2012 January 01 Sunday
Our Fierce Political Marketplace And The Decline Of Civility

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

SHTF said at January 1, 2012 12:29 PM:

"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."

One should learn the use of firearms as well. Real warfare is increasingly likely.

solaris said at January 1, 2012 12:34 PM:

>"Ethnic diversity is celebrated on the American left."

The phrase "ethnic diversity" in America is a polite way of saying "anti white". That is what the left celebrates - the replacement of people who, by and large, reject the left with other and more reliable clients.

Snubby said at January 1, 2012 1:32 PM:

Even going to buy sneakers is dangerous these days. Negroes have rioted just to get the latest Air Jordan shoes. And the left celebrates diversity in places like Chappaqua and Sidwell.

eggwhite said at January 1, 2012 3:26 PM:

Good point solaris, about diversity being a code word for anti-White. In addition to the greater competition and incivility, you have the fat that, frankly, people are going to care less about the country as a whole at some point. Why will say, Filipino immigrants, care deeply about White people living in rural America. They won't. So you will have much greater competition and at the same time, much less concern for the common good. Should be fun.

bjk said at January 1, 2012 3:43 PM:

Gates was so completely useless. Where was he while Obama was expanding the war in Afghanistan? And then he leaves office and warns against land wars in Asia - as if he didn't preside over two adminsitrations expanding the war in Afghanistan. Talk about somebody with no spine.

WJ said at January 1, 2012 11:48 PM:

The Left generally blames the Right for the growing incivility, but much of it is due to the Left's anger as they have lost their stranglehold on the flow of information. For about 3 decades the whole culture was moving left. It was assumed that liberal assumptions on all the major issues would forever be uncontested. In addition, for 40 straight years the Democrats maintained a solid lock on the House of Representatives. In the last 17 years the Dems have held it only for four.

Witness the way the Left tried to brand the perpetrator of the Tucson shooting a "right wing extremist," when absolutely no one who knew him described him that way.

But as for incivility we ain't see nothing yet. Just wait until Congress is forced to actually cut spending. A lot of professional Leftists will have to get real jobs.

CamelCaseRob said at January 2, 2012 8:57 AM:

Robert Gates is an ass.

CamelCaseRob said at January 2, 2012 8:58 AM:

WJ - congress will never be forced to cut spending. They will just create inflation and remove the wealth of the middle-class and pensioners that way.

WJ said at January 2, 2012 12:23 PM:

CamelCaseRob - Inflation's already happening to some degree, but I don't think they'll get away with doing that for long. There is a large and growing number of people (e.g., the Tea Party) that grows more and more tired of working to foot the bill for America's layabouts. Welfare programs will be cut. Higher education spending will be cut. Welfare, higher education, defense, foreign aid - a whole lot of spending bubbles are about to burst. It won't be inflation OR spending cuts, it will be inflation AND spending cuts.

HC said at January 2, 2012 10:22 PM:

We need less civility in politics, not more. We need to cut out the gooey nougat center and make people choose. Republicans and conservatives who talk about the need for civility are crooks and traitors who are gaming their supporters for money.

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