After the music …
What defines a Republican, these days? How about a Democrat? That’s a difficult question to answer. After years of shifting priorities and ideologies, the beliefs of Republicans of today bear little resemblance to those of somebody of that affiliation from a decade ago, and the modern Democrat is just as far removed from recent predecessors. But one thing is clear: Republicans aren’t Democrats and hate anybody who is, and Democrats feel the same about Republicans.
Identity established by mutual loathing is pretty much all there is to go on when partisans of the two factions so rapidly change positions, sometimes despising one another for holding fast to beliefs they themselves once supported. In their struggle for control of the government, it’s all about loyalty and power, without any deeper meaning.
“Six in 10 Republicans say they would rather have a president who agrees with their political views but does not set a good moral example for the country, as opposed to one who sets a good moral example but does not agree with them politically. In contrast, 75% of Democrats prefer a president who sets a good moral example over one who agrees with their issue positions,” Gallup reported last week. “In 1999, Republicans’ and Democrats’ opinions were reversed, with Republicans favoring a president who sets a good moral example and Democrats preferring one who agrees with them politically.”
Of course, Republicans downplay moral issues at a time when the president from their party shows every sign of being morally crippled, just as Democrats deemphasized morals when their own occupant of the White House had his sleaziness on display. Then as now, tribal affiliation overcame any supposed principles.
The primacy of tribal affiliation has also been obvious in the course of semi-regular media pranks when partisans have been deliberately presented with misattributed quotes about public policy issues. Interviewees inevitably become befuddled when they learn that the “bad” opinion they dutifully denounced belonged, not so long ago, to the “good” side.
More broadly, the recent changes in party positions have involved “the transformation of the GOP into the party of Patrick J. Buchanan and Donald J. Trump—defined by cultural resentments, crude populism, and ethnic nationalism,” as Peter Wehner puts it in The Atlantic. At the same time, “the Democratic Party is embracing a form of identity politics in which gender, race, and ethnicity become definitional” along with progressive/socialist economics that are “fiscally ruinous, invest massive and unwarranted trust in central planners, and weaken America’s security.”
Such rapid shifts on issues and ideology have left little time for developing a strong basis of enthusiasm for what political partisans are supposedly for, but that’s left people plenty of energy left to expend on what they’re against.
“We find that while partisan animus began to rise in the 1980s, it has grown dramatically over the past two decades,” Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin, political scientists at Stanford, reported in a paper published last year. “As animosity toward the opposing party has intensified, it has taken on a new role as the prime motivator in partisans’ political lives. … today it is outgroup animus rather than ingroup favoritism that drives political behavior.”
That means politically partisan Americans are defining themselves not by what they have in common with allies, but by how much they hate their enemies. They may not have a good handle on what they’re fighting about but, damnit, they’re gonna fight.
Fifty-five percent of Republicans said Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans, and 47 percent of Democrats said likewise about Republicans, as Pew Research noted last month. “The level of division and animosity—including negative sentiments among partisans toward the members of the opposing party—has only deepened” since the last survey three years ago.
Fifty-five percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats say the party opposing their own is “not just worse for politics—they are downright evil,” according to a YouGov survey. Thirty-four percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats say the other party “lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals.”
Factions that aren’t really firm about what they believe, shift positions, but are dead-set in their hatred for one another to the point of dehumanization? In a weird way, such partisan animus for its own sake sounds an awful lot like the ancient rivalry between the Blues and the Greens—the chariot teams turned political parties that played such a prominent role in sixth-century Byzantine political life. As with modern Republicans and Democrats it was never entirely clear what they stood for beyond opposition to one another, but rioting between the two factions ultimately burned half of Constantinople to the ground.
When the Blues and Greens set about burning down their city, they were encouraged by senators who hoped to seize the imperial throne for themselves. They sought to take advantage of the chaos.
Nothing much has changed over the centuries.
“Partisan negativity is self-reinforcing, that is, political elites are motivated to stoke negativity to boost their chances of reelection,” Iyengar and Krupenkin wrote in their 2018 paper.
Fundamentally, then, what defines Republicans and Democrats isn’t programs or beliefs or ideology—it’s achieving power and destroying the enemy in the process. What’s done once power is achieved—beyond grinding “evil” and “immoral” enemies into dust—is secondary at best.
Since platforms and ideas don’t really matter, there’s no room for finding common ground or cutting deals. Opposing political factions can compromise, for good or ill, on health care bills and defense schemes. But how do you split the difference when what separates you isn’t a matter of firm values or principles, but a mutual desire to seize total control and to smash all who don’t wear your gang colors?
