March 5, 2019

Maybe It's Not as Bad as We Think It Is

I think we all know, in our heart of hearts, that we are a more polarized society lately than we were in the past, or at least, than we are in 'our' past, right?

I'm not old enough to remember the civil rights battles of the 50s and early 60s, and while I remember what was going on during the Vietnam War era and the assassination of MLK and RFK, I experienced those as a child of a history teacher, not as an active participant.

Those were polarizing times, for sure, but what's happening now has to be worse; it has to be. I mean, we're reminded all the time how polarizing the election of Barack Obama was - a black community organizer, not even an American, married to an arms-baring tranny? How could that have happened in America???

And then everything got at least a bazillion times worse when Donald Trump lost the popular vote, won the Electoral College and plopped on his imperial, racist, lying, swampy throne, putting his family in charge of policies, stealing the party - how did THAT happen here???

If you believe either of those descriptions, or similar ones, of the Obama and Trump years, how do they influence how you interact with people who hold a different opinion? Or do they impact your interactions at all?

Well, that's what the folks at The Atlantic tried to figure out. They recently shared their findings in an article which used data and analytics from PredictWise to determine the relative 'affective polarization,' county by county, for the entire country. The methodology is here, including survey questions measuring how people feel about things like a family member marrying someone from the other political party, how much certain words describe Democrats and Republicans, and feelings about the political parties and voters in each party.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that New York as a whole fared well; we're less politically prejudicial than we're led to believe, than what we see and hear and read. In fact, one small city in northern NY was featured in a related article for its lack of political prejudice.
...Watertown is notable for another reason, officially unrecognized until now. It is located in one of the most politically tolerant counties in America...Jefferson County and several nearby counties in the North Country are distinct from other parts of America. 
In New York, can you believe it? And my neck of the woods fared pretty well, too.

Let's take a look.

This first map shows the overall political prejudice for all counties  Darker colors are more polarized; lighter colors are less so.

Source: PredictWise

New York looks remarkably tolerant, compared to other blue states - California, and New England, for example. And look at red states - Texas, South Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin, for instance. Bold, brash, in-your-face New Yorkers are more tolerant than those other places? 

Going a little deeper, how do things look between the parties? According to the article,
...Republicans seem to dislike Democrats more than Democrats dislike Republicans, PredictWise found. We don't know why this is, but this is not the only survey to have detected an imbalance... it's hard to know exactly what's going on but what's clear is that both sides are becoming more hostile to each other. 
Here's the picture of how tolerant Dems are (or aren't) towards their Republican-leaning neighbors:

Source: PredictWise

And the third map shows the relative amount of political prejudice Republicans have towards Dems; you'll notice a lot more wide-spread darker colors on this map than on the one above.

Source: PredictWise

Focusing on my home, Onondaga County, here's what the data shows:
  • Overall, we are in the 22nd percentile, meaning that 78 of 100 counties are more politically prejudiced than we are; 
  • Democrats show 'average' political prejudice towards their Republican neighbors compared to Dems in other places; but
  • Republicans are 'somewhat more' prejudiced against Democrats here than their counterparts in other areas.
That variation is true not just in Onondaga County but across the state. In most NY counties, Democrats are more tolerant of Republicans, and in most counties, Republicans are less tolerant of Democrats. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd point to the feeling that New York City Dems are running the state and upstate Republicans - well, all Republicans, really - are shut out.

This sentiment is even more intense than it was before the 2018 election when Democrats regained control of the State Senate, making us one of those 'trifecta states' where one party is in control of the governorship and the state legislature. Heck, we're even seeing lots of articles on whether NY should split into two states, Upstate and NYC.

So, what do we do with this information?  There are no easy answers - ultimately, this is about people and ideology and the personal impacts of politics and relationships. But the article leaves us with this closing thought:
Hope is embedded in all these maps: this kind of prejudice is malleable. That is why it varies so much from place to place. By cultivating meaningful relationships across divides, by rewarding humility and curiosity over indignation and righteousness, people can live wiser, fuller lives. They can also learn to speak one another's language, which means they might one day even change one another's minds. This happens organically in some places, we now know. Maybe it's time to think of these outliers are rare and interesting, worthy of our attention, before they become extinct. 
Look at your county, and see if the data is consistent with what you think is happening. As I noted, I was surprised to see that in general, things are pretty good here in my neck of the woods, and I'm going to try and leverage that knowledge as best I can.

If you're in an area where things are just as you thought they were, or worse than you thought they were, there's still hope. We have a choice on whether or how to engage others, and the extent to which we do so.  If we make those engagements personal, neighborly, helpful, and non-ideological, the time will likely come where we're just people having conversations, not our political identities having arguments. It probably won't be easy, and it won't work with everyone, but it won't work at all if we don't try. 

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