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Issues & Ale recap: The polarization problem

Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio

With a week to go before election night, discussing politics over drinks seemed a good idea Tuesday night.

That’s when Michigan Radio held its final Issues & Ale election preview event before the fateful Nov. 8.

The event took place at HopCatin Detroit and Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry hosted.

Panelists were Brandon Dillon, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, Aaron Foley, editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine, Republican consultant Stu Sandler and Zoe Clark, co-host of Michigan Radio’s It’s Just Politics.

While conversation moved through various topics, all of which related to the ballot Michigan voters will see next Tuesday, one idea continued to take the forefront: the polarization this election has caused between people in this country.

It began with Lessenberry’s first question to the panel:

HOST QUESTION: In your opinion, what is the most bizarre or surprising thing to come out of this whole election cycle?

“I think the most bizarre thing, if I had to think about it, was the fact that you had a debate where both the candidates and their families couldn’t shake hands,” Sandler said.

That, he said, is a big indicator of the current state of civility in the United States.

“And it really shocks me that we’ve come to that level,” he said.

Dillon’s response to the question was slightly different:

"And my worry, beyond whoever wins or loses, is that we are losing any kind of national consensus of ourselves as a people."

He said in his view, the most surprising thing to happen throughout this election cycle came at the Republican presidential primary debate at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.

“I was in the media room watching the debate with all the national media and local media, and it was at the point where Donald Trump started talking about the size of his hands, at the debate,” Dillon said. “And the entire room just – all jaws dropped.”

While many were appalled by Trump's comment, Dillon said Trump “probably went up in the polls after."

Lessenberry said Trump’s ability to survive as a major party’s candidate, after all that has happened, made him realize we are in a “very, very different place than we’ve ever been before in terms of politics.”

“What I think most startles me is sort of the breakdown of national consensus over what elections are about – what they should be about,” Lessenberry said.

“And my worry, beyond whoever wins or loses, is that we are losing any kind of national consensus of ourselves as a people.”

AUDIENCE QUESTION: “I’ve read that we haven’t been this polarized since the mid-1850’s – and we all know what happened shortly after that. Do you see any parallels between those pre-Civil War times and now?”

Lessenberry said the difference between then and now is that polarization before the Civil War was mostly sectional. It was the north against the south. What's happening now is different.

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The event was held at HopCat in Detroit.

“I don’t know if class against class is correct, but there are definitely sort of two Americas that don’t talk to each other anymore," he said. "And I think that’s a problem, but it’s not about to lead to civil war. What I’m worried about is that it is leading to less feeling of ourselves as Americans.”

Clark, however, offered a different opinion.

“I’m 32 and I can remember – ever since being little – always hearing that this election was the most important election of everyone’s lifetime and that we have never seen anything more divisive than this election,” she said.

While 2016 is particularly “incredible and odd and chaotic,” she does not agree that the state of politics is more partisan than anytime since the Civil War.

What may have become more partisan, however, is the way in which we communicate, and where we seek information. Listen to Clark’s explanation below:

Communication will be key as we start to look past the election, Foley said.

"I think the question we have to face is, 'how do we talk to each other after the election?'" he said. "Because even though we may be divided among certain lines right now, we're still going to have to live with each other after next Tuesday. So what does that mean for social interaction? What does that mean for online interaction?"

For the full conversation, listen above.

For more political conversation, join us on election night – Nov. 8 from 8-11 p.m. at Fraser’s Pub in Ann Arbor. Click here for more information.