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US In 7 Days and 3 Protests, the Nation’s Divisions on Glaring Display

22:50  24 january  2020
22:50  24 january  2020 Source:   nytimes.com

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WASHINGTON — They came blowing whistles. They came carrying signs. They came dressed as handmaids. They came holding military-style rifles.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd© Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

They were Americans protesting over the past week, and the events that attracted them — the Women’s March on Saturday, a pro-gun rally in Virginia on Monday and Friday’s anti-abortion march in Washington — provided a frenetic backdrop to the more subdued but equally contentious impeachment proceedings unfolding in the Senate. In a resonant flourish, President Trump spoke to the anti-abortion marchers as senators pondered his fate a few blocks away.

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It is a strange political moment, and one that raises the question: What do American partisans think of one another? It is true that most Americans don’t follow politics much. But what is happening among the four in 10 who do? How worried should we really be about polarization in the United States?

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In two dozen interviews with activists on the left and right, many people said they still found some common cause with the other side. The subjects of their ire were politicians, not regular people. But many others said they disliked and even feared the other side. Democrats described Republicans with words like “invasive species” and “missing brain cells.” Young Democratic women said they would not consider dating Republican men. (“It’s not a good look,” one said.) Republicans described Democrats as “dangerous,” and acting in a way that “defied common sense.” Impeachment, said one 85-year-old Republican, amounted to “bovine defecation.”

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Theirs was not a policy divide but something deeper — a kind of cultural panic at the thought of the other side winning the election this year.

“I’d be really scared,” said Liz Folsom, 29, a yoga instructor from Virginia Beach, walking at the Women’s March in Washington, when asked to imagine Mr. Trump winning. “My rights wouldn’t matter. Everything I value wouldn’t matter. We wouldn’t be safe anymore.”

Doug Breeding, 66, a retired county worker from rural Virginia, who drove five hours on Monday from his home to the gun march in Richmond, thought for a minute when he was asked the same question.

“I think you’d have to have a lot of rioting in the streets,” he said. Democrats, he said, have “taken it to the extreme, to the point of tearing the country apart.”

How did we get here? In America these days, the answer is more about psychology than policy.

In the decades after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the nation’s two main political parties had a lot of ideological overlap. There were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and there was no uniform partisan split on issues like immigration and abortion. The heterogeneity of the two parties helped people understand their political opponents: Partisans were more likely to know someone whose politics were different than their own.

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But years of social and political sorting have left Americans of both parties less likely to know people who are different from them politically. The parties today are increasingly defined, made up of separate social groups (for Republicans, white, Christian and socially conservative — few Democrats are in all three categories). The result, political psychologists say, is a strong pull toward group-based behavior. A threat to any of the party-linked identities can trigger an intense response.

“Elections used to be thought of as a kind of cerebral type of thing — what policies should the government enact,” said Lilliana Mason, a scholar of political psychology at the University of Maryland and author of ‘Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.’

But now, “It’s ‘Did my racial or religious group just lose status in our nation?’ That’s not cerebral anymore, that’s a visceral threat.”

Humans are programmed to pay more attention to group threats than to abstract policy goals, she said.

“If the lion is coming to attack your village,” she said, “you are not going to sit around making broader plans about farming.”

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These threats can be real or imagined. But each kind has the same political effect: A primal fear that makes people want to band together to defend against the other side.

And while it is true that most Americans share points of agreement on many big policy questions, Dr. Mason said, that can be overridden by their attachment to their group.

“We ended up with a country full of people who could compromise on a whole bunch of policies, but these group identities become more important and prevent it,” she said.

At rallies over the past week, tribalism tended to be more intense among protesters who had little contact with people who were different than them politically, like Daryna Yakusha, 33, an IT worker from Gaithersburg, Md., who carried a sign that said “Resist Despair” at the Women’s March in Washington, while dressed as a handmaid from the Margaret Atwood book.

“I really hope the Republican Party dies,” she said, her costume wet after a cold rain. “Let’s be real, it has become the party of white nationalists and anti-immigrant people. They are anti-woman, anti-queer, and racist.”

