Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Era When We Suffered From a Lack of Political Partisanship

Bill Bishop wrote his book The Big Sort to explain to us how and why political polarization seems to be growing without bound. He explains that 1965 was a turning point in US history and, subsequently, in the history of political involvement. If that was the year in which it could be claimed that political allegiances and attitudes began their descent into the politics of today, what might the political climate have been prior to that? Bishop provides us with a brief, but illuminating introduction to the pre-1960s.
"The American affliction of the 1950s wasn’t partisanship. It was indifference."

"Americans weren’t just uninformed about politics; they were tragically indifferent. ‘They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary,’ C. Wright Mills wrote in 1953, ‘they are inactionary; they are out of it’."

"Studies in the 1950s consistently found that only one-third of voters could differentiate between the two parties on the most contentious issues of the day. People voted faithfully for a particular party, but their allegiance wasn’t based on knowledge or belief. Only 11.5 percent of the population in 1960 had political beliefs that could be described as ideological."

This was an era marked by bipartisanship. Bishop describes 1948 to the mid 1960s as the most bipartisan period in history. This lack of political contention disturbed some.

"Bipartisanship to this degree, some thought, had put the nation into a dangerous kind of democratic coma."

The American Political Science Association was sufficiently concerned that it delegated a committee to study the issue and make recommendations.

"Four years later the committee published a lengthy (and alarmed) report calling for the return of ideologically distinct and powerful political parties. Parties ought to stand for distinct sets of policies, the political scientists urged. Voters should be presented with clear choices. And after an election, the winning party should be held responsible for enacting its platform."

It is possible that a few of those who participated in that study might have lived long enough to observe the result of that kind of wishful thinking.

Bishop suggests that the political indifference of that era was the result of the deprivations of the Great Depression, followed by the horrors and tumult of World War II. It would be understandable that the post-war years would be characterized by a desire for tranquility and order. Bishop indicates conformity was the comfort zone for most.

Is there a lesson to be drawn from this discussion? If there is, it probably lies in concluding that one should be careful about drawing lessons based on the past. The era we have discussed was created by the confluence of a set of unique events that will never be repeated. Within the space of a few years this age of political indifference was overcome by events and ceased to exist.

History can be described as a succession of unique eras defined by unique sets of circumstances. Not only does history not repeat itself, it doesn’t even rhyme. Sorry Mr. Twain. The world is constantly changing. This means that politics, economics, sociology, and even human beings are constantly changing. There are no fundamental laws in those fields of study, and there are no stable states of equilibrium.

If one is depressed by the current gloomy political and economic states of affairs, take comfort in the fact that they are constantly evolving. Things may get worse before they get better, but they will change. And change can occur rapidly; as we have just seen.

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