Saturday, March 31, 2012

James Q Wilson, #1, How Divided are We

The recent passing of the renowned social/political scientist James Q. Wilson propelled me to read a collection of his essays, most of which originally appeared in the journals, Commentary and The Public Interest.

Two of the most interesting of the essays can I think be taken together.  The first, is How Divided are We, published in 2006.  Wilson’s answer is very.  He defines the divide in a couple of ways, first as polarization, meaning:

an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from  people in another, rival group.  Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking is about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs  is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.”

And at least as a component piece of this polarization, a cultural war, defined by James Davidson Hunter as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and which can involve “fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans.”

Wilson cites a number of poll results to support the notion that polarization is indeed real and growing in America.  For example, the difference between the Democrat and Republican support for the war in Iraq is much greater than it was in regard to the Korean and Vietnam wars (see end note).  Similarly the party split in approval for Presidents has been increasing.  Most interesting he finds that some of the divide is driven by political elites with informed voters taking their cue from the party position.  Thus, while support for involving ourselves in Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait was pretty similar in both parties immediately after the event, after Bush I came out in favor and the Democrats opposed his position, the opinions of the wider population of Republicans and Democrats increasingly diverged.

Professor Wilson points to three main causes for this increase in division.  First, the parties have realigned on ideological grounds.  The most obvious example being the old, conservative dixiecrats have moved from being Democrats to Republicans.  Second, the proliferation of news media has transformed its presentation from being a largely centrist search for the large middle (nightly news in the era of three channels, a half hour at night), to a more adversarial, niche competition (Fox, MSNBC).  And third, where the important interest groups (unions, chamber of commerce) were once concerned with material concerns where compromise is relatively easy, today’s predominant interest groups are focused on moral and social issues where compromise is much more difficult.  Finally, while Wilson doesn’t single it out, he does note that polarization is highly correlated with educational attainment, college educated differ from those who aren’t degreed and those with post-graduate degrees are even more sharply distinguished from the rest of the population.

While not disagreeing with Professor Wilson, I think his analysis leaves something out which can perhaps be divined by considering the examples he gives of comparable division in America.  He cites 1800 “when pro-British, pro-commerce New Englanders supported John Adams, while pro-French, pro-agriculture southerners backed Thomas Jefferson.”  And his other example is the period leading up to the Civil War.  In short, what is missing from this essay is an emphasis on the importance of ideas in general, and more specifically the intellectual changes emanating from the sixties. 

Wilson’s three causes aren’t wrong, but I think they leave out a prior cause; that the sixties represented a clear ideological break with America’s past.  The polarization which we observe, and Wilson points to, is the public separating into two relatively distinctive camps centered around their approval or disapproval of the change in what it meant or should mean to be an American and so much else.  The numbers which Wilson cites are a measure of time, the emergence of a second and third generation of sixties radical progeny, and their movement from youthful outsiders to elder statesmen, institutional leaders.  Absent “the sixties” there would be polarization, probably more than what America is used to, but the extent of our current divide is because the sixties did happen and the change in thought it engendered is real and significant.

NOTE:  I’m not sure the comparison of Iraq support by party to the Korean and Vietnam Wars is entirely convincing as evidence of division.  If democrats are inclined towards being doves and republicans hawks, and there is a group/party dynamic then wars started by democrats should show less of a party line division than wars begun by republicans.  In essence, the Nixon to China principle.

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