising campaigns can be put together rapidly and their effects can be measured almost equally rapidly. Narrow cast messages can be aimed at email lists and visitors to web sites with well characterized reader demographics.
The larger role of government also undercuts civility in political life. When government played a much smaller role people had fewer reasons to disagree with each other in the political arena. But the sheer number areas where government has become involved is so large that we now have many more reasons to disagree with each other in politics and to be offended and outraged by political choices promoted by opposing factions and interests.The professionalization of politics is financed by all the factions fighting over what government should or should not do. The money flowing into politics from corporations, unions (especially government employee unions, wealthy donors, a proliferation of lobbying groups that solicit mass donations, and other sources funds a professional class of political operatives, pollsters, opposition researchers, email campaigners, think tanks, political advertising specialists, and other experts at building coalitions and stoking demands in the populace.
This all takes place against a background of changes in education that funnel the brightest to elite schools where they learn to expect they will influence the masses. The grads of the elite schools become experts in marketing, political science, information technology, and other tools of political warfare. It is no wonder that civility has been pushed aside. Competition in the political marketplace is now fierce and looks to stay that way.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2012 January 01 10:37 AM Politics Battles Of Elites|