Making Politics Civil Again
Polarization in American discourse is driven partly by identity politics, USC Dornsife experts say (Illustration by Dennis Lan for USC Dornsife Magazine.)

Making Politics Civil Again

Scholarly leaders from USC Dornsife’s Center for the Political Future discuss the forces driving Americans apart and explore how those same forces could bring them together. [6 min read]
ByEmily Gersema

The end of 2018 delivered significant change to American politics. Nearly half of eligible voters cast ballots last November — the biggest midterm election turnout in over a century. Record numbers of women and ethnic minorities were elected to Congress. And a Democratic majority took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In spite of it all, one thing has not changed: The nation remains politically divided.

“We have a balance at the federal level that we didn’t have before,” says Robert Shrum, director of USC Dornsife’s Center for the Political Future. “But people’s disagreements are the same and people’s positions are the same.”

The center aims to address the political divide through education, research and practice. Staunchly nonpartisan, the center facilitates reasonable and open political discussions about matters that sometimes divide politicians and the public, serving as a model for students who are eager for a role in the political system, either as voters, staffers or candidates. The center is led by Shrum, a longtime Democratic political strategist who holds the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics. Veteran GOP strategist Michael Murphy is the center’s co-director.

“Political communication is so ubiquitous now, you cannot escape it,” says Murphy. “The digital world allows people to go out and choose what they want to hear.”

The center’s launch last fall was timely. Many researchers, public opinion polls, political analysts and even psychologists say America’s political fault lines have widened to a worrisome degree. Polls provided warning signs of this polarization long before Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.

Multiple forces have converged, largely through advancements in technology and the transformation of media, sending seismic waves across the political landscape. The rise of cable TV news and the 24-hour news cycle expose viewers to endless — and frequently partisan — political coverage. Smartphones are increasingly popular, and social media sites have become a primary source of news for many Americans, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

“Political communication is so ubiquitous now, you cannot escape it,” says Murphy. “The digital world allows people to go out and choose what they want to hear.”

Demographic changes and social movements contribute further to the stressful political atmosphere.

Growing Disparities

“We’re really at an extraordinary time in American history where there are two unique dynamics. The first is that this  socioeconomic class divide is growing,” says Michael Madrid one of the center’s visiting fellows this semester and the principal of a campaign management and lobbying firm, Grassroots Lab. “The other is the demographic transformation that is unprecedented in American history.”

Although the size of America’s middle class is steady at about 51 percent, Pew found that income disparities have been widening.

The median income of middle-class households in 2016 was around $78,000 — not much higher than in 2000 when it was about $74,000. Pew says the minimal shifts reflect a lingering effect of the 2008 Great Recession and a recession from 2001. The median income for upper-income households increased by about the same dollar amount, but among low-income households, it decreased by 5 percent over that period.

The nation is transforming racially, too. Whites are expected to become a minority by 2045, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted in recent reports. Asian, Asian-American and Hispanic populations have been growing while the birth rate among whites is declining.

Madrid says racial, gender and income disparities have become key issues in today’s political landscape, igniting social movements from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, the latter galvanized in part by#MeToo movement harassment complaints.

All of the movements have taken to social media to highlight issues that previously might have been invisible to some Americans. For example, the 2017 video of Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting Michael Brown was shared repeatedly on social media, propelling the Black Lives Matter movement that had begun in 2012. The result is similar to how the Civil Rights movement gained traction in the 1960s when photographers captured images of police siccing police dogs on protesters and spraying marchers, including children, with fire hoses.

“Right now, you’re seeing really ugly stuff,” Madrid said. “When you start to see things like police brutality — in videos and on social media — and it’s undeniable, that starts to move public opinion.”

Madrid says this is a cultural and political turning point in America, much like that which occurred during the Vietnam War. Images of the war turned the tide of public opinion against both the war and President Lyndon B. Johnson.“The first time the war was brought in to people’s homes, [via newspapers and television] it turned public opinion against the government and you could actually see it,” he says. 

Different Places, Shared Problems

Symone Sanders, another fellow at the center and a political analyst, was a campaign aide in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid and joined Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in April. She notes that people who may seem politically opposed often have issues in common. But they don’t seem to recognize this fact. That’s because differences in rhetoric and semantics can obscure their commonality. This is true, for instance, among people who are poor, she says.

“If you’re a poor person working in McDowell County, West Virginia, you are dealing with some of the exact same issues as a working poor person on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois,” Sanders says. “But because they talk about it differently, and they differ racially, they may not feel a connection to the other person.”

Madrid says that racial differences inhibit the ability of all low-income Americans to come together, preventing them from sharing a common agenda that would force both parties to the center.

Madrid and Sanders believe that a period of healing will come only after tensions worsen, and not before the 2020 presidential election.

Even then, Sanders says, this country will need to have some very difficult conversations about race and inequality. 

Starting to Heal

For its part, the Center for the Political Future is focused on healing the country as much as it can by preparing students — future political leaders, informed voters and active campaign supporters — to learn how to engage in civil dialogue about political issues and to respect the truth.

A number of students are learning about the Iowa caucus process in preparation for a visit to the state this summer, at which time they will perform volunteer work on a presidential campaign. The students will return to Iowa in January to gain more exposure to the caucus process.

Shrum says the center is proof that it is possible to bring together political opponents and have a civilized, rational discussion about the state of the nation, the needs of Americans and policy matters.

The center has hosted speakers such as former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci. In April, it hosted former Secretary of State John Kerry at Climate Forward, a conference the center organized with USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. The conference focused on policy solutions and practices that could address climate change. True to the center’s mission, the conference brought together policy experts from both sides of the political aisle, as well as business leaders.

“Civic institutions and universities have a leading role in addressing polarization,” Shrum says. “We need to advance the dialogue so that if someone wins the game, people don’t burn down the stadium.” 

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2019 issue >>