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Shutdown is over, but polarizing parties live on, KU scholar says

Friday, October 25, 2013

LAWRENCE — Sixteen days probably never seemed so long to the politicians sparring and federal employees furloughed by the U.S. government shutdown this month.

The time pales in comparison, however, to the 589 days the Belgians endured without a national government from 2010-2011, a result of a cultural divide between the nation’s Dutch speakers, who live in the north, and southern French speakers. Even two years after reconciliation, questions linger as to whether Belgium will someday split into two separate countries.

The U.S. shutdown highlighted a different kind of rift: the conflict between Democrats and Republicans. But could tension between the parties ever dissolve American government for good?

“Some people wonder if we can continue to survive when we’re this polarized,” said Alan Arwine, Western democracies scholar and political science lecturer at the University of Kansas. “The partisanship gap in Congress is wider than it has been since 1879” — the year scholars began measuring party polarization in Congress.

From the U.S. to Belgium, Arwine and co-author Lawrence Mayer, with the University of Texas, examine how changes in social structures, demographics and other issues impact political parties and policy in their new book, “The Changing Basis of Political Conflict in Advanced Western Democracies.”

It’s not really geographically feasible to split the U.S. into two new homelands — one for conservatives, one for liberals — but the fact remains that the parties have changed over the past several decades, Arwine said.

Fifty years ago, social class was the most reliable factor for determining whether Americans considered themselves liberals or conservatives. The traditional left-to-right spectrum is based on “politics of interest” in which, broadly speaking, workers support political parties that protect their rights (fair wages and working conditions). Business owners, on the other hand, support the party that rallies for lower taxes and fewer business regulations. 

Arwine and Mayer’s book describes how this view of the parties is losing influence. Filling its vacuum are the “politics of identity,” in which groups define themselves by a shared set of values. Now, instead of picketing for higher wages, voters focus on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration.

“The concept of identity is about the answer to the questions ‘who am I?’ and ‘what is the purpose and meaning of my life?’” Arwine said. “Identity is about feeling.”

Although Belgium’s conflict stems more from cultural differences than social issues, it’s politics of identity that led to that government’s shutdown.

Politics of identity are shaping other European nations, too. In an act widely viewed as an attempt to preserve its own culture, France banned face-covering veils. Throughout Europe, anti-immigrant platforms are central to a number of emerging and growing political parties.

For Americans, it seems the further removed the U.S. becomes from its post-World War II outlook, the more entrenched the parties become in politics of identity.

“During the war, everyone felt they had to contribute in some way, and after the war, people maintained that attitude that they were all in this together,” Arwine said. “A lot of wealthy people felt it was simply their duty to pay their taxes and give back to the government that educated their workers and provided the infrastructure that allowed their businesses to operate.”

Today, that mentality has changed, Arwine said.

“You hear people say, ‘I built it myself, and if the government takes taxes, they’re stealing from me,’” he said.

Recently, movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have considerably heightened ideological resistance between the two parties, even though they’re not endorsed by either party, Arwine and Mayer wrote.

During Barack Obama’s first term, there was an unprecedented degree of party line voting in Congress. The president’s health care bill passed without a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives. In 2009, his $787 billion stimulus package was opposed by every House Republican.

By welcoming the influence of an interest group like the Tea Party, even without endorsing them, Republicans alienated more centrist politicians from the party. On the other hand, Democrats appeared to have take on the pursuit of an egalitarian distribution of material well-being and social justice by opening up to the Occupy movement.

As for whether these shifts will permanently alter the political landscape — turning American politics either more elite or more populist — it’s too early to say, Arwine and Mayer wrote.