Polarization In American Politics

Today’s political environment appears to be a war of culture rather than civil discourse between competing ideas. And to witness symptoms of this phenomenon, you really don’t have to go much farther than a few clicks on your phone to Twitter or Facebook. It can be argued that this new era of social media interactions is a main contributor to this polarization, but it’s hardly the sole reason or even at the beginning of polarization in politics. 

When I started digging into the topic, it became clear that I was in over my head in terms of understanding the polarization, the root causes, or how to go about developing solutions. As a result, I want to make this column into a series of articles that looks at different components of polarization.

According to a study completed by Pew Research, “The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%.” And, to build further on this data “ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”

Moreover, and perhaps the most concerning statistic is for the first time since 1992, majorities in both parties view the other party not just as unfavorable but very unfavorable. In 1992, the Democratic voter attitudes of Republicans as “very unfavorable” were at 17%, compared to 55% today. That same survey for Republican attitudes was at 21% in 1992 and is currently at 58% today.

And additional data showing “An overwhelming share of those who hold highly negative views of the opposing party say that its policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.””

The easiest part of this conversation is pointed out with empirical evidence that there is intense levels of polarization. The fights on Facebook, the contentious elections, the walking on egg shells feeling around political topics is real and can be measured in numbers. But let’s talk about the difficult questions to answer. How did this happen? Why did this happen? How do we fix it? These are challenging questions because we can’t 1. point to any one cause and give blame to it being the sole or most significant factor and 2. find empirical data or correlated trends that we can say with certainty is causation.

Our best bet is to give some credit to the journalists, lawyers, professors, and political commentators of this world who have observed politics for decades and let them tell us what causes polarization. I’ll break them down into general categories based on what I’ve read, but these are topics that I would like to explore much further and write more on. For now, here is some brief findings:

1. Identity politics

Our placement on the political spectrum is less about what are the values and principals we stand for and more about how we position ourselves on politically volatile issues. Identity politics is the reason we can hear someone’s political take on one issue and know with a high degree of certainty what their stance will be on another, even if the issues are entirely unrelated. E.g. pro-environment and pro-immigration versus someone who is pro-life and pro-gun.

2. Media bubbles/media ghettos

Social media and how it exacerbates living in media bubbles appears to be another major cause of polarization. Simple things like competing political parties that can’t seem to have a meaningful dialogue, the fact that we only follow those who we agree with, or how we fail to recognize any medium that runs counter to our world view are all exacerbated by social media. It is very likely that you unfollowed a friend who shared articles, posts, or opinions that were counter to your political beliefs. That is not to say that you need to remove these filters, there are a variety of reasons someone may choose to put these filters in place, many of them natural, but it is something that we do; Remove the news and the friends that challenge our world view. 

Confirmation bias is an instinctive response and the increase and frequency of information, news, and opinions being shared that fit neatly into our world view hardens our positions because we’ve been “validated” so often. 

3. Growing religious & ethnic diversity 

America today is far more diverse both ethnically and religiously than any other time in it our Nation’s history. In 1965 over 80% of the American population was White, today it’s 46%. Americans who identified as Christians in 2007 was at 78% and in 2014 it fell to 71%. Moreover, the change for those who considered themselves unaffiliated increased from 16.1% to 22.8% in the same time period.

Change is a frightening force and it’s common for us to view the world as a zero sum game. An increased activism and representation on a new set of issues such as civil rights, diversity, and equal representation is likely creating a feeling of “what about me-ism”.

4. Sorting & gerrymandering

More and more Americans are moving to where they’ll be surrounded by like minded individuals. They likely have similar backgrounds, religious affiliations, and therefore opinions on the issues. This tendency for liberals to concentrate in larger cities and conservatives in rural communities makes all the more easy for politicians to gerrymander districts into favorable maps that increase political power.

This very well could be one of the leading factors for polarization. If political affiliation in every community, from small towns to large cities was 50/50, you’d have much more sympathy for those voting for the other side, but it would also be difficult to cut us into neat little districts that crack or dilute your voting power. However, we’d want to see data that suggests that this wasn’t always the case and that our communities used to be more politically diverse.

5. The list goes on
Digging through articles and research, there were a handful of other very convincing proposals as to why we may be so polarized. I’ll list them here:

  • End of the Cold War – No common enemy
  • Election strategies – not about finding the middles it’s about turning out the extremes
  • Rising inequality - stagnate wages and the growing 1%
  • Growing power in the executive branch – regulations, executive orders and executive memorandums 
  • Changes in the rules of congress – nuclear rules, changes in “blue-slip” nominations
  • Decreasing journalistic standards – anyone can write a blog, even me. 
  • Dark money – too much money in politics 
  • Lack of lawmakers social interactions across the aisle

I want to dig into a lot of these but I also want to hear from you about what you think might be causing some of the extreme polarization in today’s politics. Find me on Twitter @JoeMelisi or click the link here: America? Why so polarized? And let me know.

Joe MelisiComment