Commentary Magazine


Topic: polarization

BuyPartisan and Our Polarized, Overly Politicized Civic Culture

Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

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Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

It’s called BuyPartisan, which is clever. It allows you to scan the barcode of products at the grocery store to see how that company allocates its political donations. It was created by Matthew Colbert, formerly a Capitol Hill staffer. For those whose political advocacy is a bit high-proof but not yet completely insufferable, the app will help them reach their potential. According to CBS, the app has about 100,000 users, which suggests there are very many people across the country desperate for a way to stop getting dinner-party invitations.

As the L.A. Times reported:

“We’re trying to make every day election day for people,” Colbert said, adding that the app helps consumers support products that reflect their political beliefs.

BuyPartisan doesn’t directly urge users to boycott products, but that’s likely how many consumers will use it.

Well then I suppose this proves there is such a thing as too much democracy. In any event, Colbert was the first to develop the app, but he wasn’t the first to attempt to release this virus into the air:

It’s all based on publicly available data compiled by non-profit groups like the Sunlight Foundation.

“My first reaction was, cool, we tried to do that!” Sunlight’s Gabriela Schneider said.

More such wisdom from Schneider:

“When I go to vote and when I go to make a purchase, I should know what’s the politics behind that. I should be able to know who’s behind the political ad that’s telling me to vote this way or that way,” Schneider said.

At the very least, it makes you look at your household products in a different way.

If you were wondering if it’s at all possible for a news organization to publish a story about political spending and not find the long and winding road that inevitably leads to the Koch brothers, the answer is: No, it’s not possible. The media’s Koch obsession is just who they are at this point:

The app showed 95 percent of contributions made by Quilted Northern toilet papers went to Republicans. The parent company, Georgia Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries.

“So for those that really care about it and who like that side, they can buy it,” Colbert said. “And for those that don’t like that side, they can go, ‘Maybe I don’t want to buy it. Maybe there’s a different toilet paper I want.’”

I suppose you can look at the Quilted Northern aspect in two ways, if you’re a Democrat whose daily activity is governed by DNC talking points. On the one hand, Harry Reid told you the Kochs are un-American, and therefore you perhaps won’t give them your money. On the other hand, it would be completely demented to boycott toilet paper made by a company whose parent company is owned by libertarians. The question, then, comes down to whether you’ve managed to follow politics closely and keep your sanity.

On a more serious note, such apps would be harmless if we lived in a society that could handle such detailed information with a sense of dignity. Unfortunately, we know what many people will do with such information. Last year, the CEO of Mozilla (developers of the Firefox browser) was forced to step down after committing the thought crime of years ago donating to the prop 8 ballot initiative in California, which opposed gay marriage.

I personally know someone who received death threats after donating to the campaign of a Republican governor, and I am certainly not alone in that regard. We have seen a demand for full campaign donor transparency coupled with the IRS’s witch hunt targeting conservative and pro-Israel political activists, a very clear signal from national Democrats that political voices are to be identified for the purpose of silencing them.

The instinct to have everything on your grocery shopping list conform to an unyielding loyalty to a political party is not a healthy one. And neither is an app that caters to it.

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No, Virginia, There Is No Swing Voter

If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

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If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Whatever your answer is to the original philosophical question, it should remain unchanged in this version. Swing voters, like political “independents,” are rarely more than science fiction.

That is not to say that voters never change their minds. It’s that when they do so, they tend to trade one opinion for another, not graduate from being undecided (no matter what they tell pollsters). More evidence for this comes from Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman, who takes to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog to explain the results of his latest political science survey, conducted along with coauthors David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, and Doug Rivers.

At the blog, Gelman quotes the study’s abstract:

How can election polls swing so much given the increasingly polarized nature of American politics, where switching one’s support between candidates is a significant move? We investigate this question by conducting a novel panel survey of 83,283 people repeatedly polled over the last 45 days of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign. We find that reported swings in public opinion polls are generally not due to actual shifts in vote intention, but rather are the result of temporary periods of relatively low response rates by supporters of the reportedly slumping candidate. After correcting for this bias, we show there were nearly constant levels of support for the candidates during what appeared, based on traditional polling, to be the most volatile stretches of the campaign. Our results raise the possibility that decades of large, reported swings in public opinion — including the perennial “convention bounce” — are largely artifacts of sampling bias.

He adds:

The short story is much of the apparent changes in public opinion are actually changes in patterns of nonresponse:  When it looked like Romney jumped in popularity, what was really happening was that disaffected Democrats were not responding to the survey while resurgent Republicans were more likely to respond.

Gelman also notes a bit of humorous backstory:

This is a big deal and it represents a major change in my thinking compared to my 1993 paper with Gary King, “Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?” At that time, we gave an explanation for changes in opinion, but in retrospect, now I’m thinking that many of these apparent swings were really just differential nonresponse.  Funny that we never thought of that.

That original question, though, arguably has accrued more relevance over the last two decades. It also seems like a fascinating reversal of process. Polls always carried with them a sense of scientific authority (today they are just plain fetishized). So even though the variability of polls in many elections just didn’t seem right, there wasn’t much more to that. The numbers said one thing and instincts or personal experience another. The numbers always won out. Gelman and Co. have flipped the script in a way.

