Friday, August 12, 2011

Polarized America--or not.

Read this interesting piece in The New York Times on the August recess and visits members of Congress are having with their constituents. Read it here.

Are Americans polarized like the representatives and senators who represent them in Washington? Recent research suggests, no, they are not. See Professor Morriss Fiorina's work as perhaps the most complete and accessible of the genre.

But here's the kicker. Americans may not be polarized, but the voices of moderation from the middle--the independent voters--may not be heard by those serving in Washington. There's an amazing bit of self-selection going on when it comes to writing their member and showing up at neighborhood meetings with them. Psychologically, individuals try to avoid what is known as cognitive dissonance, which simply means they do not want to have their views challenged and will dismiss information not consistent with their pre-exising views. People who disagree with their members simply stay away. More often than not, members of Congress are preaching to the choir at these gatherings and not really being challenged on their positions.

The moderates--the independents--tend to be less engaged politically. They tend to vote less. They participate in political routines less. The public may not be polarized, but those who engage in the political debate tend to be. The long and short of it is this: until the great middle decides to show up, it is unlikely that the tone and tenure of the political debate will change. Compromise is a dirty word to the ideologically committed.

Unfortunately, politics is--by definition--compromise. The Constitution itself is perhaps the best example of compromise in American politics.

Here's my plea: if America is truly about moderation and compromise as Fiorina's research suggests, then independents and moderates need to start showing up and engaging your members of Congress--or you will never get the change you want. And to those who are on the left or the right, try engaging in folks from the other side of the aisle. If you're a liberal, read The National Review. If you're a conservative, give The American Prospect a try. Never be afraid of ideas. Engage!

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