There is little doubt that America is more politically polarized today than at any other point in living memory. The left-right split has become bitter to the point that people are starting to wonder if violence is about to break out. While politics may inflame the passions on both sides of the aisle, this laser-beam like focus on partisan side-taking has served as a distraction from the many genuine social ills that exist across the world today.
Pew Research found Republicans have remained relatively stable in their politics over the years, while the politics of Democrat supporters and Democrat-leaning independents have shifted significantly to the left since 2009. While many of these people would consider social justice to be their political priority, their obsession with opposing the Trump presidency has blinded them to almost every other issue in society.
Animosity on the Rise
According to data from the Pew Research Center, Americans have been following a trend toward partisan polarization over several decades. Since the 1960s, supporters of one political party have become increasingly disapproving of the other party’s representative. During the Kennedy presidency, 84% of Democrats supported the president, but even among the opposition Republicans, JFK enjoyed 49% approval. The gap between approval ratings steadily widened, regardless of which party held the presidency; during the Obama years, the president had approval from only 14% of Republicans, but 81% of Democrat supporters. At no time has this polarization been felt more acutely than during the constant controversy that churns around the Trump Administration; in his first year as President, only 8% of Democrats approved of the job he was doing, compared to a massive 88% of Republicans.
Not only is the difference between political opinion growing greater, but personal animosity has also grown; those who used to be merely opponents, are now becoming enemies. According to Bloomberg, parents are far more likely to be upset if their children were to marry someone from the opposing political party than they were 50 years ago. The Huffington Post and YouGov teamed up to conduct a survey that found nearly half of Americans had gotten into an argument with a friend, family member, or co-worker over the 2016 election results, while many reported that they simply didn’t know anybody closely with an opposing political point of view. Not only are people increasingly likely to personally dislike political opponents, but they are more and more seeking to avoid interacting with people who differ politically.
Experiments by the Harvard Business Review found that people even seek to reinforce their existing political beliefs through their economic activity. Subjects were more likely to engage in a transaction with a business that shared their political ideology; they also preferred to turn-down a higher paying offer from someone with an opposing viewpoint, making themselves financially worse off rather than contribute to a different political ideology. The researchers found that:
Our results highlight another point about partisanship in contemporary society: It has become an important social identity. It extends beyond particular policy beliefs or support for specific politicians… People may infer characteristics such as trustworthiness based on partisanship, or may simply be reacting emotionally. Either explanation would fit the patterns we have found in our work. But what seems clear is that partisanship’s power is not limited to politics.
Politics Vs. Ethics
Consumer activity is to some degree political. Environmental and economic values may cause one to avoid buying coffee at Starbucks in favor of a local café, for example, and many people are now steering clear of common brands due to ethical concerns. Consumer ethics typically surround a company’s business practices, but where do ethics end and politics begin?
There have been numerous calls recently to boycott companies, not over their method of doing business, but rather over ideology unrelated to the particular service or product. This is hardly surprising as companies are integrating political ideology more and more into their brand image.
As creatively documented by Business Insider, food brands have recently been hit by boycotts on both sides of the political spectrum, including Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s Pizza and Wendy’s by the left and Kellogg’s, Pizza Hut and Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream by the right. Unfortunately these boycotts did not address the real problems with brands.
Chick-fil-A was not shunned because of its allegedly routine animal cruelty, but rather because the CEO voted against same-sex marriage and the company’s charity arm donated to organizations that do not respect LGBT marriage – a factor unrelated to the company’s core purpose. The boycott of Wendy’s was not sparked by its allegedly unfair working conditions, but rather because the company’s Twitter account briefly posted an image of Pepe the Frog.
Cereal giant Kellogg’s was named by Amnesty International in 2016 as one among several major companies purchasing palm oil from a supplier that uses child labor in Indonesia, although there was little consumer reaction against the brand until a few months later when it decided to stop advertising on the online media outlet Breitbart – a decision that caused outrage and sparked a boycott. Similarly, clothing brand H&M has long been criticized by consumer ethics groups for its poor environmental and labor practices, yet it took an ill-judged t-shirt slogan to make headlines.
Integrating political ideology with brand image can be dangerous, however. Whole Foods has amusingly been the target of boycotts from both the left and the right, while the typically left-wing coffee giant Starbucks ran afoul of its liberal image after what appeared to be an incident of racist behavior toward black customers.
Boycotts can be an effective means of sending a message – after all, conservative Americans’ switching off the NFL resulted in a policy change – but American consumers are increasingly fixated on partisan politics while ignoring genuine social injustice that affects lives on a daily basis.
As American society becomes further divided, ideologues focus on increasingly trivial offences to trigger their righteous outrage, at the expense of issues that really matter. It doesn’t appear that the rift will heal any time soon – at least not during the Trump administration – but perhaps it’s time to start taking politics less seriously, and start examining all those issues that we are ignoring as a result of this ever more petty distraction.