The polling “swings” are consequential, however. As the authors note in their paper, they inspire a narrative of momentum and create a bandwagon effect:

For example, the Romney campaign saw a surge in donations and volunteers in the days following the debate, attributed in part to his perceived viability. Moreover, of the $400 million raised in the month between the debate and election day, donors making rational investment decisions would have likely directed some of their contributions to tighter senatorial elections if they did not believe the race for president was so close. Further, in an age of highly targeted campaign strategies (Hillygus and Shields 2009), misunderstanding voter intent likely affects decisions ranging from state-by-state spending (over $650 million was spent in that final month) to the general tone of the candidates. Finally, major poll movements often extend into the wider world, affecting, for example, stock and commodity prices (Snowberg, Wolfers and Zitzewitz 2007).

This helps explain why Barack Obama’s campaigns have been so successful. In both 2008 and 2012, the GOP presidential nominee was not exactly beloved by the party’s base. Obama had no such struggles. As I wrote here last month, we may scoff at the methods by which the Obama team fires up the Democratic base, but it is undeniable that firing up the base is an important component of a successful campaign.

In 2012 especially, it appeared bizarre that Obama had abandoned “independent” voters for Big Bird and birth control–a strategy that relied on the angry left to power the campaign. There’s a good reason to ignore independents: as I’ve argued before, they don’t exist, at least not in the numbers the media thinks. The country is deeply polarized; according to Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.” Vote swings are not the result of swing voters, and campaigns should plan accordingly.

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Obama Campaign Stunt “Breaks Precedent”

The Wall Street Journal has a long story today examining the extent of President Obama’s failure with regard to his stated goal of reducing the partisan rancor in Washington. The Journal notes that while Obama promised to “heal the divides,” and other vapid covers for the president’s own extreme partisanship, he has only built a more divided political atmosphere:

Almost four years later, few think those rifts have been healed. One of the central tenets of the 2008 Obama campaign was a promise to usher in an almost post-partisan era in Washington, but by most measures the capital’s divisive tone has grown worse. The rancor has bled into the campaign, which has been marked by unusually negative rhetoric from both sides.

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The Wall Street Journal has a long story today examining the extent of President Obama’s failure with regard to his stated goal of reducing the partisan rancor in Washington. The Journal notes that while Obama promised to “heal the divides,” and other vapid covers for the president’s own extreme partisanship, he has only built a more divided political atmosphere:

Almost four years later, few think those rifts have been healed. One of the central tenets of the 2008 Obama campaign was a promise to usher in an almost post-partisan era in Washington, but by most measures the capital’s divisive tone has grown worse. The rancor has bled into the campaign, which has been marked by unusually negative rhetoric from both sides.

The Journal is quick to dispel the notion that the GOP has been more united in opposition to the Democrats than the president’s party has been against the Republicans: “Last year, House Republicans voted with their leadership 91% of the time on average, tying a record for party-line voting, while Senate Democrats set a record with 92% party unity, according to data compiled by Congressional Quarterly.”

The article offers many reasons for the increased polarization, relying heavily on criticism from the president’s allies and fellow Democrats that paint Obama as dismissive of building relationships with his opposition, preferring to ignore or freeze out those who disagree with him on Capitol Hill, unlike his Democratic and Republican predecessors who were able to pursue their agenda while reaching across the isle and show a willingness to engage with the other side.

But the president’s contribution to the increased polarization seems to be more than just his personal coldness toward those with different ideas. As a piece in the Hill today makes clear, Obama has found ways to escalate the petty verbal skirmishing he claimed to detest:

Bucking protocol, President Obama and the Democrats are planning a full-scale assault on Republicans next week during their convention.

Presidential candidates have traditionally kept a low profile during their opponent’s nominating celebration, but Democrats are throwing those rules out the window in an attempt to spoil Mitt Romney’s coronation as the GOP nominee.

President Obama, Vice President Biden and leading congressional Democrats have all scheduled high-profile events next week to counter-program the Republican gathering in Tampa….

“Traditionally, there was a kind of courtesy extended to the party having the convention — the [other] party would basically stay out of the public eye,” said Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University.

In fairness to Obama, he did promise to change business as usual in Washington, and erasing any semblance of inter-party graciousness certainly qualifies. Now, I don’t think the parties necessarily have to hold their fire just because campaigns have done so in the past. It’s just worth pointing out that Obama isn’t the victim of a status quo—he has made a choice and is pursuing it.

Of course, anyone who is familiar with coverage of the president knows what’s coming next: the explanation for why it can’t possibly be Obama’s fault:

Political historians say the high stakes of this year’s elections — combined with the rise of today’s 24/7 media culture — has forced leaders on both sides of the aisle to get more aggressive.

It’s really a shame that the president was “forced” into breaking precedent and running a nastier campaign than he promised. And of course there’s the unavoidable “both sides” bit even though the article’s point is that the president is doing something no one else has done. I suppose this is what the president was talking about when he complained about “false balance” in the press.

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