On The Root Causes of Hyperpartisanship

American hyperpartisanship and partisan mutual antipathy is a problem that everyone recognizes. Fixing it is another matter entirely.

The most superficial level of trying to solve the problem involves each partisan side insisting that the other side should be “more bipartisan,” but what that really means is “you should agree with me.” We can imagine: “hyperpartisanship is really bad; if only the other side weren’t so unreasonable, it would be fine.”

One grows a level more sophisticated (level 2) by recognizing that this won’t work. “We need to compromise.” Those at this 2nd level try to solve the problem by finding new politicians that are “reasonable” or “moderate,” or they simply insist that congresspeople work together more. In short, they believe that the problem is a fairly arbitrary decision by legislators to be partisan, and if we just changed the people in office, it would be fine. The problem here is that politicians won’t get elected by a platform of “I’m going to compromise with the other side on everything” or “I am going to have a moderate/centrist platform.” It’s not engaging and the people that vote in primaries tend to be partisan rather than moderate.

At a third level one realizes that the issue is that hyper-engaged partisan extremes have a disproportionate control over politics. They are loud and angry, they donate money, they campaign, and they have high turnout. They control who wins the primary elections, so winning the primaries means appealing to this group. One realizes that one needs to re-engage the sensible middle ground and get them more involved in politics.

At a fourth level one thinks about why the sensible middle ground has been disengaged and why the partisans have become more extreme. One sees that this has gotten worse over time and realizes that there are forces driving people apart. This process is called wedging. Wedging tactics engage partisans through emotion and increase turnout: this is the highest return on political investment for politicians. But these tactics also drive greater extremism because the national dialogue has turned towards anger, oversimplification, and antipathy.

At the fifth level, one realizes that one cannot simply force politicians and the media to stop. Because these tactics are so successful, electoral and market forces will continue to make them win, and therefore the Darwinist pressures in elections and in capturing market share will make them continue to rise to the top. The only way to stop this process is ultimately to destroy the soil in the American electorate that is fertile for wedging. The mindsets of the American public must change such that wedging tactics no longer work to drive votes, donations, campaigning, viewership, and loyalty.

OUR MISSION: We want people who read Wedged (coming this November) to respond differently to wedging. we want them to be primed to say, “hang on a minute,” when wedging tactics are used on them. We can do this by making them aware that it’s happening, by illustrating what wedging tactics look like, and by providing alternative ways to think about problems that do not result in black & white extremes.

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Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.