Root Causes of Political Rancor

It was like watching a food fight among 6th graders at my former public school in Brooklyn, P. S. 105. But I was actually watching the Republican debate among presidential candidates in South Carolina on February 13.

The name-calling, demonization of opponents and charges of “liar, liar, pants on fire” took my breath away. I found it hard to believe what I was hearing. How could political discourse stoop that low?

One cause of such deplorable behavior is the sheer lack of respect that many people have toward those who disagree with them, which increasingly characterizes discourse in many venues for human engagement, be they political rallies, churches, local community meetings or backyards. The goal of this very web site is to model a better way to engage those who disagree with you, the way of “respectful conversation.”

But the causes for such inhuman behavior run even deeper. Our society rewards such temper tantrums in two ways. First, there is ample evidence that such “negative political campaigning” works. Nastiness too often gathers votes. Shame on us as citizens when we reward such brutish behavior.

ohn Kasich, who, to his credit, refused to participate in the food fight on February 13, predicted that eventually the American electorate will not reward such boorish behavior when he said words to the effect that “if we keep behaving like this, we will lose the election in November.”

What scares me is the possibility that Kasich may be wrong about the American electorate not rewarding such disrespectful behavior, on either side of the political aisle, since such disrespect seems to have become the “new normal.”

But there is a second root cause of such disrespectful political discourse beyond the fact the being disrespectful often gets you elected, a deeper root cause that may help to explain why being disrespectful typically gets you elected: the systemic brokenness of our political system.

As pointed out by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein in their book  It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2012, 143-160), aspects of the systemic brokenness of our political system include closed primaries that minimize the number of moderate voters and candidates participating in the nominating process; gerrymandered voting districts that protect or harm the political interests of incumbents and parties; winner-take-all elections that militate against the diversity of voices within our pluralistic society, and the inordinate political influence of those with wealth since Citizens United. The two aspects that I see as root causes of the current political rancor are closed primaries and the inordinate political influence of those with wealth since Citizens United.

Consider first the system of closed primaries that attract numerous voters at the extremes of the political spectrum and not enough “moderate” voters. Voters at the political extremes seem to relish food fights, possibly because they are so deeply convinced about the truth of their positions that they are incapable of saying “here is my position, but I may be wrong” (which is the best entre into a respectful conversation about disagreements). Moderates are typically more open to listening to the differing views of others and then engaging in respectful conversation about disagreements in the quest for common ground, rather than resorting to food fights.

Secondly, consider the nature of the inordinate political influence of persons with wealth since Citizens United. The Super-PACS that spend obscene amounts of money in support of particular political candidates milk the empirical fact that “negative campaigning typically works” to the maximum, thus feeding the political rancor of those they support by means of their advertising (think about the significant amount of time spent in the “food fight debates” refuting the ads put out by super-PACS). In addition, the wealthy donors to such super-PACS seem to represent the “political extremes” rather than the more “moderate middle.”

n summary, the causes of the current political rancor are two-fold: A failure to embrace a respectful mode of engagement with those who disagree with you and a broken political system that feeds that failure. Addressing the first cause will take a change in “heart” bordering on “conversion”; a “turning away” from demonizing those who disagree with you to a “better way” that respects the dignity of every human being. Hopefully, politicians who demonstrate such respect for their political opponents will also have the courage and fortitude to address the apparently insurmountable problems associated with our current broken political system.

My vote in November will go to that candidate for President who demonstrates commitment to engaging in respectful conversation with those with whom he/she disagrees and who is committed to addressing the root causes of present political rancor.