Causes of Polarization and Partisanship
Increased partisanship and polarization of the nation’s political parties and America itself has been a dominant topic in political discussions for a while, the question being how to reduce partisanship to allow government to function better. What is responsible for the growth of polarization and partisanship when polls seem to show that centrists and moderates are the nation’s largest political bloc? Is Trump a cause of polarization or was his election the result of a nation already deeply polarized? Or perhaps Trump isn’t even part of the equation.
Alan Abramowitz, a Professor of Political Science at Emory University, believes the polarization dominating American politics reflects changes that have occurred in the nation’s culture and society over the last several decades. He points to the growth of racial and ethnic diversity, and the increasing divide in religious and moral values. Through immigration and the higher fertility rate of non-white citizens, the demographic make-up of the nation has been transformed, America close to no longer having a Caucasian majority. With these changes, the two political parties appear to have different constituencies holding different world views. The members of each party are more aligned and homogeneous in their positions on important issues, and further apart from the other party. Republicans can be characterized as the party of (older) white men, with Democrats the party of women and citizens of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. At times, it seems as if the politicians in each party are speaking separate languages when they talk about the needs of the nation and solutions they believe necessary.
Given the life experiences of non-whites, with higher rates of unemployment and poverty, less access to health care, reduced educational achievement and inferior housing, it is not surprising Democrats want to reverse these conditions. To do so, more government spending is necessary, with higher taxes to generate revenue. Republicans, on the other hand, are the party of the status quo. By fighting immigration, they hope to keep America white for as long as possible. And by GOP opposition to tax increases, people of color may have greater struggles to advance to the middle class or affluence through improved education, better health care and housing. (Of course, a more educated population would enhance the economy, with greater productivity and higher incomes augmenting consumer spending.)
Two other political science professors, Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams are convinced the electorate in America has not grown more polarized since the 1970s, though the political class is more partisan. According to them, the aggregate of voters currently appears similar to that of forty years ago, with partisanship fluctuating within a narrow band. Where tracking of individual issues in surveys has been possible over time, centrist opinions appear to be favored in both parties. However, there has been sorting of partisans within the parties, with self-labeled Republicans more conservative and self-labeled Democrats more liberal. Though overlap of opinions is now less common among ordinary members, the divide between the two party’s politicians has become even greater. As recently as 2012, survey data indicated a quarter of Democrats could be considered ‘pro-life’ and a third of Republicans as ‘pro-choice.’ However, Democrats running for office now are generally more liberal and GOP candidates more conservative, the moderate middle politicians having melted away.
Though partisanship has always existed in politics, it was not too long ago that members of the GOP and Democratic Parties socialized, with comity between them instead of animus. Politicians attempted to understand the positions of their opponents instead of demonizing them. Of course, that was when the face of the Republican Party was formed by New England moderates rather than extreme conservatives from Texas and the South. Is polarization of the political class permanent or will there be movement back towards the center over time?
There is also the issue of ‘tribalism’ critical in the growth of partisanship. In the past citizens were more connected, with identities through families, communities, churches, employment, unions, clubs, lodges, and so forth. People were part of something greater than themselves. But these bonds have been sundered by modern society. Divorce and single parent families are common. Small towns and rural communities are in decline, with young people moving away. Church participation is lessening and jobs no longer secure. This lack of connection and feeling of belonging has impacted Americans negatively. Alcohol and drugs have been an escape for some. And others have chosen to be active members of political parties and have adopted the characteristics of their ‘tribes.’ Social media may also augment the stances partisans take. This makes it hard to negotiate compromise or see the humanity and understand the positions of opponents. Many members of political tribes have joined not because of policy, but because the party consisted of people who were similar to them in terms of class, religion, race, or region.
For politics to work, there has to be compromise and a willingness between the parties to negotiate. People have to run for office who understand this and do not take extreme positions on important issues. Elected officials also have to be willing to stand up to party leaders and take chances they will lose support when running for re-election. They need courage to do the right thing and not act like lemmings following the party line. Until there is independence of thought among politicians and a willingness to buck the leadership, polarization will remain a defining characteristic of American democracy, continuing or increasing government dysfunction.