Stabilization Machines

When thinking about political machines in the United States, it is easy to return to black and white video of campaign marches, party conventions, and visions of hotel room shoe boxes full of bribe money. Machines have been viewed as corrupt political forces where who you know and rub elbows with is more important than what you know and what you believe about the world. Machines were impenetrable monoliths controlling politics without giving ordinary people a voice and for this reason Americans reacted in a way that injected the system with more power and more direct democratic structures.

 

Unfortunately, our system is now missing some of the benefits of political machines. In changing laws and the way our system works, little thought was given to the benefits of machines. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at machines from a different vantage point and explores the benefits they bring to a political system. They stabilize thought and actors, reduce polarization, and push populations and political actors toward moderation. Rauch writes, “Show me a political system without machine politics and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift toward ungovernable extremism.”

 

When we do not have machines in politics, we have more political amateur participation. On the surface this seems like a good thing. It seems like we would want more “average Joes” involved in government. Those who do end up running also tend to be very focused on an issue and not their own career, which also seems like a plus. The downside however, is that these individuals often lack the ability to build coalitions and support for their policies and ideas. They tend to be more extreme, especially on their pet issue, and less likely to compromise. Additionally, political amateurs lack historical knowledge of programs and policies that have been tried in the past, leading to policies that ignore historical successes or failures. For all these reasons, political amateurs make the process of governing and the quality of legislation a little worse.

 

Ruach writes, “Machines tend to be a force for moderation,” describing the ways in which machines favor policies that are acceptable and within the ideals of a majority of people. They put forward and advance candidates who are more mainstream and less likely to advance policy that only a minority favor. Rauch also writes, “States in which a larger share of political money flows through parties have less polarized legislatures, because the parties, desiring to win, press legislators and candidates toward the center.” Most American’s are actually pretty moderate and are not well defined by the terms liberal or conservative. But we understand the zero-sum game taking place in politics and know what special words to say and what beliefs to hold when we play for our team. Political parties and machines however, try to cut across these teams and put forward candidates who can gain broad support from most people, as opposed to candidates who intentionally stoke the flames of passion from one side. A legislature that is less polarized in this way is more likely to be able to work together and advance real legislation that most people in society can support.

Increasing Racial Polarization

In their book Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which President Obama split people along the lines of racial sentiment and attitude. The way that people saw race shaped the way that people viewed Candidate and President Obama. Research analyzing public opinion polls and voting behavior helps us understand how people truly reacted to a black presidential candidate and ultimately a black president. Tesler and Sears were able to use that analysis to see how public opinion changed from before the 2008 election throughout the campaign to 2010, two years into President Obama’s first term. The results of their study in 2010 pointed toward a rocky future, and their analysis was proven correct over the course of President Obama’s two terms and into the early presidency of Donald Trump.

 

Tesler and Sears write, “As we mentioned … our results from the campaign on the spillover of racialization are likely to have the most important implications for American politics in the age of Obama. If the racialized evaluations associated with President Obama spill over to people and policies strongly situated in opposition or harmony with him, as they had during the campaign, then partisan politics might become increasingly polarized by race and racial attitudes in the years ahead.”

 

Their prediction was absolutely correct as Candidate Trump turned identity and race into his signature issue, focusing intently on who is and is not a full American, and garnering support mostly among white voters.

 

The authors continue, “The natural extension of our discussion of Obama-induced racialization … is that racial attitudes should have developed a greater impact on opinions about health care after the 2008 election because of its strong association with President Obama.” This idea was fully born out in 2016 as President Trump attacked President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which bears the former President’s name in popular discussion as Obama Care.

 

What is challenging for us today, is the lack of acceptance and understanding that race and racial attitudes shape so much of our understandings and interactions with the world around us. On a recent episode of the podcast Scene on Radio, John Biewen shares an interesting statistic. Many white people today feel that discrimination against white people is a serious problem, and many people who voted for President Trump believe that discrimination against white people is a larger problem than discrimination against black people and minorities. When we fail to understand how our attitudes have been polarized by race and how many people used President Obama’s race to polarize our ideas and opinions, we lead ourselves toward a place where people are disrespected and dismissed based on the color of their skin. We begin approaching politics within a framework where our true agenda (advancement of our racial group) is hidden behind surface level ideology that does not hold up when scrutinized. We argue about tax rates and health insurance coverage on the surface, but our true argument is about which identity group should receive greater support from the collective use of society’s resources and which group should not receive such support.

The Growth of Political Polarization

I find it incredibly challenging to talk to people who push back against ideas that I have that advocate for better treatment of minorities and women. I have not given much thought to white men whose social status may be diminished relative to women and minorities, but I have spent some time focused on race in terms of how we have historically treated black people in our country, and I am also acutely aware of how our society seems to favor men in business and political leadership over women. When I do hear someone push back against my views and advocate for mens rights or say that all lives matter, I am not able to speak with them as constructively as I would like. In situations where I do meet individuals with such views, I find that my natural reaction and inclination is to become entrenched, digging my feet in the sand and drawing a line that places me on the correct side of morality. What I effectively do however, is begin to polarize myself away from the other person.

