The Spectatorization of American Politics

Interesting juxtaposition between two pieces from this past week, “Americans’ Political Views Not So Far Apart” from and “Yes, Washington is in fact more partisan now” from The Signal. The first looks at polling since 1970 that purports to show no growing ideological divide between people in the U.S. The second shows just the opposite, but among U.S. politicians. If you believe these two statistical snapshots, there is a growing ideological split among our elected representatives, that is not also reflected among the people they represent!

From the analysis of 40 years of polling results called out in the first piece “Americans’ Political Views Not So Far Apart”

Political polarization among the public has barely budged at all over the past 40 years, according to research presented here on Jan. 27 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. But, crucially, people vastly overestimate how polarized the American public is — a tendency toward exaggeration that is especially strong in the most extreme Democrats and Republicans… “Strongly identified Republicans or Democrats perceive and exaggerate polarization more than weakly identified Republicans or Democrats or political independents,” said study researcher John Chambers, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida… The people who see the world split into two opposing factions are also most likely to vote and become politically active, Chambers said in a talk at the meeting. This means that while real growing polarization is illusory, the perception of polarization could drive the political process.

And from the second piece, “Yes, Washington is in fact more partisan now”

Washington has never been more partisan, right? Or is that common lament simply a trick of nostalgia? A look at the numbers reveals that the problem is not, it turns out, all in our heads: over the last four decades, Congressional polarization has steadily increased… Since 1947, Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group, has tracked the political positions of each Senate and House member, scoring how they voted each year on 20 key bills covering a variety of social and economic issues. (Many groups from across the political spectrum calculate lawmakers’ dedication to various ideologies and causes. The Signal is merely using this group’s data because it is collected over many years and is based on the controversial votes that reveal the fault lines in the House and Senate.)

The Problem Statement

As a political, history and anthropology junkie, this is a fascinating question to me. What the heck is going on here? What happened in the 1960s and 1970s that might have caused this growing ideological split between politicians (if not in the larger society, if you believe the polls cited above), progressive on one side and conservative on the other, leading to the “blue vs red” politics of today?

If you obsess about these things like I do, you may well have your own take on this. Here are some of my thoughts at this point. I’m sure you’ll have your own insights that I’m perhaps not factoring in.

Starting by Applying Eisler’s Thesis

My cultural analysis generally starts with Riane Eisler’s great book on the development of human society, The Chalice and the Blade, calling out the two profoundly different ways that human beings interact with each other. The chalice is meant to be shared with others and represents partnership, egalitarianism, and a world view of abundance or at least enough sufficient to be shared. The blade, on the other hand, represents authority, control, protection, and a world view of scarcity or at most not quite enough to go around.

I love the grand metaphors in Eisler’s title. In fact, my thinking generally starts from the abstract place of mythos and metaphor and moves from there into more rational concrete thought. I picture the voluptuous body of the pregnant and smiling young woman sharing the chalice versus the stern and muscular bearded father-figure brandishing the blade. Close your eyes and imagine encountering each of these two archetypal characters separately coming out of the mist. Imagine all the thoughts and feelings engendered by each visage, each imposing in its own way. Certainly encountering the figure wielding the blade, one would hope to have a blade oneself, just in case. While encountering the other figure with the chalice, one would put down ones own blade and hope to taste its content.

Eisler’s thesis is that human culture has generally been an uneasy amalgam of these two archetypes, woven to different degrees through every institution of society, the relative degrees of each changing over time. At its best, human society develops towards the sharing of the chalice and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, but often does so in a perceived context of fear and scarcity where we must ensure and protect “our own” (however we define that group) with coercion and violence if necessary from harsh realities of the world and aspects of our own flawed selves.

Applying Eisler’s thesis, the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. brought profound challenges to racial and gender hierarchy and privilege, and to a lesser extent perhaps, economic privilege. The Civil Rights movement was a profound challenge to the privilege of white people who occupied the top of a racial hierarchy with people of color at the bottom. The Women’s Movement challenged male gender privilege and took that challenge right into the home and even the bedroom. The “Hippies” and the sexual revolution (including the beginnings of recognition for gays and lesbians) challenged the general sense of societal propriety and conformity.

