August 5, 2011 7:09 pm

US tribes and tribulations

What makes the recent spectacle in Washington so striking is the sheer sense of poison and lack of common meeting points

Has Washington gone mad? Many Americans – and non-Americans – might have wondered this in recent weeks, amid the drama surrounding the debt ceiling. Never mind the mind-boggling fiscal numbers being tossed around: the real shock for most observers, particularly outside the US, is the degree of polarisation, even extremism, on display.

On one side of the spectrum, Tea Party activists have been brandishing the constitution and declaring “no surrender” on fiscal issues, even at the risk of sparking an American default. On the other side, leftwing parts of the Democratic party have been equally intransigent. Added together, they have produced a toxic gridlock that has not just baffled many non-Americans (say, those Chinese holding US Treasury bonds) but left many Washington observers horrified, too.

While rowdy battles have always been a feature of American politics, what makes the recent spectacle so striking is the sheer sense of poison and lack of common meeting points. Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired Supreme Court justice, for example, recently told a conference in Washington that in times of crisis she would use beer and Mexican food to forge harmony when she was a leader in the Arizona legislature. “I’d get everybody together and cook Mexican food, and we’d sit around outside and eat and drink beer, and make friends with each other. That worked.” But such is the level of tribalism now that it is hard to imagine the Tea Party activists ever sharing tacos – or even hotdogs – with Democrats. The two sides seem so polarised they have little interest in creating peace. Or as Peter Orszag, the former White House budget director, recently wrote: “Our political system is so plagued with polarization it is difficult to move any legislation forward.”

Why? An optimistic explanation is that this is just a short-term phenomenon that reflects the magnitude of issues at stake. Cutting America’s $14,000bn debt was never going to be easy, least of all in a country that has scant experience of – or cultural reference points for – allocating pain. And what makes the debate so inflammatory is that Republicans and Democrats have real political differences about the ideal size of government.

However, people like Mr Orszag argue that a longer-term structural shift is under way, too: American politics, he argues, is becoming more polarised in tandem with society as a whole. One sign of this is congressional voting patterns: between the 1940s and 1970s, there used to be significant overlap between the votes cast by Democratic and Republican politicians. Since the 1980s, however, polarisation has risen to record levels, eclipsing even the 1930s (which were also a fairly polarised period, albeit less than today).

Geography is also interesting. Anyone baffled by the antics in Washington should read Bill Bishop’s brilliant and thought-provoking book The Big Sort, published three years ago, which shows that Americans are increasingly “clustering” in neighbourhoods that have similar political views. Thus, while just 19 states had “landslide” elections in 2006 (for both the Republicans and Democrats), by 2008 that had risen to 36. At the district – or local level – this was even more extreme.

Television has also become tribalised. Though some popular channels (such as CNN) are still centrist, the wildly rightwing FoxNews was the most popular news channel last month, while the leftwing MSNBC came third. And the social media, far from bridging these silos, is spawning a new form of cyber-tribalism of its own.

Now that Americans feel free to create their own identity online, they increasingly assume that information should be “customised”; and as media companies rush to offer these bespoke services, it becomes easier to retreat into an intellectual silo. “Paradoxically it is the multiplicity of channels ... that has led many to seek refuge in narrow niches,” argues Gregory Rodriguez, head of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He warns that the problem with “hyperconnectivity” is that “we’re increasingly deciding to talk, Tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.” Or, in the case of Washington, to not talk to those who have different views. Even over tacos.

Can anything change this? Perhaps at some point the electorate will revolt. One striking feature of recent polls is that the proportion of voters describing themselves as “unaffiliated” has surged recently, to almost 40 per cent. This might suggest they would be centrists – if there was a party to back. Alternatively, a point may come where the system is so dysfunctional that it forces political elites to co-operate. Or perhaps an external threat will force Americans to club together. After all, it is a fair bet that one reason why congressional polarisation was relatively low between the 1940s and 1970s was that America had both a real and a “cold” war to rally against.

Short of an external shock, or internal conceptual revolution, it is hard to see the polarisation going away – or not while economic inequality is growing, too. Little wonder that Mr Orszag and others now predict plenty more gridlock. With or without those trillion-dollar “deals”, the shouting is certainly not over.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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