Vanguard of a polarization trend?
One thing almost everyone recognizes about Nevada County, after the scenic beauty, is its extreme political polarization. In a community where the county and city elected offices are officially nonpartisan, the lines drawn are as rigidly partisan as can be.
I used to think the county was somewhat unique in that regard, perhaps related to the diverse waves of immigrants over the years – miners, hippies, retirees, dot-commers. Now I’m starting to believe that we’re not that different – we’re just in the vanguard of a major American political shift.
What got me thinking about this were recent columns by diverse pundits, the first being David Brooks, a New York Times op-ed columnist and a senior editor with the conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard.
The author of an insightful book, “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” he wrote in the Times on June 29, “To a large degree, polarization in America is a cultural consequence of the information age. This sort of economy demands and encourages education, and an educated electorate is a polarized electorate.”
Meaning, he said, that college-educated voters are more ideological, and the Web world makes it easier for people to surround themselves with people like themselves. The result is that Republican places become more Republican and Democratic places become more Democratic.
Thus, in terms of those color maps you see in election season, the Bay Area is becoming increasingly blue, and the foothills are becoming increasingly red. Brooks cites research by Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman that found that the number of counties where one party or another has a landslide majority has doubled over the past quarter-century.
The result, Brooks wrote, is “group polarization,” where “people lose touch with others in opposing, now distant, camps. And millions of kids are raised in what amount to political ghettoes.
Can we speculate where such ghettoes might be in Nevada County?
Alan Murray, the Washington bureau chief of CNBC and co-host of “Capitol Report,” wrote in his “Political Capital” column in the Wall Street Journal last week that “to an unprecedented degree, Americans already have decided how they are going to vote in November.”
He quoted Democratic pollster Peter Hart: “The polarization is exceptional. Even the independents break down into pro-Bush and anti-Bush groups.”
That hardening of views worries Murray “because I’m one of the few who still hasn’t decided. … Polarization reduces any incentive either candidate has to fight for the middle. American politicians are often at their best when they part ways with their ‘base’ and move to the center.”
He cited Nixon going to China or Clinton embracing NAFTA.
“Those are the moments that keep us together as a nation. But they are moments that have become increasingly rare.”
Can we think of any such moments in Nevada County?
Increasing polarization may be resulting in the redefinition of words – where they can have alternative meanings, depending upon one’s ideology. John Kerry’s embracing of “values” in his acceptance speech Thursday – a term used to great effect by George W. Bush in the last election – is an example.
Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, in a New York Times op-ed piece, claimed that for the first time in history, “me-tooism” – which in the political context means sacrificing ideological commitment to expediency – is as likely to be applied to one side as the other.
He believes this reflects “the public’s increasing impatience with purely ideological wrangling.” Another meaning, however, could be that the political definition of words such as “security,” “opportunity,” “responsibility” and “fairness” are up for grabs.
Washington Post political sage David Broder noted in a recent column: “While values questions [such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control] can be wielded as weapons by energized advocates on both sides, there is a wide swatch of Americans who regard these as either dangerous or impractical debates. The pragmatists among us know that community life requires acceptance of people whose values are different from one’s own.”
Broder asks: “What explains the centrality of value questions in American politics? Is this just rhetoric or are we really being asked to choose between rival value systems?”
As readers of The Union’s letters to the editor, what do you think?
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturday.
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