She continued: “I am not interested in what’s in their hearts and minds.”

But Liz and Nancy Entwisle, two cousins in their 60s at the march who grew up in Republican families, said it was not so simple.

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“Do I trust Republicans? That’s a broad question,” said Liz, who lives in Baltimore. “The ones in the Senate, no.”

She said her brothers are still devoted Republicans.

“I know a lot of Republicans,” she said. “They’re good people. They just have a different perspective on the world.”

How important is this to the health of American democracy, given that most Americans do not follow politics? Around half of the population is either disengaged or has ideologically inconsistent views. An analysis of data from the Pew Research Center found that the share of Americans on the more rigid, ideological edges of the electorate was about 26 percent in 2017.

But partisan minorities do matter. The extremes disproportionately affect politicians, the news media and policy. They also pressure moderates.

“When there are people mobilized in the streets against each other, there’s increased pressure on moderates to choose sides,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard University. “Any time people are fearful, and think politics is no longer operating as it should, they will be more willing to align with extremes.”

Measures of polarization show increasing divisions. In 1994, just 16 percent of Democrats had a very unfavorable view of Republicans, according to Pew. In 2017, that figure had climbed to 44 percent. (The numbers were almost identical for Republicans.)

About 30 percent of partisans thought the other party was a threat to the nation’s well-being in 2014, according to Pew. That number rose into the 40s in 2016. Dr. Mason, who is writing a book on radical partisans, has found that between 5 percent and 15 percent endorse political violence or have no sympathy about harm to political opponents.

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Experts are wrestling with what the findings mean. What is more important — the minority of Americans who are upset, or the majority who are not?

Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been writing about the American political divide since the 1980s, said he has moved from thinking that dire warnings about polarization were overblown, to being worried about them.

“I’m about to turn 60 and I’ve never seen it like this,” he said. “Big deficits, free trade — who cares? It’s like if everyone shows up just to boo the other team. You don’t even have to like your own that much.”

One driver of rising partisanship, Mr. Rauch believes, has been the decline of religious affiliation, leaving people to turn to politics as a source of identity and mission. Another is the loss of faith in institutions, which he argued was the natural outcome of years of public denigration of them by political figures, especially on the right.

“It was not suicide, it was not natural causes, it was murder,” he said.

Other experts say the partisan divide is strongest between political elites, and much less intense in the broader population.

“This is not an intensely polarized society at every level, it really isn’t,” said Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Am I worried? Yes. But I’m also hopeful.”

And some new academic work suggests that on a local level, Americans are much less polarized than we think. Partisans largely agree on issues such as economic development, vocational training and investment in community colleges, researchers found in a study of eight cities and their suburbs. People were solving problems, unimpeded by partisan politics, said Kenneth F. Scheve, a political science professor at Stanford University and one of the researchers.

Jim Roland, 40, who owns a health-care business and lives in suburban Philadelphia, said he didn’t like how polarized the nation felt.

“I don’t like that you always have to be one way or the other,” he said, eating a sandwich as Mr. Trump spoke to the anti-abortion marchers on Friday. “I’m definitely a Republican. But that doesn’t mean I feel every Democratic idea is not good.”

On the national level, polarization is still a fact of life. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, argues the right became more extreme in the 1990s, influenced by Fox News and talk radio, but the left is catching up, influenced by the actions of the Trump administration and social media.

“Being in front of an audience encourages moral grandstanding,” he said, amplifying the “loudest and angriest voices.” He added: “You get the spread of fashionable but wrong ideas because people are afraid to challenge. You get mob dynamics.”

At the pro-gun march in Richmond on Monday, Brigid Gallaer, 72, a retired executive secretary from Newport News, said she felt cold, but oddly relaxed. She was tired of arguing with the Democrats in her life — her sister, the women in her Bible study.

“It’s so nice to be with like-minded people,” she said, looking around at the crowd.

Top photographs by Victor J. Blue, Wara Vargas Lara, Parker Michels-Boyce and Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

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