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More Divided Than Ever? Excavating the Roots Of Our Political Landscape

Many of us intuitively feel that the bitter partisanship of American politics is bad for our nation. So should we be concerned about the health of our democracy?
Roy Scott
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The nastiness of American politics today may seem extreme compared to the tone of earlier eras. But historian David Moss says our nation's founders were also happy to sling mud. Thomas Jefferson's supporters said John Adams had a "hideous hermaphroditical character." Adams called Alexander Hamilton that "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler." Beyond the noxious language, there were also deep disagreements about what it meant to be a nation.

Moss argues that the intensity of our partisan disagreements shouldn't be cause for alarm. He believes our democracy is much more resilient than we realize, and that conflict, however bitter, can be productive.

"I think we need to remember American democracy is far from perfect, but it is extraordinarily resilient, and it has generated tremendous progress," he says.

That said, Moss also believes that Americans should ask a key question as we assess the health of our political discourse: do the politicians you support ever put democracy in second place at the expense of a partisan battle?

"It's good, I think, in a democracy to be hypochondriacs - that is, to think that, oh, our system might be sick. Because when you think it might be sick, you start to take some action to try to fix it."

That's in the second half of this week's show. In the first part of our program, we revisit our 2018 conversation with political scientist John Hibbing. Over the years, he has studied how our political views may be influenced by our biology.

"We would look at brain scan results and we could be incredibly accurate knowing whether they're liberal or conservative, just on the basis of that," he says.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.

Additional Resources:

"Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?" by John R. Alford, Carolyn L. Funk, and John R. Hibbing in American Political Science Review,2005.

"Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology" by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford in Behavioral and Brain Sciences,2014.

Democracy: A Case Study by David A. Moss, 2017.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Thomas Lu is an assistant producer for Hidden Brain.He came to NPR in 2017 as an intern for the TED Radio Hour. He has worked with How I Built This, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Pop Culture Happy Hour. Before coming to NPR, he was a production intern for StoryCorps.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.