Partisanship from All Angles

Priming With Purple

episode artwork for season 1, episode 1, partisanship from all angles: priming with purple
Season 1, Episode 1

How did these United States get so thoroughly partisan? How do we get less partisan? Can independent-minded Americans help bridge the divide? 

These questions lie behind this first and every episode of The Purple Principle, a podcast about the perils of partisanship in US politics, society and daily life. Episode 1 is a fast-paced lap around the subject, introducing upcoming guests from the fields of psychology, computer science, politics and political science, as well as non-partisan activists and prominent independent Americans.  Read More

Guest include Keith Poole, Professor Emeritus, U. of Georgia, Jason Altmire, Former 3-term Congressman, Pennsylvania, Abigail Marsh, Professor Psychology and Neuroscience at Georgetown, Robert Elliott Smith, Professor of Computer Science at University College London, John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries, Laura Sibilia, Legislator from Vermont General Assembly, Charles Wheelan, Co-Founder of Unite America, and Myq Kaplan, Stand-up Comedian and Podcaster.

Robert Pease (narrator):

Have you had this experience? You’re talking to a friend, a relative, a coworker, and make a simple observation. 

Voice Collage:

The weather’s getting so warm… 

Taxes are so outrageous… 

It gets crazier… 

Viruses spread so quickly… 

Paying bills without work…

Robert Pease (narrator):

Suddenly the temperature rises. Your friend lumps your observation in with a whole set of positions you don’t share. You try to explain, but the spark is lit. The emotional fire spreads, and you argue past each other. 

Voice Collage:

What do you mean by…?

We don’t have to wait to catch things earlier… 

Better dead in a body bag… 

We have to take risks…

Robert Pease (narrator):

Like so many others in the U.S today, you’ve been polarized. This is Robert Pease, creator of The Purple Principle and lifelong political independent. We’re concerned about the growing partisanship affecting American politics, society, and daily life. And wondering if our red and blue factions can blend into a healthier shade of purple. A short time ago, Americans could discuss important topics in civil and rational ways, but today, any issue is immediately polarized. We’ve politicized religion, weather, and now viruses. Apple pie might be next. Who picked these apples? How much were they paid? And this Granny Smith character, was she a Democrat or a Republican? Only a few decades ago, our elected representatives could have disagreements, but still reach compromise.

Ronald Reagan (archival audio)

It’s an excellent example of a truly successful bipartisan effort, the administration and the allies of immigration reform on both sides of the Capitol and both sides of the aisle. So now I’ll get on with the signing and make this into law. Hope nothing happens to me between here and there.1

Robert Pease (narrator)

That was Republican president, Ronald Reagan, thanking Democratic leaders of the Congress for their role in passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This bill increased border security and widened the path to citizenship. The Senate vote on that bill, which had a number of abstentions, was remarkably bi-partisan. 33 Republicans and 36 Democrats voted in favor. 2 Eight years later, Democratic president Bill Clinton thanked Republican house and Senate leadership for their role in passing a major crime bill, which included a 10 year ban on the sale of assault weapons.

Bill Clinton (archival audio)

Even though many of them have been introduced, I would like to ask the people without whom we would not be here today. All the members of the Congress who were here, Republicans and Democrats, to please stand and be acknowledged. Every one of them, I’d like for them to stand up.3

Robert Pease (narrator)

Neither were perfect pieces of legislation and time has exposed their weaknesses, but they were attempts to address chronic problems that Congress has been unable to legislate on since those bills passed 26 and 34 years ago,4 which as we will see in future episodes, is a huge problem for democracy. On this nonpartisan exploration, you’ll meet voices of experience like Jason Altmire, one of the most centrist members of the U.S. House during his three terms.5

Jason Altmire:

One of the questions I get asked most often when I speak around the country about these issues is ‘why is there so much partisanship in Washington? Well, you know, we don’t see that in our neighborhood.’ Well, the answer is because we’re electing partisans. We have a system that is designed to elect and protect people on the political extreme. And that is because, primarily, of what happens in our primary process. You have in a lot of States closed primaries where the independent voters that you’re talking about are restricted from voting in primaries. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

The U.S. Congress today is at its most partisan point in a hundred years6 and possibly since the Civil War, but don’t take our word for it. Take it from the Dean of partisanship, Dr. Keith Poole, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. He began analyzing congressional floor votes way back in the 1970s. Now anyone can analyze his work on the UCLA database.

Keith Poole

And we did that from 1789, all the way to the present day. But beginning roughly around the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the parties started separating to the point now where it’s not really liberals vs. conservatives, it’s just devolved into pure hatred of the other party. And I worry about the stability of our institutions because of that.

Robert Pease (narrator)

In this investigation, we’ll need a basic understanding of human tribalism. We discussed this with Dr. Abigail Marsh, author of The Fear Factor,7 and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Georgetown University. 

Abigail Marsh:

You know, you think like a herd of muskox when they believe they’re being threatened by wolves, they cluster themselves together in a very tight way and, you know, threat does that to really any social species. And so when communities believe they’re being threatened by others who they perceive as a threat to their values or to their livelihood or to their welfare, you tend to get more sort of black and white thinking, which is another strong promoter of ideology; a lack of trust – you know, a tendency to be mistrustful and hostile and prone to conspiratorial thinking, which are all sort of bound up together. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

Fear then is a major catalyst for polarization. But what about the role media plays in stoking our emotions? Robert Elliott Smith, author of Rage Inside the Machine,8 analyzes the influence of polarizing algorithms. 

