In Florida, a deeper divide is brewing

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Actually, there is one issue that has caught the attention of those who care deeply: who is going to vote in this election. As is happening in several states, the Republican-controlled legislature has attempted to limit voter registration efforts and to purge the voter rolls of potentially fraudulent voters. On CNN back in June, Governor Rick Scott noted, “You don't get to vote in Florida if you're a non-U.S. citizen." This is true. Democrats have noted that the most likely outcome is to block citizens who would likely vote Democratic. This is probably true as well.
 
This debate, though, points to a development that is potentially very troubling for American politics. The debate is about process and not about policies and performance. According to Barack Obama’s campaign, everything bad that has taken place since 2009 was caused by someone who spent those years watching baseball on a couch in Dallas. Mitt Romney is going to fix everything, but please do not ask him how. It is not new that candidates avoid the issues —William Henry Harrison’s campaign manager famously advised, “Let him say not a single word about his principles, or his creed - let him say nothing - promise nothing.”  My research (with FSU’s Kerri Milita and Elizabeth Simas of the University of Houston) finds that candidates talk about the issues only when they lack positive personal qualities or if they are in districts dominated by like-minded partisans.
 
It’s also not a new development that the media largely ignores the issues. Every election cycle is dominated by gaffes and personal attacks and has been since Adams went toe-to-toe with Jefferson. It’s not even new that a partisan media drives extreme passions. During President Madison’s administration, a Federalist newspaper in Baltimore had their presses destroyed by a mob of Republicans. Taking a lesson from the three little pigs, they moved into a stronger building to protect themselves. Huffing and puffing wouldn’t knock this building down. So, the Republicans showed up with a cannon.
 
What is seemingly different is that citizens (in Florida and much of the country) have become divided into the deeply political and those who completely opt out of politics. In effect, the political world is increasingly populated by only those who care passionately and this is not sustainable. In 1954, the social scientists Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee explained that society needs activists, but that a “lack of [political] interest is not without its benefits, too.”  Society needs citizens who pay attention to politics only in the fall of election years. These are the people who would evaluate performance with some partisan bias, but open to the possibility that the other party might occasionally be right about something. They want to believe in America and Florida again and move this country and state forward.
 
The polls suggest Barack Obama will narrowly win Florida and they are probably right. This state has long been closely divided, but I fear it is becoming deeply divided in a way that it wasn’t before. The divisions between Democrats and Republicans are deeper and this is caused by a divide that is a more troubling than the partisan one. This is the divide between those who do nothing but post on Facebook about the outrageous statements and tactics of the other party and those who just wish politicians and political activists would go away.
 
Ryan is assistant professor in the department of political science at Florida State University.

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