These were a profound series of challenges in these decades to a societal hierarchy and conforming behavior to support it that had been in place for at least a hundred years, since America had been torn apart by its Civil War. Though there had been a rise of a real political left in the early decades of the 20th century, by the 1950s those ideas had been marginalized as subversive “socialism” or “communism”. But beyond that, the majority of people grumbled but accepted their place in the economic, racial and gender hierarchies of control that held together American culture.

According to Eisler, human hierarchies of control generally maintain themselves through coercion and a resort to violence as necessary. Using that analysis, I would argue that the movements of the 1960s and 1970s profoundly challenged the existing hierarchies and thus brought forward the coercive and violent forces that held those hierarchies together. As Stephen Stills called out in his 1967 song “For What It’s Worth”, battle lines were being drawn. Some of us embraced these changes and others feared them, and it split the country like the Civil War, but this time on ideological rather than regional grounds.

So why were our political leaders apparently so much more impacted by this split than the public in general? My take is that our society to a large degree lives vicariously through celebrities and other public figures, including political leaders, that we identify with. We are a culture of spectators and consumers, rooting for our various “teams”. As such, we have entrusted our political leaders to concern themselves with this ideological struggle while we go on with or lives, watch from the sidelines, and boo or cheer as we feel is appropriate. Thus the statistics showing the greater ideological split between our legislators (on the proverbial gridiron) versus the people (watching and cheering from the bleachers).

Applying McLuhan’s Thesis

Another great influencer in my own deconstruction of our society is media philosopher Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan argues that human society is transformed by changes in our prevailing communications technology. In his reading of history, the first great transition was the beginning of phonetic literacy and writing around 3000 years ago. The invention of a phonetic alphabet allowed the capture, transport and decoding (reading) of that human voice, creating a powerful magic that profoundly changed the capabilities of an individual human being to communicate with others, fostering the Axial Age.

The second was the 16th century development of movable type and the advent of printing in Europe, which McLuhan believes led to both the Reformation (with its challenges to the existing controlling hierarchies of the Church) and nationalism (feeling a kinship with everyone else reading the same newspapers printed in the same language).

Finally the 20th century development of electronic media – radio, cinema, and particularly TV (no Internet yet in McLuhan’s time) – has led to what he called a “retribalization”, described in his 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another.

I think McLuhan generally saw this as a positive transformation, as human beings transitioned from feelings of alienation as isolated individuals back to more of a collective consciousness (including his now famous concept of a “global village”). McLuhan say TV playing a critical role in this transformation, an electronic medium which found its way into most homes in America during the 1960s and 1970s when our political process seemed to be transformed. I particularly find it interesting the downside of this transition that he called out in the interview…

All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in. As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.

So to use my earlier analogy, perhaps our political leaders, representing us on the playing field in our spectator culture (the blue and red teams in ever greater opposition to each other) trying to win the game for their team rather than come to consensus, are playing out this “collective nervous breakdown”. The rest of us spectator types vicariously thrill in watching the game, cringing at the big hits and hard tackling, and rooting for our side. All this while also acknowledging at some level that yes, though it makes for entertaining sport, it is dysfunctional behavior when it comes to governing a country.

I would suggest that maybe we all need a profound rethink of our spectator focus, and commit ourselves instead to engage each other, particularly our fellow citizens on the other ideological “team” to discuss our differences and try to find the common ground (I think its there somewhere!) or at least come to peace that we respectfully disagree.

Hey… just my take based on applying the theses of two, what I would consider, “outside the box” thinkers, along with my own spin on their ideas. I would love to hear your thoughts on my take and yours as well!

One reply

  1. “I would suggest that maybe we all need a profound rethink of our spectator focus, and commit ourselves instead to engage each other, particularly our fellow citizens on the other ideological “team” to discuss our differences and try to find the common ground (I think its there somewhere!) or at least come to peace that we respectfully disagree.”

    Indeed! However, without a change at the policy-making level, I can’t see how our own individual efforts can really lead anywhere in terms of peace, common ground or, certainly, compromise. How can we translate the individual’s and small community’s desire to work together into a legislative-level change? We can encourage people to vote, of course, hoping for changes in elected leadership, but what about when our choices are only between extreme-and-arrogant and different-extreme-and-arrogant???

    On a slightly different note, I’m fascinated by the more-common-than-I-thought incidence of people voting against their own interests. The obvious scenario would be folks in poverty voting for those who seem interested only in favoring the very rich, but I’m sure there are lots of less flashy examples, too. Do you think the “spectatorization” you describe is connected to this phenomenon in any way?

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