When Joe Biden assumes the presidency on Jan. 20, he will lead a deeply polarized nation facing historic challenges. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, with more than 11 million U.S. cases and 246,000 deaths, Americans and their elected leaders can’t even agree on basic measures to protect public health.
How did we become so divided?
Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science, has examined the origins of political polarization. In his 2018 book, “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself,” co-authored with Yale colleague Frances McCall Rosenbluth, Shapiro argues that the transfer of political power to the grassroots has eroded trust in politicians, parties, and democratic institutions, culminating in the rise of divisive, populist politics in the United States and abroad.
Shapiro recently spoke to YaleNews about what’s ailing American politics. The interview has been edited and condensed.
How have the last four years affected the country’s political institutions?
Many people are concerned about the damage Trump has inflicted on America’s political institutions. What they are missing is that Trump is a product of bad political institutions. The main infirmity is that the United States has very weak political parties. They are weak because they are subject to control by unrepresentative voters on their fringes and those who fund them.
Why do voters on the fringes have such influence?
It’s due to the role of primaries at the presidential level and the interaction of primaries and safe seats in Congress. Primaries are not new; we’ve had them since the Progressive era. The basic problem with them today is they are usually marked by very low turnout and the people on the fringes of the parties vote disproportionately in them. The same is true of caucuses. Donald Trump was selected as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 by less than 5% of the U.S. electorate.
A similar dynamic plays out in Congress. The Tea Party’s takeover of the Republican Party after 2009 was driven by candidates who won very low-turnout primaries. We’re talking 12% to 15% turnout. This is true of the Democrats, too. In 2016, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice of the party’s left wing, won her primary against the incumbent Joe Crowley, a moderate Democrat, with an 11% turnout in New York’s 14th congressional district.
What changed about primaries to make them so polarizing?
What’s changed is the steady increase in safe seats for the both parties in the House and Senate. If a seat is safe for the party, this means that the only election that matters is the primary. That’s what produces polarization: The primary voters are pulling candidates toward the fringes. If you ignore your party’s fringe, then you’ll get knocked off in the primary. It creates incentives to demonize opponents and embrace extreme policies.
It used to be true that politicians in Congress were more polarized than the electorate. In recent years the electorate has also become more polarized. Frances Rosenbluth and I are examining this dynamic with our research group at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs on effective democratic governance. People think that politicians respond to voters, but that’s an artificial view of how voter mobilization works. Actually, politicians frame issues for voters.
How does that play out in elections?
Well, it’s not as if there were 63 million people in America in 2015 saying, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if some candidate would call for building a wall on the border with Mexico?” That’s not how people get mobilized. What happened was that a candidate emerged who was telling financially insecure and politically alienated people that their jobs were going to Mexico, immigrants were causing crime, that self-dealing elites were ignoring this, and we’ve got to do something about it. Angry, vulnerable people then embraced that message. In other words, voters’ preferences don’t fall out of the sky. Voters are mobilized by political entrepreneurs.
What’s the focus of your current research amid this intensifying polarization?
We’re studying this as a two-step process. The primaries and caucuses pull the candidates to the extremes, but they want their party to win in the general election. They know that if they move to the center, they’re going to get attacked in the next primary. So instead, they try to move more moderate voters toward the extremes, so that there will be less pressure on them from party leaders to moderate their views once elected. In this way, the polarization of Congress didn’t follow the polarization of the population, it preceded it. Think of it as push-polling writ large. Candidates get pulled to the extremes by primary voters and then attempt to mainstream those extremist views to make it easier for their party to win the general election.
At the presidential level, primaries only became important in the 1970s, but a similar dynamic operates. Consider Trump. In 2016, the Republican establishment could not stop him. They had 16 candidates and they would have taken almost any of the others over Trump. But they couldn’t prevent his mobilizing primary voters with promises to build his wall for which Mexico would pay, end illusory increases in crime and illegal immigration, restore obsolete mining and manufacturing jobs, and other things he wasn’t actually going to be able to do. Our basic problem is that weak parties are vulnerable to hostile takeovers of this sort.
How did all the safe seats develop?
