Political Polarization in the United States

Causes, Effects and Solutions

Political polarization, also referred to as tribalism, has been on a relatively steady rise in the United States after the tumult of the 1960s. But first, what do we mean by polarization, and how does it affect us? In a broad sense, affective polarization is the increasing tendency of Democrats and Republicans to dislike and distrust one another, while ideological polarization is opposition to the other side’s ideologies and policies. At a high level of polarization, large clusters of the population support ideologically consistent stances across all issues, and love their own party while loathing the other. Polarization can happen in two spheres: the government (political party positions and legislative voting) and the general public. Polarization typically begins with governmental polarization and leads to public polarization. There are a few possible measures of polarization, not necessarily exhaustive:
• the percentage of non-centrists in Congress
• the difference in mean positions between the two parties in each chamber using the DW-NOMINATE measure
• the diversity of opinions within groups, and their expression in terms of legislators voting in line with their party
• more Americans using their political party affiliation as a source of meaning and social identity
• statistical dispersion measures such as mean absolute deviation, over the whole population
• the spread in opinions on a particular topic, although there may be outliers that skew the distribution.

Today, 80% of Americans feel unfavorably towards their partisan foes and see themselves as morally superior, and the portion feeling very unfavorably towards their foes has nearly tripled since 1994. Today, a significant percentage of each side sees the other side as a ruthless enemy, an existential threat to the country.

On the other hand, Americans overestimate the extremity of their average opponent’s views; in other words, the average Republican does not hate Democrats as much as the typical Democrat thinks, and vice versa. The increase in polarization has been observed in both government and the public. In the US specifically, polarization has also led to:
• gridlock and government shutdowns
• the corruption of all three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial)
• unpredictability in domestic and foreign policy
• an increase in negative political advertisements
• a public loss of faith in public institutions
• politicizing of other key institutions, including higher education, religious organizations, the press and the military
• voter disengagement from politics
• people skipping family events or disconnecting from friends/family over political views
• the public feeling stress and/or frustration when discussing politics with someone they disagree with
• an increase in politically motivated hate crimes and aggression, especially by the alt-right[1][2].

In the US, past estimates of governmental polarization were based on ratings of legislators by interest groups, but these days voting records are open (see below), so those are typically used. To estimate public polarization and study time trends, opinion polls and individual voting histories are used. A 2014 Pew survey[3] showed an accelerating increase in polarization and showed groups that are becoming more partisan. In terms of Congress, most of the divergence between the parties has been due to Republicans moving to the right[4], and each party has become more ideologically cohesive. Later surveys showed how education[5] and race[6] correlate with ideological views.

Polarization can be self-reinforcing: people tend to prefer living around people with similar views, distrust between the sides can harden over time into an us-vs-them mentality, and moderates are less likely to run for office. In the case of the US, polarization has been asymmetric, in that both the liberal left and the conservative right have shifted significantly but characteristics such as antipathy level and willingness to compromise have changed much more strongly on the right, both in voters and in politicians. We have seen tensions between sub-ideologies such as religion vs secularism/science, rural vs urban, nationalism vs globalism, and traditionalism vs modernism. Some, if not all, of these sub-ideologies are connected to economic inequality, in that educated people, who tend to trust science and live in multicultural cities, tend to contribute more toward the country’s GDP, so there is a growing economic divide between urban and rural regions. The ideological divide has even seeped into public health, in that some Americans refuse to wear a mask because they believe wearing one infringes on their personal liberty. While the current level of polarization may be dismissed by some as a mere reflection of our country’s diversity and heterogeneity, the rise of the far-right movement, white supremacy, militias and conspiracy theories such as QAnon together with the easy accessibility of guns – as we have seen in racial targeting such as the El Paso massacre a year ago or the Pittsburgh mass shooting in 2018, the lockdown protests, and the anti-Antifa hysteria – are a grave cause for concern. The current level of polarization also threatens the stability of our democracy. It is therefore imperative that we explore the causes of this polarization and propose viable solutions.

Firstly, the first-past-the-post, winner-take-all election rules we have in the United States tend to result in a stable two-party equilibrium, which could potentially result in limited choice and binary thinking in terms of right-vs-wrong, good-vs-bad. Furthermore, redistricting and gerrymandering have been suggested as possible modest contributors to polarization. This seems plausible because through gerrymandering political parties, mostly the Republican Party, have created so many safe congressional districts for their party in North Carolina, Texas and other states that there is no incentive for their party’s candidates to move to the center to win over independents.

