Presidential Debate Essay 2012

Amber E. Boydstun is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California–Davis, Davis, CA, USA. Rebecca A. Glazier is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, AR, USA. Matthew T. Pietryka is an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA. Philip Resnik is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA. The authors are deeply indebted to the hundreds of instructors and thousands of students who participated in the 2012 React Labs: Educate project. Timothy Jurka’s masterful skills helped make the project possible in the first place. All-night post-debate data analysis sessions were made possible—and hilarious—by Timothy Jurka, Debra Leiter, Jack Reilly, and Michelle Schwarze. The authors thank Ben Highton for very helpful comments on the manuscript and Drew Stephens for his invaluable technical support. Funding support for this project was provided by a Presidential Studies Center Grant from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

*Address correspondence to Amber E. Boydstun, University of California–Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616, USA; e-mail:

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AFTER a panel discussion on the US elections hosted by a Dutch radio station the other night, I got to talking to a fellow American who's looking for work stateside. His Dutch government-funded job had been eliminated by austerity measures, so he was trying to convince his wife of the virtues of moving back to America. The main reason he was hesitating was the mood of vicious and increasingly entrenched political animosity. "Do you get the feeling," he asked, "that it could get violent?"

I said I didn't know. But it's certainly not a silly question. A recent broadcast of "This American Life", which focused on people who have lost close friends in recent years over politics, seemed to capture the mood pretty accurately. One sequence portrayed a student with a life-threatening pre-existing condition that until recently rendered him uninsurable, who has stopped talking to a conservative friend who refuses to support ObamaCare because he said it felt as though the friend didn't value his life. A conservative man describes being unable to continue talking to a former friend who supports a president he is convinced is destroying the country. Two sisters can't agree on who is being rude and condescending to whom after a furious falling-out over political philosophy.

Barack Obama has just won re-election, but America remains a country bitterly divided, as it has been for well over a decade. The divide is simultaneously very narrow in numerical terms, and gaping in ideological or partisan terms. This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What's going on?

To put this another way, it's entirely logical to get a 50-50 split in a country where two relatively compatible political parties are competing for centrist votes. In a system governed by the logic of the median-voter theorem, one would expect to see the parties converging in policy terms to win the allegiance of voters in the centre. And you can even make a case that this is, in policy terms, what has happened in America. Realistic arguments over policy take place on relatively narrow terrain: they are arguments over a top marginal tax rate of 35% or 39.6%, over a health-insurance system with guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions but with or without a mandate, and so forth. But in ideological terms, this is not what the political divide looks like. Republicans construe the Democratic positions on these questions as socialism and international decline. Democrats construe the Republican positions as social darwinism and militant imperialism. How you do end up with a populace split evenly between these radical belief structures?

My basic take is that the stable, narrow, bitter partisan divide in America is a phenomenon driven by an interaction between two major players: the parties themselves, and the media. Political parties have achieved a staggering level of professionalism; the increasing availability of voter preference data and increasing sophistication of recruitment techniques in the age of information technology are likely to result in convergence between their abilities to secure their vote shares. The media, meanwhile, and this can't be repeated often enough, is overwhelmingly biased towards producing exciting political races. Horse-race reporting gives the media the collective ability to shape the kind of narrative it needs in order to report excitingly. The increasing interaction between mass media and social media seems only to exacerbate this tendency: both mass-media analysts and private social-media contributors are rewarded for sharply divisive characterisations. We're seeing market segmentation in which a number of players have an interest in keeping the segments at equal sizes.

But most people don't view the increase in partisanship as a morally neutral, structural phenomenon in which they're being driven into two camps by organisational forces. And they don't see the policy argument as being a narrow one. The suspicion on both sides is that, while the results in policy terms if the other side wins the election may not be catastrophic, the other side's true aim is a vision of America that is anathema to one's own. And this leads to a social antipathy that can be quite profound. It increasingly takes a conscious effort for Democrats and Republicans to be socially at ease with each other. There is an increasing level of outright hostility; on the Republican side especially, the arguments that have been deployed to rally opposition to the enemy's agenda provide intellectual support for violent resistance.

Setting aside the policy issues we're facing over the next four years, I think the most immediate need is for Americans to find a way to live civilly with each other. "This American Life" brought on a pair of writers, liberal Phil Neisser and conservative Jacob Hess, who've written a book ("You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong)") about their efforts to find a way to talk to each other and agree to disagree on fundamental philosophical and moral issues. There need to be a lot more similar efforts along these lines. This election has put Barack Obama back in office, and returned him a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. Over the next four years, legislative battles are going to continue to be savage and hard-fought. Neither conservatives nor liberals are going to change their minds en masse about fundamental issues of political philosophy. The top priority is for Americans to figure out a way to keep these divisions from dividing the country into two hostile armed camps that are incapable of talking to each other.

(Photo credit: AFP)

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