How the Media and Political Parties Remove Nuance from the Discussion
“The country is more divided than ever before.” We’ve all heard this phrase over and over again since the 2016 election cycle. (Yep. We’re still talking about 2016.) The narrative is that the left is being pulled ever further left by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and in the wake of Trump’s rise, the Republican Party has moved even further right. However, I submit that the widely held belief that the country is deeply divided is a product of a genuine misunderstanding of the political compass and how it works.
For the unfamiliar, this is a political compass, so named because it does not deal strictly in left and right, just as a navigational compass does not deal only in East and West. In the context of the political compass, describing a position as located left or right is exclusively for discussing economics. Gay marriage equality is neither left nor right, for example.
The up versus down, which describes one’s views on social/identity issues, is likely the less familiar axis to some Americans. It’s roughly what it sounds like. The more authority one believes the government has to regulate the behavior of individuals, the higher that opinion is rated on the scale. The inverse being that the lower the position on the compass, the less one believes in the state’s interference and limitation on social policy.
So to take the example of gay marriage equality, the belief that marriage should be restricted by the state to only heterosexual couples would be more authoritarian, and thus higher on the compass, and the belief that anyone should be allowed to marry regardless of their sexual orientation would fall lower on the compass as a more libertarian view.
Problematically, the current political tendency is to conflate a leftist economic view with libertarian attitudes on social issues and right-wing economic beliefs with a more conservative — more authoritarian — outlook on identity politics. Granted, this relationship is somewhat justifiable because, for the last 40-50 years, the religious right has wedded social conservatism and a right-wing economic platform together. However, simply accepting this without question prevents political discourse from adequately describing the changes that are taking place in our country. In an era where Republican politicians have been aiming to reduce Social Security benefits, Pew Research Center finds that 68% of republican voters say no reductions should be made. And this is one of many examples which are seeing an uncoupling between social and economic policy.
Today, America is undergoing a shift in the way people’s beliefs around social policy are mapping onto their attitudes concerning economics. Culturally conservative voters are no longer as passionately attached to right-wing economics as they once were, and we shouldn’t be surprised. There is nothing inherent to the trends in American politics of the last decades concerning the left and right with authoritarian and libertarian views.
No one would argue that Castro and Stalin weren’t pursuing leftist economic policies, but their attitudes toward personal freedoms — in religiosity in Soviet Russia and sexuality in Castro’s Cuba — were incredibly authoritarian. Figures like Ron Paul and Ayn Rand both supported a right-wing, heavily capitalist economic philosophy, but were notorious in their conviction for personal freedom — perhaps only regarding anti-government principles — and fall firmly on the libertarian end of the compass.
Here lies the crux of the American shift: As income and wealth inequalities continue to grow — and increasingly become part of the major political discussions in the US — poor and middle class, often white, Americans who hold more culturally conservative attitudes about social issues are becoming more and more disillusioned with a 1980s right-wing economic model which they feel has virtually left them in the dust.
In 2016, we saw this phenomenon in the ‘populism’ displayed in that election cycle. Trump hammered home a heavily authoritarian message on social issues — immigration, race issues, reproductive rights, etc. — designed to hone in on social conservatives who make up a large portion of the Republican Party’s base. Then, in the general election, he staked out several positions to Hillary Clinton’s left — hitting her over her support of NAFTA when her husband was President and her then support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In doing this, he appealed to the millions of struggling workers in the Rust Belt and the Midwest whose livelihoods were irreparably damaged by those free-market policies.
The Voter Studies Group at the Democracy Fund conducted a deep analysis of the political beliefs held by Trump and Clinton voters, released in June of 2017. The findings showed that those who voted for the Democratic candidate predictably held libertarian and leftist beliefs. Interestingly, those who voted for the Republican candidate reported economic beliefs which were rather centrist, while holding strong to staunch social conservatism.
This is profoundly revealing in the discussion of political division within American politics. Decades of neoliberal economic policy — deregulation, easing of corporate taxes, shifting the tax burden, etc.— have exacerbated inequality in the US. So much so that even its most culturally conservative Republicans are beginning to question the underlying narratives of laissez-faire capitalism. This results in what the media calls ‘populists’ who are ‘rejecting the establishment.’ However, what the media misses is that Trump’s populism is not one of the far-right, but one of a socially conservative authoritarianism which is finally beginning to stray from the right-wing economics of the Republican Party establishment.
None of this is to say that anything Trump has done since taking office in January of 2017 has lived up to his economically populist rhetoric on the campaign trail. In fact, the same economically right-wing bankers, CEOs and corporate lobbyists he railed against with chants of “drain the swamp” now populate his cabinet and his administration. But the fact that economically populist rhetoric was a large factor which pushed Trump to the top of the Republican primaries and then into the White House is significant. It signals that the traditional link between the right-wing economic interests Trump pretended to oppose on the campaign trail and socially conservative voters is teetering on the brink of being severed.
This poses a complication for Republicans in government. The Mitch McConnells and Lindsey Grahams of the Republican Party have spent their careers pushing the Overton window to the right, and have no desire to adjust course. This presents a precarious long term situation for the GOP. As the results of neoliberal policies continue to squeeze the growing bottom section of the income ladder, the viability and legitimacy of a party with an economic platform that increasingly benefits the elite donor class in the top percentiles are going to suffer.
The rightward shift in the Overton Window can be seen in data collected by the Manifesto Project. The legacy media conglomerates who largely deal with the leadership in Washington see the dysfunction between the two political parties and reach the only conclusion they can: America itself is massively divided. However, if examined in the international context, it is not the case that both parties have staked out ideologically extreme positions. Since the election of Ronald Reagan and the coining of “trickle-down” economics, the frame of argument between right and left in the US has been moving to the right. So much so that the rightmost boundary, staked out by the Republican Party, is among the most extreme in the industrialized world. Whereas the Democratic Party has long been taking the bait, following Republicans to the right, and is internationally rather center-left.
What the media misses is the fact that on issues related to the economy, the electorate largely agrees on many policy points which the Washington establishment — both media and political — find controversial and partisan. Reuters/Ipsos polling has found that Medicare for All, considered a laughable proposition in most Washington circles, receives support from 70% of Americans, including a majority of Republican voters. The same poll found 60% supported tuition-free college paid for through taxes on Wall Street trades. Other polling also suggests that there is strong support for raising taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
So, as indicated in this graph also from the Voter Studies Group, most of the divide in America is social rather than economic. Race, immigration, the war on drugs, foreign wars, and other topics less related to the economic direction of the US divide our country more than anything.
All is not lost, though. The caricature of the American people would have us believe that the entire voting public consists of either UC Berkeley students with no shoes and protest signs versus angry skin-heads with tribal tattoos and confederate flags in the small towns of West Virginia.
The truth, thankfully, is more nuanced than such binaries. The values and fears people hold are incredibly diverse, often conflicting with one another, but we Americans have more in common than we think. An increasing slice of both political parties in America feels that the economic status quo is not serving them, and their opinions on policy are beginning to reflect that. So the next time a dinner companion complains about how divided we are as a nation, be sure to remind them that on many issues, those divides are steadily shrinking.
And if you find yourself curious about where you personally fall on the two-dimensional political compass, you can take a comprehensive test at: