Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Importance of Values in Polarization

Past research of my has focused on the difficulties in defining values and applying them to different scenarios. Despite the research complications, values remain an important aspects of politics, religion, culture, organizations, and relationships. My recent readings of the God Strategy and the Faith Factor have reinforced my respect for the "values voters" that make up the religious right and conservatively 1/3 of the US electorate. As a united front, they are an invaluable voting block for Republicans. They typically do not vote Democratic (though recently ethnic evangelicals have for Obama) and are concerned with electing Republican nominees who reflect their values of hetero-normative definitions of marriage, anti-women's choice towards pregnancy and birth control, and a general aversion to stem cell research. The marrying of religion and politics allows for values to remain integral aspects of candidate character and personality.

Cartoon from Times-Picayune

As mentioned before, this focus on values is pervasive for all of all politics, but is especially important for Republicans. As the Grand Old Party, associated with nostalgia, antiquity, and maintaining the status quo, their candidates must embody those values more than the Democratic Party. Democrats, instead, often emphasize abstract goals for future engagement, inclusivity, and are the pioneers in equality and acceptance of minority groups (e.g., the current fight for LGBTQ rights). What has changed in recent years, however, is the polarization of these values into groups that cannot compromise on basic ideas. There is less freedom to express moderate values and politicians are in near constant campaigns. For example, the environment has become a haven for political isolation where Democrats are expected to be environmentally conscious and Republicans who are can be considered traitors. The Republican values of free market and enterprise trump those of the environment, and that is avoiding the larger issue of religious identification that also complicates the issue.

The graph above is from the Pew Research Center American Values Survey that shows the gap between support for the values. The environment has increased dramatically from only a 5% difference in those that support in 1987 to a 39% difference in those that support the environment in 2012. This polarization shows more established party lines on values where compromise is precluded by trying to remain party loyal. What is the future of American politics? How can the polarization continue with politicians and the general public operating as enemies? The 2008 election brought about massive celebrations for Barack Obama's election and massive despair from people convinced that a terrible decision had been made. Similarly, Obama's reelection was met by rumors of secession and outrage by Republicans. Perhaps my favorite response was the emerge of "White People Mourning Romney" tumblr which emerged out of whites being the only race that Romney earned the majority of their votes. South Park's rendition of the hyperbolic reactions that people had in their episode "About Last Night" perfectly sums up the political polarization currently plaguing America.

I would like to be optimistic and predict a reverse in the polarization or at least a breaking point where the polarization is no longer sustainable, but it is unlikely. I do find hope in the small compromises, but they are few and far between. One solution could be a more critical, "unlovable" media that encourages compromise by expressing the dysfunction of current polarization. The Internet can also serve as a new public sphere where citizens can serve as fact-checkers and critical observers to the political process. In the future, the polarization might decrease or change, but for now, politicians seem to be more concerned with maintaining their seats than reaching across the aisle.