We’re not uncivil, we just don’t agree any more

I read recently that one academic “conflict resolution” expert had a sure cure for partisan gridlock in Washington. It was all a lack of civility, he said, that could be cured by a few get-togethers over poker and cigars at the White House.

If it were only so. Believe me, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are perfectly civil to each other, in private if not always in public. The problem isn’t lack of civility. The gridlock in Washington reflects a country more deeply divided on basic issues than it has ever been in my lifetime. Members of Congress are polarized because they honestly and accurately represent the views of constituents, districts and states that are polarized.

The polls tell us that Americans consider partisan bickering to be the number one problem in Washington. But there is no fixing the problem until we figure out how it came about.

The New York Times’ Nate Silver analyzed the number of congressional districts where there were truly competitive races (“those in which the margin in the presidential race was within 5 percentage points of the national result”) after the last election. There were 103 such congressional districts as recently as 1992. In 2012 there were only 35.

More and more, Americans are living in neighborhoods, districts and even states where the overwhelming majority of voters agree with each other in their choice of party. When you spend all of your time with people who agree with you, you get constant affirmation that what you believe is exactly right and the other side is dead wrong.

Of course we don’t just live in neighborhoods that reinforce our own beliefs. We also get to choose our cable TV stations. I grew up at a time when everyone got their news from three networks, all competing to reach the largest possible audience. To do so, they had to appeal to a broad middle range of viewer opinions.

Enter cable television, with hundreds of channels to choose from. Now a broadcaster makes money by appealing to a small percentage of total viewers. Advertisers use what is known as market segmentation, zeroing their messages in on small groups with more uniform desires and opinions. That explains not just the Travel Channel and ESPN, but also Fox News and MSNBC. If you want affirmation that the other side is wrong and even dangerous, you can hear that 24/7.

If the rants on cable TV are too tame for you, there is also modern talk radio. The more outrageously partisan you can be, the more it seems you appeal to an audience that craves red meat. Some members of Congress seem more concerned about offending talk radio hosts than they are about going against leaders of their party.

There was no Internet back in the days of many competitive congressional districts. Today you can find affirmation of any extreme view imaginable somewhere on the Internet. In fact, they’ll come to you without any effort on your part. I’m sure you also get those emails accusing the opposition of outrageous ideas and opinions. They are nearly always unbelievable because they aren’t true. But the flood never stops, because too many people pass them on without even a minimum effort to check them out.

The country faces no bigger problems than the segmentation of the country into homogeneous Republican and Democratic areas and the development of media mixes that speak only to the most partisan people on one side or the other. I don’t have a cure-all, and I don’t think there is one. The Congressman from rural South Carolina and the Congresswoman from urban Philadelphia may never agree on much, even though (and it happens) they may be perfectly friendly.

So civility isn’t the major problem. It would be nice to have more of it, but finding a solution to partisan gridlock is a lot more complicated. Making a few more Congressional districts less homogeneous and therefore more competitive would help. Why not stop listening to the more outrageous radio and TV rants? I did, and felt a lot better about things. And if you are of a certain age, remember when you and a friend could disagree about politics but still listen to each other, and maybe even reach some kind of compromise agreement?

Actually, that’s a pretty accurate description of how our elected representatives in Congress used to work. They – and we – have to find a way to do so again.

Originally published 1 Apr 2013 on delawareonline.com