The most important news on Wednesday came not from the U.S., where everyone was consumed with the election and the ongoing vote counting, but from Israel, where the Deputy Minister for Development of the Periphery, the Negev and the Galilee gave an interview that will reverberate for decades where he said…
Just kidding, of course. Obviously nobody cares about anything other than the presidential election, which is still unresolved as of this writing and given ongoing vote counting and inevitable court challenges may be for a while. It would be way too soon to take stock of what we have learned anyway, irrespective of the fact that we still don’t have a certified winner, but if there is one thing that is certain, it is that our current period of extreme political polarization is going to continue. With that, there are some insights from political science that I am thinking about as we all process what lies ahead in the coming days and weeks.
The first is how much stock we all put in presidential elections as such defining and momentous events that will change everything or right all wrongs. Of course there are enormous policy consequences depending on who serves as president, but the U.S. is the largest ocean liner in geopolitical history and stopping it on a dime, let alone turning it around, is not something that happens just because the White House gets a new tenant. If Joe Biden ends up as the forty-sixth president, it will not mean an absolute rejection of anything and everything that President Trump stands for, nor will it tell us a definitive story about the American electorate. On the flip side, if Trump is indeed reelected, it will not mean that the U.S. has fallen into the irreversible grip of populist nationalism and that we are a fundamentally different country than we were twelve years ago when a black candidate with a Muslim name won a definitive victory.
I can’t help but think about Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who most people know for his work on social capital in Bowling Alone but who wrote an earlier influential book called Making Democracy Work. In it, he analyzed two decades of performance for regional Italian governments that were created in 1970, all of which had identical constitutional structures and governing mandates, and found a large gap between the performance of regional governments in northern Italy and the performance of regional governments in southern Italy. Northern Italian regional governments were more stable, more responsive in nearly every way to their constituents, and more effective at implementing policy than their southern Italian counterparts, and Putnam argued that the reason was that networks and norms of civic engagement were created in the north but not in the south due to the difference in their governing structures in the eleventh century. In other words, path dependence is so critical that choices made in medieval Italy determined how Italian citizens were living more than eight hundred years later. While this is about the most extreme example one might find of historical structural determinism, the takeaway should be that one, two, or even ten presidential elections are not going to be the only, or even the most important, things that determine our collective fate.
The second has to do with group cleavages. The level of political polarization in the U.S. is more extreme now than it has been in living memory, and that largely is a result of stacked identities rather than cross-cutting identities. In other words, whereas fifty or sixty years ago, knowing someone’s religion, race, and where they lived would not give you a nearly automatic answer to whether they were a Republican or a Democrat, that is no longer the case. We have all absorbed the truisms about rural, church-going, largely white red state Republicans, and urban, secular, largely non-white blue state Democrats (for an excellent breakdown of how and why this polarized sorting has occurred, Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized is a great layman’s treatment of the political science behind this). Americans are no longer characterized by different identity groups that are diffused within each major party, but now seize on their party affiliations as their identity, with their various other identity commitments lining up in predictable ways.
If the exit polling is correct – and why we trust the details in the exit polls to be correct while bashing the topline numbers as unreliable is beyond me, but let’s go with this for a second nonetheless – this dynamic began to break this week. Significant numbers of white men deserted Trump for Biden, while significant numbers of Blacks and Hispanics voted for Trump as compared to 2016. While Jews remained in the Democratic column in about the same overall percentage, in Florida Trump may have gotten 41% of the Jewish vote compared to 27% nationally according to the Associated Press. Depending on your political allegiances, this is all either baffling news or welcome news, but looking at it from the perspective of the health of American politics writ large, it would be helpful in terms of polarization and policy gridlock if voters were not so easily identifiable as political partisans by dint of their race, religion, and ethnicity. Identity politics are still very much with us, but after this election we should understand that identities are about culture and ideology rather than ethnic group, as anyone who is familiar with the politics of the Orthodox Jewish community compared to American Jews as a larger category can tell you.
Finally, there is something to be said about why it is better for identity politics to be structured around culture and ideology as opposed to race and ethnicity, and that has to do with social violence. Some places with ethnic diversity experience ongoing ethnic conflict, and others experience almost none, and when Ashutosh Varshney looked at Muslim-Hindu riots in India over a period of forty-five years, he found that the proximate cause of violence or peace is the presence or absence of intercommunal civic networks. When different communities have organizational ties of communication with each other rather than being siloed, it not only helps them withstand events that might plausibly lead to violent riots but helps constrain their politicians by not providing political incentives to demonize the other side. The type of community organization does not matter, only that they engage with other organizations from other communities.
Varshney’s work is solely about ethnic strife and associational networks between different ethnic groups, but given the role that political partisanship plays in American identity today, I don’t think it is out of bounds to extrapolate a bit. If you are a white evangelical living in a rural community in the South, and everyone you know not only looks like you and lives like you and prays like you, but also votes like you, it will be much easier to demonize the other side in a way that might lead to violence and conflict. If, however, the people in your church or your fellow PTA members are not all Republicans, or the members of your local Republican party are not predominantly white evangelicals, it makes communication across groups and across communities more likely.
None of us knows for sure yet what our federal government will look like come January, but here’s to hoping that whatever it looks like, we remember that there are forces out there that are bigger than politics, and that we are able to transcend the politics that we have.