It’s a combination of things. It’s partly demographic sorting. Urbanization creates blue cities in red states, producing non-diverse constituencies. Partisan gerrymandering compounds this, as parties create safe districts for themselves when they control state legislatures. By the way, we also get bipartisan gerrymandering, where the parties cut deals and carve up the states into safe districts for each. Majority-minority districts have the same effect: The price of increasing minority representation in this way is that districts become more politically homogeneous. The net effect is more safe seats, which make the party primaries all the more important.
The Electoral College has come under criticism from the left for being anti-democratic and facilitating Trump’s election. Would the country be better off without it?
It is understandable why people want to abolish the Electoral College. They think it systematically disfavors the Democrats because it empowers predominantly southern, predominantly rural, predominantly Republican states. Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016 if we didn’t have the Electoral College. Without it, there would be no issue about Biden’s victory, but he’s going to win anyway.
Here’s the cost of getting rid of the Electoral College: If you think the basic institutional dysfunction in American politics is weak parties in the legislature, strengthening the independent legitimacy of the president would make them even weaker. The direct election of the president would make our system more like Argentina’s or Brazil’s. The president would find it easier to insist that “only I have been elected by the American people.” This is catnip for populist candidates. It enhances executive power, further weakening parties in the legislature.
How could the nomination of populist candidates be avoided?
Before the 1830s, the congressional parties chose the presidential candidates. It made the U.S. operate more like a parliamentary system because these congressional caucuses would pick candidates who they believed they could run and win with. America’s first populist revolt began when Andrew Jackson attacked this system as a bastion of Eastern elites after it declined to select him in 1824. In the early 1830s it was replaced by party conventions. I would much like to see us return to giving the congressional parties a bigger role in picking presidential candidates. In 2016, there is no way the congressional Republicans would have chosen Donald Trump. They would have gone for Jeb Bush or someone like him.
Should Politics Be On The Discussion Menu On Thanksgiving? Experts Weigh In – CBS New York
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Getting ready to gather virtually with family on Thanksgiving?
How will you navigate inevitable conversations about the still-contentious election?
Is politics simply to be avoided? Can it be?
Those were the days, remembered Sheri Baker of Old Westbury. Thanksgiving will look very different this year with a giant family Zoom chat, but there are some things that won’t be different.
“We have learned sort of the hard way that there are some topics when it comes to politics that are better left unsaid in order to keep the holidays happy,” Baker told CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff on Wednesday.
Emotions are still running high following the the election, splitting not only the country, but families.
“I think our country is more divided than ever.
“It’s terrible,” another person said.
And as we gather, even virtually, should politics be banned from Thanksgiving?
“What I do recommend is speaking to family in advance and having a plan,” said Dr. Amanda Fialk, chief of clinical services at the DORM, a treatment community in New York City for young adults.
Fialk said to set parameters ahead of time to either avoid politics or limit when it may be discussed.
“I think it’s useful to ask questions of them rather than to speak at them and make statements,” Fialk said.
And take a timeout when you’re simply not hearing one another.
“When it’s no longer productive, end it. And that doesn’t mean end it forever. That just means end it for right now,” Fialk said.
Or take a cue from couples therapy techniques to help heal relationships with those on the other side of the political divide.
“We are an American family. We sit a the same table and if we expel people from the table because of their political views we will lose our ability to function as a country,” said family therapist Bill Doherty, co-founder of Braver Angels.
“I think everybody’s aim is to try to do their part, to keep healthy, keep safe, protect our friends and family and strangers, so we can get through this,” Baker added.
Baker said she plans to focus on being thankful, to count our blessings, not our differences.
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Politics Briefing: Ontario Auditor-General slams province’s pandemic response – The Globe and Mail
Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk has slammed the provincial government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a special report, Ms. Lysyk said, among other flaws, the “command table” of experts handling the crisis ballooned from 21 to 500 people and did not meet for a video conference until July.
The Auditor-General said the province had failed to learn its lessons from the 2003 SARS crisis.
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John McCallum, the former Liberal minister and ambassador to China who was dismissed in 2019, says Canada does not need a registry of foreign agents, similar to ones created in the United States and Australia.
Relatives of the Canadian victims of a Boeing 737 Max crash are urging the government to be extremely careful before clearing the plane for flying again.
