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Economic and Social History Blog

47. The American split (21-5-2020)

The American split (21-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

One of the things we missed when we spent a semester in Gainesville, Florida in the mid 1990s was open political debate. There were no ‘talkshows’ in the television – we missed this Dutch ceremony of bringing the day to a close by sitting around a big table and discussing things. The US ritual of the ‘late night show’ was really different – focused on a comedian who made fun of politics and interviewed a celebrity. On the different networks people discussed, but they did not communicate – they shouted opinions at each other without showing much respect for each others’ opinions – at least that how we softies from the Netherlands experienced such debates. And when during the primaries the neighbourhood suddenly changed in red and blue sections, we understood that below the surface there had all the time been a second layer of communication and interaction.

Complex systems, such as human societies, usually produce outcomes that are normally – or lognormally – distributed. These outcomes – for example the distribution of income, or the distribution of political opinions between extreme right and ultra left, of the distribution of city sizes of a country – are the result of many, interacting, small and big ‘drivers’. Complexity theory has a long time ago established that also natural systems – the distribution of sizes of stars, or the distribution of populations of animal species – obey the same or very similar rules. Coherent systems in general produce outcomes with a clear mode – a peak somewhere in the middle of the distribution – and only few observations at both extremes. Such an unimodal distribution forms the basis for our democracy: as political scientists have explained, the fight in politics is about the median voter (in a system of two political parties); the party which gets her vote, will win the election and rule (assuming ‘the winner takes it all’). This median voter represents the stable majority at the centre of the normal distribution of political preferences, and it is therefore right that her opinions rule. And when the distribution moves to the left (as in the 1970s), policy makers have to bend to the left as well; and when preferences move to the right (as in the 1980s), they follow.

The fundamental problem of the current American political system is that this ‘normal’ unimodal distribution of political preferences has changed into a bi-modal one, with a huge gap in the middle. Democrats and Republicans have drifted apart by forming their own bubble, in which the rise of bi-partisan news networks like Fox has played a large role. Blues and reds are also geographically separated, the democrats dominating in the big cities and along the east and west coast, the republicans ruling the countryside and the inland states. The best proof of this bi-model distribution is probably the election of Trump, who did not try at all to please the median voter, but was entirely focused on the political preferences of his own ‘pillar’. The increased popularity of ‘radical’ candidates such as Sanders shows that similar tendencies are present in the democratic party. The causes of this bifurcation of the political system are complex. The ‘winner takes it all’ is an important part of the story – in other political systems politicians have to negotiate about compromises after elections, but in the US that is not the case. The growing polarization of US economy between rich and poor is another driver of the process. It is apparently a gradual, but cumulative process, of losing contact with the ‘others’, becoming encapsulated in one’s own bubble, and of diverging values and ideas. The identity of the pillar is also defined in negative terms – as the antipode of the other pillar, the ‘enemy’. When the democrats worry about global warming, the republicans are by definition not concerned about this problem, which obviously is a Chinese hoax. There is perhaps a certain similarity with the process of pillarization that happened in the Netherlands after 1870,  but that was characterized by the fact that the elites of the various pillars continued to work together, and such cooperation seems to have collapsed completely in the US.

So the American polity is not one single system, but consists of two separate political systems, two separate ‘societies’, each representing 50% of the population, which compete for power in battles that are organized every four years (it is of course more complex, due for example to the role of Congress). The Trump years have accelerated the split – he was the first, for example, to try to criminalize his opponent (‘Lock her up’), to systematically and almost obsessively attempt to destroy the legacy of his predecessor, and who has ruled the country without even trying to pretend that he was the president of all Americans (the tragedy of Obama was that he acknowledged this fundamental weakness of the American polity and therefore did try to govern as an all American president – but at the same time wanted to be a social reformer, and perhaps therefore failed in both). The growing polarization of US political system and the instability that results from this – see the way Trump handles most international issues – is a potential destabilizing factor in the international (economic) system. If the divergence continues to become larger and larger, even a civil war cannot be excluded – for example when one party only narrowly loses the next round in the battle for domination, and does not accept this result (again Trump showed the way by not accepting the fact that in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the public vote).

Let me stop here. Btw, we had a wonderful time in Gainesville. The boys became fluent in English, made American friends, and the youngest, Joost, even spent a couple of days at a real ranch, enjoying the horses. His friend also learned him to shoot with a small handgun, but he only told us this part of the story in the plane back home.

Continue reading: The long tail of the long-tailed tit (23-5-2020)