Andrew Sullivan asks (“Goodbye to All That,” December Atlantic), “How do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics?” His answer is to blame “the biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers.” As he explains, “The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all.”
While certainly interesting, Sullivan’s explanation of American polarization ignores the political-science literature on the sources of polarization. Probably the best explanation for the growing divide in American politics comes from Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, who argue that growing economic disparities and rising immigration rates are strongly correlated with political polarization. In their book, Polarized America (2006), they show that ideological divisions decreased between 1913 and 1957, when income disparities and immigration rates fell, and that the divisions have increased sharply since the 1970s, as income disparities and immigration rates suddenly grew.
These socioeconomic trends have directly affected voting patterns, with high-income voters tending to back Republicans, and low-income voters tending to support Democrats. Thus, as the gap between rich and poor has increased in America, so has the gulf between the GOP and the Democratic Party. What this means is that the debates over gay marriage and abortion—which pundits all too often blame for today’s polarization—have not actually played a significant role in dividing the country.
In short, growing class divisions in the United States are producing growing political divisions. This finding may be disconcerting to a country that prides itself on its great social mobility and boundless opportunities. But until there is broad acknowledgement of these growing socioeconomic disparities, politics in America will likely remain fiercely divided.
Andrew Sullivan’s conclusion that Barack Obama is the right man at the right time is based on a premise—“the practical stakes in this election are minor”—that is fundamentally flawed.
Notably, Sullivan’s analysis of the two parties’ positions on health care is dead wrong. The GOP candidates use tax policy (eliminating or increasing deductions for insurance and health savings accounts) as the basis for their initiatives. The more-comprehensive plans rely on “consumerism” and deregulation, confident that the market will solve the intertwined issues of the uninsured and cost inflation. By contrast, all of the Democratic candidates rely on regulation and government mandates. Each advocates universal coverage, either initially or over time, while strengthening the regulation of insurers (eliminating medical underwriting and exclusions for preexisting conditions) and calling for community rating (premium levels set independent of age, sex, or medical status).
These differences are anything but “more technical than fundamental.” They reflect a deep disagreement about the causes and effects of uninsurance and health-care cost inflation, and the role of markets and regulators. Sullivan’s conclusion that Obama is necessary may be correct, but not for the reasons he cites. There are real, fundamental differences between the parties’ positions, differences that reflect the deep disagreements among Americans.
Andrew Sullivan states that, with Barack Obama’s candidacy, “America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.” In fact, logarithms increase far more slowly than the numbers from which they are derived. Is this a subtle deprecation of Obama’s abilities, meant to be understood only by those of us with some small knowledge of mathematics?