The Liberal government has given notice it will table a bill to legalize single-game sports betting. A private member’s bill to legalize the practice sailed through the House in 2013, but stalled in the Senate before it could become law.
As Alberta sees rates of COVID-19 soar, the provincial government is enacting new lockdowns that still allow many businesses to operate.
And Politico has a fascinating deep dive into the Trump campaign’s failed efforts to overturn the election results in Michigan, a state he lost by 154,000 votes — and the state Republicans who nevertheless supported the fraudulent claims of fraud.
Andrew Coyne (The Globe and Mail) on conspiracy theories about “The Great Reset”: “It would be of the greatest assistance in dispelling populist fears of shadowy globalist plots for world domination if the objects of their paranoia did not so often carry on like cackling Bond villains.”
André Picard (The Globe and Mail) on why Alberta’s new lockdown measures are inadequate: “What we saw Tuesday was inaction posing as action, a quasi-libertarian Premier bending over backward to do nothing while pretending otherwise.”
Jillian Kohler and Jonathan Cushing (The Globe and Mail) on what the pandemic means for pharmaceutical companies: “In the wake of the encouraging news about COVID-19 vaccine trials from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, global attention is on pharmaceutical companies like never before. But in the understandable excitement, the companies in the spotlight risk overlooking a major opportunity: the chance to prioritize transparency and global health over profits, and build their credibility.”
Identity politics vs. melting pot vision – OCRegister
The jousting over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of a U.S. senator to succeed Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is fast becoming the epitome — or nadir — of identity politics.
It’s a mindset in which the personalities, talents, character and accomplishments of individual human beings are secondary to being defined by their race, ethnicity, gender, age and/or sexual identification — and are expected to automatically reflect the values and mores of their designated categories.
Inevitably, then, politics become a competition among identity groups for power and distribution of public goods — a modern version of tribalism that succeeds the earlier vision of America as a melting pot that blends immigrant cultures into a unique society.
Oddly, ordinary Americans increasingly resist such categorization. We intermarry, we happily live in integrated neighborhoods, we have and adopt children of mixed ethnicity, we send our children to integrated schools and we embrace food and music from disparate cultures. That’s especially true in California, the most ethnically and culturally complex of the 50 states.
Harris herself is both a product of the melting pot vision — her mother migrated from India, her father from Jamaica and they met as students at the University of California — and of the politics of identity. Depending on the audience and the moment, she identified herself as Black or Indo-American, but she also married a white man who is Jewish.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Newsom is feeling pressure from identity groups to choose a new senator from within their ranks, each saying Newsom “must” pay homage with an appointment.
Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor who was also Newsom’s political mentor, is leading a public drive for a Black woman to succeed Harris, who is also a former Brown protégé.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, still another Brown protégé, is on his list, along with Congresswomen Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Barbara Lee of Oakland.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund is another group publicly pushing Newsom to make history by appointing the nation’s first openly non-heterosexual senator.
Several women’s organizations are demanding that Newsom replace Harris with another woman.
Finally, Latino groups are pressing Newsom to honor the state’s largest ethnic group by appointing California’s first Latino senator.
Asked about his intentions during a briefing on COVID-19 this week, Newsom said he doesn’t have a self-imposed deadline, “But progress has been made in terms of getting closer to that determination.”
The odds-on favorite among political handicappers is that Newsom will appoint a Latino, possibly Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who has a lengthy and close relationship with the governor.
As the cynics — or realists — see the situation, Newsom has already given a nod to Black and LGBTQ groups by naming Martin Jenkins to a seat on the state Supreme Court. He could placate one of the other groups by naming a successor to Padilla in the secretary of state’s office. The same dynamics would apply if he chose another Latino, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, for the Senate.
While the competition for Newsom’s senatorial appointment typifies identity politics, it also demonstrates their unfortunate aspect of ignoring what should be the most important factor. We should have someone in the Senate of good character and demonstrated competence and who approaches the position with an independent mind, as the state’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, has done.
It should not matter which identity group wins the competition. It should matter that whomever Newsom chooses will be seen as representing every Californian, not just one faction of the state’s 40 million residents.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary
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