You Just Don’t Understand

It seems to be widely believed in the United States that politics is more partisan and divided than in the past. This is difficult to measure, but there are certainly reasons for supposing that the outlook of most Americans has become more Manichean – more divided into stark notions of light and dark. It is probably Lyndon Johnson’s fault.

Johnson was a remarkable President. He strikes this constitutional observer from a parliamentary democracy as being more of a Prime Minister than a President. His whole background was in Congress where he was – in the words of a noted biography – Master of the Senate. Johnson governed through Congress to a remarkable degree, delivering by legislation policies that had eluded Presidents of both parties for a generation. In doing so, he changed America’s parties fundamentally, and in ways he probably did not anticipate.

Johnson correctly anticipated that his comprehensive achievement of civil rights legislation would hand the south to the Republicans for a generation. In fact, the change was slower, but far deeper, than that. With the exception of 1976, the South has generally voted Republican at Presidential level since the end of the Johnson presidency, but this is not for the reasons Johnson anticipated, and the deeper transformation took much longer. The first southern state in which the GOP took the governorship and the legislature was atypical Florida in 1998. Georgia elected a Republican governor for the first time in 2002, 30 years after Johnson’s death.

Why did it take so long? Because voting for the Democrats was so deeply ingrained in the South and southern Democrats were very different from northerners of either party. Southern democrats were very conservative. They supported gun rights; they were deeply religious; they were staunchly anti-communist and pro-military. Why would they ever have been Democrats, especially during the Vietnam era? Because Democrats offered them one thing that no member of Lincoln’s party ever would or could: segregation. With Democrats promising “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” southerners who supported segregation were held hostage. They needed to support the Democrats, even while disagreeing with the party on almost everything else. So, while there have always been conservatives and liberals, in the 1960s these divisions were utterly unconnected with the divide between Republicans and Democrats. There were conservatives and liberals in both parties. Liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats cooperated in Congress, as did conservatives from both parties.

Today, ideological divisions and party divisions reinforce each other. To make matters worse, people live in homogenous communities. As Wisconsin gears up for a divisive recall election, many on both sides are confident of victory. Democrats in Madison and Republican voters in rural areas overwhelmingly encounter people who agree with them.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia has extensively researched these matters and finds that people – especially liberals – are often completely misinformed as to alternative viewpoints. Liberals are significantly less able than either moderates or conservatives to correctly predict how people of different ideologies would react to complex moral and political questions.

This is, of course, very surprising to liberals, who believe that they are well-educated and open-minded. Some have suggested that Professor Haidt’s research was biased by his conservative leanings. But this appears not to be so. Haidt was a partisan liberal when he began his research. The facts changed his mind.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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