The State Of Our Politics Is Divided, Mistrustful And Engaged

Jan 30, 2018

When President Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, he'll be giving his assessment of the economy and national security. But occasions like these are also a good time to take a look at the state of our politics.

The state of our politics is...tribal (and mistrustful)

More than ever before voters and politicians seem to be taking sides not according to issues or principles or ideology but according to their political tribe.

"There's an attitude within the American people and within our political institutions that it's my team right or wrong," said Peter Wehner, a former aide to President George W. Bush and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

In a Qunnipiac poll taken last week, shortly after news reports that President Trump's lawyer had paid a porn star to keep quiet about an alleged extramarital affair, 89 percent of Republicans said it's important that a president be loyal to their spouse. In that same poll, 72 percent of Republicans also said President Trump is a good role model for children.

There's always been a healthy dose of moral relativism in politics but now it seems that corruption is something that only the other party can be guilty of. Beliefs are increasingly determined by partisan identity .

A 2014 Pew poll showed that higher percentages of voters than ever before say they'd be disappointed if a child of theirs marries someone of the opposite party. Similarly, the percentage of Republicans who view Democrats as an existential threat to the republic and vice-versa has soared in recent years and now exceeds a majority in both parties.

One consequence of this polarization has been an erosion in trust among the general public.

A recent NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll showed that Americans have little confidence in many of the core institutions of American civic life. The military, the Supreme Court, the FBI and the judicial system were the only institutions that more than half respondents had any faith in while the presidency, both political parties, Congress and the media were underwater with Americans.

"Truth decay"

Tribalism is related to another problem in American politics, a blurring of the lines between opinion and fact. A recent Rand Corporation study dubbed the issue "truth decay."

Whether it's liberals rejecting the safety of vaccines, conservatives rejecting evidence of Barack Obama's birth certificate, or conspiracy theories embraced at the highest levels of government, people seem to start with opinions and work their way to a set of "facts" rather than letting facts or evidence lead them to a conclusion and an opinion.

Retiring Republican senator Jeff Flake talked about this on the floor of the Senate earlier this month when he said, "2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government."

Flake was referring to President Trump's hundreds of inaccurate statements, ranging from the trivial, that he's signed more legislation than any other president in history, to the consequential - that millions of illegal immigrants voted for his opponent.

If Democrats and Republicans can't agree on whether the planet is getting warmer or whether inner city crime is going down, it's impossible to have a debate about solutions.

But the state of our politics is also...engaged

While there's bad news about the state of our politics, there's also good news. Americans are more politically engaged than ever.

Not only are there record numbers of candidates from immigrant communities running for office, mostly Democrats, but Republicans and independents too, there are double the number of women running, compared to 2016.

People who train and advise first-time candidates say that some of this new engagement was inspired by Donald Trump, whether his example is positive or negative. He'd never served in government before and these new candidates look at Trump and figure it's possible for anyone to run for office, regardless of qualification.

Not only are a record number of people running but during voter turnout was extremely high during the various special and statewide elections in 2017.

Whether you're a woman or from an immigrant community running for the first time or a white working-class Trump supporter who voted for the first time two years ago, this renewed sense of civic responsibility is the first step to making the state of our politics less broken.

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