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America's tribal schism
What caused it .. and is it here to stay?
Unsuspecting visitors to the Winsted Post Office are confronted with a mural depicting a political fight over the location of the post office in this now-faded mill town in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
According to local legend, Abraham Lincoln himself was said to have once proclaimed, “The fight over the location of the Winsted post office has given me more trouble than the whole Civil War.”
No, this is not a column about post offices. Today, I write about political animosity — you know, the kind that makes people to want to strangle each other. As the colorful mural suggests, partisan animosity is nothing new. Political strife has existed in this world at least since the ancient Greeks practically invented democracy in the 6th century BC.
Nor is strife anything new in the United States, but I think it’s safe to say that right now it’s reached a fever pitch. It’s not just the acrimony about policy that bedevils us. Normally, I would say what we are seeing is a severe form of partisanship. But in its current form, the acrimony revolves less around political party than around political teams. And if you belong to the wrong team, you’re not only misguided; you’re a bad person.
It’s gotten so bad that each time he is indicted, former President Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican Party actually improves. His closest rival for the Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now trails him by 46 points according to a Wall Street Journal poll conducted after last month’s GOP debate.
Imagine that happening 30 years ago. The closest analogue I can find is that after he was impeached (but not removed) in 1998 for lying about an affair with a White House intern, President Bill Clinton’s popularity actually increased. But that impeachment was prompted by the president lying under oath about oral sex in the Oval Office. Trump alleged offenses are much greater, both in number and gravity.
So how did we get here? According to a Pew Research Center study last year, since 2016, the percentages of Democrats and Republicans who have negative views of each other has grown sharply. Members of the each party are now much more likely to view members of the other party as “closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent and lazy.”
In addition, as MSNBC analyst Steve Rattner recently noted, since 1975 the percentage of Americans who view themselves as conservative and Democrats who identify as liberal has nearly doubled, a phenomenon Rattner calls “ideological sorting.” So the sorting has been ongoing at least since I was a senior in high school. The widespread view of the other side as intellectually or morally deficient is more recent.
Pew also found that the parties’ white voters have virtually flipped in wealth and education demographics since the early 90s, when the typical white Republican was richer and better educated than white, largely working-class, members of the Democratic Party. Now white Democrats are likely to be wealthier and better educated.
Then along came Donald Trump who, despite his ostentatious wealth and Ivy League education, convinced white working class Republicans that he was one of them. Trump stoked class divisions and longstanding grievances at every turn, convincing his followers that expertise was worthy of disdain and that rich elites (i.e. liberals) were trying to destroy the country. Trump didn’t cause the class divisions we are seeing now, but he shrewdly exploited them and drove us farther apart.
Lastly, Trump has convinced his supporters that attack on him is an attack on them. Hence his surge in popularity every time a new prosecutor slaps him with another indictment.
What explains this phenomenon of intense tribal distrust and disdain for those with opposing views? I can only look at other phenomena that changed at approximately the same time: the arrival of the internet, the changing media landscape and the pervasiveness of social media.
The media landscape has changed considerably in the late 90s when Fox News and MSNBC joined CNN in the land of cable news. Producers and network executives quickly discovered that, despite disingenuous pleas from news consumers for “just the facts,” straight news doesn’t sell. So opinion, analysis and pundit panels quickly became the order of the day, especially during prime time when all the eyeballs are watching.
The decline of print newspapers and the migration over to digital had huge implications for the business. Advertising rates on the internet are a fraction of what they are for print, so online newspapers are moving from advertising-based revenue streams to counting on subscribers and memberships for the bulk of their revenues.
This change in the revenue model has enormous implications for content. Instead of publishing content that pleases advertisers, newspapers are increasingly going with content that pleases readers. And we know what pleases news consumers the most: opinion, analysis and news content that otherwise panders to their own confirmation bias.
Last year, subscriptions accounted for 67% of the New York Times revenues. That’s astonishing when you consider that only 20 years ago advertising in most newspapers accounted for between 70% and 80% of the revenues. The Times and other media outlets know who pays the bills.
Social media has exacerbated the problem. Algorithms on Facebook and the platform formerly known as Twitter pander to your biases, feeding you mostly content that demonizes the other side, thus confirming your own beliefs and making you feel good about belonging to your tribe.
Americans haven’t been united about anything since 9/11. I fear we will not be so again for the remainder of my time on this earth.