Robert Elliott Smith:

And the reality is that people aren’t as simple as Democrats and Republicans, but you know, we’re in this situation right now where we have this algorithmically mediated media that’s trying to place us into categories, largely for purposes of advertising. That of course feeds us our news, that aggravates our emotions – so, effectively, it’s the worst kind of narrowcasting. The internet isn’t broadcasting; it’s narrowcasting. And then people can come along and exploit those effects, as we saw in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Robert Pease (narrator):

The Purple Principle also profiles individuals and groups working on the front lines of partisanship. John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, argues better government will result from enfranchising a large number of American independent voters in primary elections.

John Opdycke

Politicians who get elected in open public primary systems are much better elected officials. They actually are incentivized to work with members of the other party to reach across the aisle, to build coalitions with people they disagree with, to focus on governing and passing, you know, good policy. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

Which leads to an interesting paradox. Partisanship has increased over the past 20 years between the two major parties and their partisans. Yet, the number of independent voters has grown at the same time. You’ll meet four notable American independents on our upcoming episode, The 40 Million Missing, including Laura Sibilia, a three-term independent representative in the Vermont Assembly.9

Laura Sibilia

So I had these three moderate Republicans approach me and say, ‘you should run. You should run for office.’ And I remember very distinctly saying to them, ‘well, I’m not a Republican.’ And I believe in, you know, gay marriage and a whole host of civil rights and a woman’s right to choose. And they said, ‘well, we believe in those things too.’ Okay. So, and I’m not running as a Democrat because I feel like the party just takes it too far.

Robert Pease (narrator)

You will encounter what may seem like pessimism on The Purple Principle, such as from Charles Wheelan, founder of Unite America and former congressional candidate. 

Charlie Wheelan:

What the scary things going on here is that you’ve got a lot of different forces at work. Anyone who’s been watching TV more than 15 years knows that’s new, the rise of television news, where you pick your ideology; the rise of social media, where not only are you hearing the echo chamber, but think about something like gerrymandering. Now, big data allows us to gerrymander better than we used to. Which means more safe seats, which means the primaries matter more. They’re more expensive races. Who do you get the money from? The people who are the most extreme. Every single force that is going on is pushing us apart. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

But you’ll also encounter something like optimism from standup comedians, like Myq Kaplan, who’s been touring the US for nearly 20 years. We’ll present Myq with our carefully-researched hypothesis, that partisanship is numbing the American sense of humor. 

Myq Kaplan

I would say, I wish I knew whose joke this is. Cause it’s a joke that I quote so often in these situations. The short answer is no. And the long answer is noooo.

Robert Pease (narrator)

Mike then presents a more nuanced state of the nation.

Myq Kaplan

Let’s say it used to be, if you’re going to oversimplify, like conservatives were, you know, you shouldn’t say certain things like… you know, you gotta be prim and proper and family values. And so you wouldn’t want to use, let’s say swear words. And liberals, you know, like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin would be like, no, you gotta be able to say, you know, it’s important to be able to say whatever you want, that is freedom of speech. And now you might caricature it in the other direction, the left may be like, not that you shouldn’t say anything, but be like, hey, like the things that I’m like, hey, maybe think about what you are saying. And then there’s some people on the right, perhaps, you know, more libertarian than conservative that are like, no, you know, we have the right to say whatever we want. I was like, weren’t you just the ones earlier saying the other thing and then people…? So I guess it’s hard to say definitely, if it is more polarized, perhaps part of it is that we have more data. We have more people talking.

Robert Pease (narrator)

What you will not hear on The Purple Principle is the usual major party spin. But what you will hear are important insights such as Dr. Keith Poole on voting strategically in a partisan age. 

Keith Poole:

Yeah, vote for the moderates, but time’s getting short. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

And former Congressman Altmire on the media bias within us all. 

Jason Altmire:

It’s difficult to give the right answer to people who are looking for unbiased, neutral news sources, because they will look at those sources that tilt as soon as they see a story or a writer or a commentary piece, talk about something with which they disagree. They’re going to say, Oh, well, they’re biased. You know, because they don’t agree with it. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

Along the way, we’ll gather stories through social media and our website from you, our independent-minded listeners, who experience partisanship at work, at home, and seemingly everywhere in between. Are you the purple mediator in a red and blue family? Do you have stories about innocent conversations that went up in partisan flames? If so, we’d love to make you part of The Purple Principle as we explore these basic questions: How did we get so partisan? How do we get less partisan? And can independent-minded Americans create common purple ground in American politics, society and daily life? 

This has been Robert Pease for The Purple Principle team. Sara Holtz, associate producer; Janice Murphy, senior editor; Emily Crocetti, staff reporter, Kevin Kline, audio engineer; Emily Holloway, research and fact checking. Original theme and background music is created by Ryan Adair-Rooney. Please keep an ear or two out for upcoming episodes on your favorite podcast provider.