 

David Sears and Michael Tesler identify the problem that I face in their book Obama’s Race. In their book they describe the ways in which Obama’s race could further polarize our nation, and their prediction from 2010 has largely shown to be an accurate prediction of the direction of our politics.

 

“Our results from the campaign could have profound implications for American partisan politics in the age of Obama. The most important political repercussion is that political decision making could become increasingly organized by racial attitudes in the years ahead. A number of findings suggest that this might occur. First, the two sides of radicalization are inherently polarizing. If racial liberals are more supportive of President Obama than they would be of an ideologically similar white Democratic president, and racial conservatives are more opposed to him than they would be absent his race, then public opinion should naturally be more divided by racial attitudes than ever.”

 

President Obama grew in popularity following a 2004 speech in which he claimed there was not a blue America and a red America, but just America, and he set out to unite the counry rather than build a coalition of one group against another. Unfortunately, his race polarized the country further than his politics alone. People like me, who argued that our country has not done enough to help advance people of color ran up against people who felt that our country was doing too much to help minorities get ahead without doing enough to help those who they believed represented true American values. Those who viewed Obama negatively felt that they were not being being rewarded for their efforts were asked to shoulder more of a burden and carry the weight of racial minorities who were given a hand-up that was not offered to white people.

 

I am worried because I don’t have a great solution at this point. I believe that the statistics regarding arrests of minorities and the statistics regarding median incomes of minorities and modern day segregation within our society are real. I don’t believe that advocating for programs that end up helping mostly minority populations or that make it easier for women to seek justice are programs that hurt white men, even if they diminish the relative social standing of white men. Perhaps what is important to do is make sure that we are honest about the intent of our policies. Rather than present our policies as being designed to help everyone (which I believe is largely true in most cases where policy encourages greater aid to a racial or gender minority) we should be honest and say that we want to specifically help the group that we want to help. At the same time perhaps we could be more honest about the impact of such policies on white people, and perhaps we could offer something that aids them as well.

 

Coming back to the quote from Tesler and Sears, I think it is important that people like me recognize when our actions further drive polarization. We must be aware of the times when we take a more favorable issue position position or stance toward an individual or group than we normally would take if there had not been some opposition to the position. This means we must be able to look critically at our stances and beliefs, and recognize that there are always going to be flaws and inequities in how we come together as a society to organize and use our resources.

 

I am still working to figure out how to have the challenging conversations with individuals who directly contradict my views in areas of racial and gender equity. I think the key is recognizing that such views can be polarizing since identity lays at the heart of the issue, and overly zealous support for a particular identity can be just as damaging as extreme opposition.

Automatic Polarization

I am a Masters in Public Administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I am constantly thinking about politics in terms of how systems operate and what forces shape the decisions being made. I am interested in the decisions themselves, but I find the forces and factors that shape how we arrive at those decisions interesting and equally important. Being able to take a deeper look beyond the headlines and beyond the reactions to policy helps us see something important about how we as a society have come together as a group to attempt to solve complex and challenging problems.

 

In their book, Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which racial attitudes and biases impacted the decisions our country made during the 2008 election and in the first few years following President Obama’s election. Their argument throughout their book is that the election split the nation along racial lines, with forces that operated below the surface and beyond many people’s conscious thought, driving behaviors. In the time following the election, Tesler and Sears write, “any issue Obama takes a public stance on might soon become polarized according to racial predispositions.” What the authors found from the data they reviewed is that the issues that President Obama openly endorsed or opposed became split along party lines in public opinion across the country. What we were split over however, was not the policy or the particular approach that the President took, but rather who the President was. During the eight years that President Obama served, one of the key drivers of this split was his race, operating in a way that had not been seen in our politics for quite some time.

 

When people openly embraced a strategy of non-cooperation and a public image of fighting against President Obama at every step, an atmosphere developed that was toxic and dangerous for our country. Policy and analysis fell behind tribalism, and our country’s problem with political polarization worsened, becoming a problem not just between conservative and liberal,  but a problem between races. Until the 2016 election the racial dynamics were shrouded behind phrases and ideas that appeared race neutral. Tesler and Sears do a great job cutting behind the veil to see the influence of race on public opinion by studying changes in public opinion with demographic date following the election of President Obama.

 

What worries me today is that we elected President Trump after he openly embraced racist stances and created an atmosphere that fostered racial divisions. He embodied a reaction more than a policy or party. What many have said, I think very correctly, is that President Trump is more of a backlash against a black president than anything else. In this sense, the polarization over race that began under President Obama has been heightened and maintained after his term. We have continued to see a split where anything publicly stated by President Trump is vehemently opposed by the Democrats who have come to stand for racial equality and the Republicans who have come to embrace ideas of whiteness. To move beyond this stage in politics requires a recognition of how our innate senses of tribalism have split us in our thoughts of otherness. We must recognize when we are acting on tribalism and when we are truly thinking more deeply about our policy stances.

 

Most people do not think deeply about a specific policy, but fall back on a few generalizations that I believe are easily opened to hidden motives that allow for tribal influence. Personal responsibility, work ethic, and deservingness are vague and hard to pin down, which allows for tribalism and implicit bias to shape our opinions. Understanding how those factors can be hijacked and controlled by racial predispositions is key if we want to think more deeply and move beyond our current polarization.