A gerrymandered district in Texas

In the 1960s and early 1970s Republicans realized the US was becoming more and more progressive and their pro-business base was not large enough to make up for the rest of their base being replaced with more socially-progressive – and possibly also more fiscally-progressive – voters, so they adopted the Southern Strategy[7]: "But most important is the Republican Party's recent record as the vehicle of white supremacy in the South, beginning with the Goldwater campaign and reaching its apex in Richard M. Nixon's 'Southern strategy' in 1968 and 1972. Republicans appealed to Nixon Democrats (later Reagan Democrats) in the Northern suburbs, many of them ethnic voters who had left the cities to escape from blacks, with promises to crack down on welfare cheats and to bring law and order; the party also fought affirmative action." By appealing to racial division (welfare fraud claims, opposition to affirmative action) and strongly held religious beliefs (opposition to abortion, support for "religious liberty") and spreading lies about Democrats (who responded with anger) and their positions[8], the Republican Party pushed itself further to the right. Also, if you repeat the same lies, especially if they are about another “tribe” and you frame the situation as a zero-sum game, some people start believing them. Ultimately, the Southern Strategy was very successful in shifting Southern Democrats towards the Republican Party as Southern voters began to elect Republicans to Congress and finally to statewide and local offices, particularly as some legacy segregationist Democrats retired or switched to the GOP.

The “sunshine reforms” included in the Legislative Reorganization Act (1970)[9] were intended to improve efficiency by increasing openness and transparency, through changes such as the maintenance of a public record of votes[10] and the ability for non-government officials to attend previously closed-door meetings. However, this allowed lobbyists to review the voting records and make sure legislators voted in their favor. Also, because the public could now see how each legislator voted, legislators were less likely to compromise knowing they would be rated on a so-called purity test by their constituents. Lastly, it allowed party leaders to threaten or impose penalties on legislators to make them vote along party lines. All three of these unintended consequences have increased governmental polarization.

In the 1980s Republican President Ronald Reagan promoted economic policies that are collectively known as Reaganomics, a pro-business approach of lowering tax rates, reducing regulation, reducing government spending on domestic programs and increasing military spending. Reaganomics and its influence past Reagan’s presidential term worsened income inequality and gave businesses more money to spend on influencing the regulatory, legislative and electoral processes of government. We already saw how lobbying can contribute to polarization. It is also known that income inequality, which has been increasing steadily, contributes to political polarization and fuels instability, social turmoil and violence.

In the 1990s, Republicans under Newt Gingrich expanded their divisive approach from the Southern Strategy and added new hot-button topics such as gay marriage – which Karl Rove later used to electoral advantage by advancing propositions to ban gay marriage in 11 states – and environmental protection to become the majority party in the House. The proliferation of media sources, including TV, radio, newspapers and social media has also contributed to polarization. Fox News[11] and Infowars were created in 1996, and, along with Republican politicians, they often attacked moderate and liberal TV channels, which generally responded to the attacks by moving toward the left. Also, around this time the Internet took off, and now anyone could publish anything; this was a boon in the sense that pieces the traditional media were uninterested or unwilling to cover could see the light of day, but it was also a curse in that unsubstantiated rumors and mischaracterization got a wide audience. In 2007 Breitbart was created, and most of the right-wing media ecosystem clustered around it for the 2016 election. Besides completely-fabricated falsehoods, many of the most-shared stories from the 2016 election cycle were purposefully constructed from bits of true or partly true information or leaps of logic into a misleading message. Such disinformation, besides impacting the types of stories covered by traditional media, have fed polarization by presenting misleading views of the world on topics such as immigration and religion. Modern social media, which arrived in the mid-2000s, have exacerbated the existing division because of the techniques and algorithms – including surveillance/tracking and artificial intelligence – they employ in pursuit of their business model: they are designed to manipulate us by measuring our interests, anticipating our desires, modifying our behavior, creating opportunities for advertisers and for those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences, including Donald Trump, conspiracy theorists such as Infowars and QAnon, and Russian operatives trying to add to polarization by, for example, posing as extremists on both sides of a current issue such as police brutality. According to an internal Facebook review[12], "[Facebook's] algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. [If left unchecked, Facebook would feed users] more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform." In other words, Facebook does not simply reflect society’s existing polarization and hatred; it intentionally amplifies it as part of its business model.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first Black American president was another pivotal point in the deepening of polarization. President Obama was worried about the rising polarization and, being a moderate himself, he tried to combat it by building bridges. He emphasized that he was the president of all Americans, including the ones who did not vote for him, and that he would always listen to those who opposed him. He extended an olive branch to Republicans by trying to bring them into negotiations even though he didn’t need to, given that Democrats had majorities in both chambers of Congress. However, because of their appeal to racists and because they didn’t want to let Obama wear the mantle of bipartisanship, the GOP refused to compromise. With the help of non-political elites such as Donald Trump, they initiated a propaganda campaign against President Obama and other Democrats. Given that he was the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, Obama didn’t have a chance in fighting polarization.

