Arvanitakis on American politics: Why bipartisanship is hard

| September 28, 2019

There is no doubt that President Donald Trump is a controversial figure who continues to show disdain for the media, tradition and procedure. The latest scandal involving reports he was seeking political dirt on the son of his potential Democrat rival, Joe Biden, is another example of the way the President polarises public opinion.

While President Trump continues to make the headlines, his behaviour and those headlines are hiding an important trend: that many of us (in America, Australia and around the world) are increasingly losing faith in democratic institutions.

How Americans feel about their government and its institutions was highlighted by a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, trust is at a historic low.

The survey showed that many Americans think that those in positions of power often act unethically, with 49 percent of respondents indicating that they believe politicians care about those they represent ‘only a little’ or ‘none’ of the time.

This paralysis of democracy is driven by a partisanship that makes collaboration across the political aisle almost impossible.

It is easy for progressives to blame the behaviour of Donald Trump, and for conservatives to point the finger at what they see as the socialist policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the reasons for the divide are much deeper.

This short article is driven by a broader research agenda investigating the rise of partisanship and the loss of trust in our political institutions. There are no straightforward solutions, but we would like to outline four reasons why this is occurring:

1. We are not having the same conversations

In 1983, sociologist Benedict Anderson described countries as ‘imagined communities.’ His argument was that print media, and later television, allowed millions of people across a country to share stories and experiences that helped to foster their collective sense of national identity. National newspapers and news broadcasts allowed us to develop a shared understanding about the events of the day and our place in the world.

However, fracturing of the media has changed this, and we no longer have a shared understanding or single source of trust. An example of this is the New York Times featuring the Trump-Ukraine controversy on their front page, while the Breitbart News featured the same story as a hoax near the bottom of its bulletin.

2. We live in echo chambers

In addition to fracturing of the media, search engines like Google, prioritise results based on our previous search history. This means that we more frequently come across websites, opinions and stories that we agree with. Such ‘echo chambers’ reinforce our beliefs, a phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’.

The extent to which this occurs was highlighted by a 2016 Wall Street Journal project titled Red Feed, Blue Feed that allowed readers to pick a topic and see how ‘blue media’ and ‘red media’ dealt with the same topic side by side. As noted by Politico in a 2017 review of the Donald Trump election, the bubble is real, and worse than we think.

In this environment, no wonder hoaxes and conspiracy theories from both the left and the right can take hold.

3. Bipartisanship backlash

In a recent presentation at the University of Wyoming, former Senators Brian Baird (Dem) and Scott Klug (Rep) and Alan K Simpson (Rep.) shared stories of having been threatened with losing their ‘re-selection’ because they were willing to cross the aisle.

This was also highlighted recently when high profile Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said that moderate Democrats who vote with Republicans are “putting themselves on a list” to be targeted in their re-election bids.

This is a strategy she admits to having used in the past. It is also a strategy that Newt Gingrich has used against moderates in the Republican Party. No matter where your political sympathies lie, such strategies mean that negotiation, cooperation and compromise are difficult to achieve.

4. Resentment and anti-establishment sentiment

As repeatedly highlighted, many OECD nations across the world have experienced a hollowing out of the middle class. This has occurred under the government of both centre-left and centre-right mainstream political parties, and has led to what has been described as the ‘politics of resentment’.

This, combined with widespread distrust of political leaders highlighted above, has contributed to strong sense of anti-establishment.

This sense of being left behind underscored the findings of political scientist, Kathy Cramer, who spent years crisscrossing Wisconsin, chatting to church groups, retirees, and others to learn about their political beliefs, attitudes, and fears.

Cramer’s research highlighted feelings of anger and a sense of having been ignored by leaders, decision-makers and ‘elites’. In this context, representatives that give concessions to their rivals become easy targets and risk voter backlash.

Partisanship division is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary politics. In 2018, More in Common highlighted that the majority of Americans want mainstream parties to find the middle ground and find solutions to the many challenges confronting our world.

This requires compromise and cooperation, and leaders willing to put the nation ahead of their own ambitions. Unfortunately, this type of leadership is far from that which has characterised the Presidency of Donald Trump nor various leaders within the Democrats.

This article was written by James Arvanitakis with Dr Andrew D. Garner of the University of Wyoming and Dr GTI Tawakkal of the University of Brawijaya.