Ultimately, the only way to keep the peace is to make sure there’s no prize to be won. So long as there’s a powerful government over which hateful partisans fight for dominance, we’re all in danger from the battling factions.
When the first priority of a politician is to get more power, you have this, reported by Nick Gillespie:
For a self-styled digital native who stresses “21st century solutions” to today’s problems, presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has a decidedly 20th century way of addressing what he considers to be problems: spend more, regulate more.
As Reason‘s Billy Binion noted, the tech entrepreneur’s proposals about “Regulating Technology Firms in the 21st Century” involve a lot of unwise monkeying around with “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act; the landmark legislation protects social media companies from facing certain liabilities for third-party content posted by users online.” Like many other critics of online platforms (including progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and conservatives such as Josh Hawley), Yang buys into the nonexistent distinction between “publishers” and “platforms” as a means of regulating the speech and economic freedom of social media companies and website operators.
In the same document, Yang also proposes to
- Create a Department of the Attention Economy that focuses specifically on how to responsibly design and use smartphones, social media, gaming, and chat apps. It will include overall guidelines, as well as age-based ones.
- Provide guidance (and regulation, if needed) on design features that maximize screen time for young people, like removing autoplay video for children under 16, removing the queues that allow infinite scrolling, capping the number of recommendations per day, reducing notification signs and “like” counts, and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to determine when children are using devices to cap screen hours per day.
- Establish rules and standards around kid-targeted content to protect them from inappropriate content.
- Incentivize content production of high-quality and positive programming for kids similar to broadcast TV.
- Require platforms to provide guidance on kid-healthy content for parents, and provide incentives for companies that work to make user data of minors available to their parents.
- Include classes on the responsible use of technology in public school curricula and teach children how to distinguish reliable from unreliable news sources online.
It’s this sort of “new” thinking that loses libertarians. In what way does a new, presumably cabinet-level, agency do anything other than expand the size, scope, and spending of government in a way that will inevitably limit speech and expression? That it’s being done in the name of “the children” makes it seem like a punchline from a mid-1990s episode of The Simpsons. Yang asserts that “we are beginning to understand exactly how much of an adverse effect” social media is having on kids and that Facebook, Twitter, and the rest face no “real accountability” even as he rhapsodizes about his 20th century childhood: “I look back at my childhood and I remember riding a bike around the neighborhood, but now tablets, computers, and mobile devices have shifted the attention of youth.”
Spare me the nostalgia and moral panic, which is highly reminiscent of the ’90s panic over the supposed effects on kids of sex and violence on cable TV (lest we forget, Attorney General Janet Reno and other leaders threatened censorship if the menace of Beavis and Butt-head and other basic cable fare wasn’t cleaned up). The social science is far from settled on any of this stuff and the first reaction to perceived problems should never be creating a series of government controls. Social media companies face all sorts of pushback in the marketplace, too, including lack of interest from users (Facebook has posted two years of declining use in the U.S.).
What would any of Yang’s plans cost in terms of dollars and cents? It doesn’t really matter because the visionary will pay for everything with a value-added tax on digital advertising.
Lord knows Republicans, including Donald Trump, are hardly avatars of a new way of governing, but the Democratic presidential candidates have yet to meet a problem that can’t be solved by creating a whole new program or bureaucracy. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to shell out $1 trillion to make housing, child care, and college more affordable. Elizabeth Warren wants to raise taxes by $26 trillion and Bernie Sanders wants national rent-control laws while washout Beto O’Rourke yammered on about the right to live close to work before bidding adieu to the 2020 race. Joe Biden wants to spend $750 billion over the next decade to deliver what Obamacare was supposed to do.
Over the last 40 years, federal spending averaged 20.4 percent of GDP while federal revenue averaged just 17.4 percent. That gap, says the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is only going to get wider, saddling future Americans with more and more debt, which dampens long-term economic growth, among other bad outcomes.
The federal government spent about $4.4 trillion in fiscal year 2019 (while posting a $1 trillion deficit). Surely there is more than enough savings to be found in that massive sum before proposing big new programs that will be layered on top of a seemingly infinite number of existing efforts to fix all the big and small problems of the world. It shouldn’t be too much to insist that all candidates for president (and every other federal office) explain how they are going to bring revenues and outlays into some sort of balance. But at the very least, we shouldn’t stand for yet more spending and regulation that simply gets layered on top of what is already there.
Regardless of whether the spending comes from a D or an R.