In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down a decision on Citizens United vs. FEC[13], interpreting the free speech clause of the First Amendment as prohibiting the government from restricting independent expenditures for political purposes by corporations. In other words, the Supreme Court decision implied that corporations are just like individual citizens and they have the same rights any citizen does. This judgment led to an explosion of undisclosed political spending by special interests including corporations, unions, rich citizens and foreign interests, with the lack of transparency leading to a lack of accountability and contributing to polarization.

In 2015, Donald Trump, stung by Obama roasting him at a Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, ran for the presidency on a Republican ticket and a populist and nationalist platform, contributing to polarization from the moment he announced his run. The environment was fertile and ready for Trump to take advantage of it; for example, the stagnation in wages of the middle class, especially for people without college degrees, created a constituency for anti-immigration populism. In the November 2016 election, supported by an unlikely combination of circumstances as well as a Russian disinformation campaign, Trump won the presidency. Over the course of his presidency, Trump has continued to support conspiracy theories, lied or made misleading claims over 22000 times[14] and engaged in vitriolic attacks against his perceived opponents, actively encouraging polarization — both in his supporters and, as a reaction, in the rest of the population — and sometimes violence, all just to get attention and to get reelected. By dehumanizing and blaming Latinos or Muslims or Chinese, just as Hitler blamed and dehumanized Jews, Trump triggers neuron activation in the lizard brain (the amygdala and insular cortex) of his supporters and pushes others who know better further away from him and from the Republican Party. During his presidency, Republicans, some of whom opposed or mocked him during his campaign, have — except for a handful of principled Republicans — fallen in line, dug in and supported him regardless of what he does, partly because he attacks and threatens to campaign against anyone who is not unflinchingly loyal to him, within what has become the Trump Party. Also, some foreign governments such as Russia and China have an interest in an America that is isolated from the rest of the world, with greatly diminished influence, embroiled in chaos and with a widespread distrust of government and democracy, and they have launched disinformation campaigns on TV, radio and online, including Russian propaganda aired on US radio stations such as Radio Sputnik[15] (WZHF in the Washington DC area[16]).

• First and foremost, vote Trump out of office; this is a necessary condition for the rest of the political solutions.
• Reduce the number of economic elites by decreasing income inequality:
◦ inheritance taxes
◦ treat capital gains as ordinary income
◦ progressive income taxes
◦ double the minimum wage over the next few years
◦ strengthen unions
◦ expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), e.g. through the Working Families Relief Act[17]
◦ expand Obamacare by adding a public option, in order to pressure private insurance to offer more affordable plans
◦ universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds
• Major investment in education, plan to control education costs
◦ inculcate critical thinking skills in citizens, so that they can evaluate misinformation as well as critically evaluating the flaws and merits of policies
• Eliminate the filibuster
• Eliminate party-based primaries; instead, have a single multiparty primary, with the top 4-5 candidates advancing to the general election.
• Find ways to encourage people to participate in the primary
• Ranked-choice voting[18] would allow outsiders or third-party candidates to run for office, thus helping break the party duopoly
• Establish term limits, e.g. two Senate terms, or six House terms, basically a maximum of 12 years; however, without more fundamental structural changes this won’t accomplish much.
• Prevent legislators from moving on to lobbying positions (the “revolving door”) for a given time period after leaving public service, e.g. two years.
• Force social media companies to be transparent regarding politics-related advertisements and regulate their surveillance and data collection activities
• We, the public, should have at least a few friends from the opposing side. If Joe Biden and John McCain could be such good friends despite being in opposing parties, we can, too. However, not all such contacts may be productive. We should get to know the person first, ideally without bringing politics or anything related into the conversations.
• Aiming for civility in our conversations and our social media interactions, even when it is difficult and even if we’re responding to trolls
• Having government- or church-sponsored Citizen Assemblies, where representative citizens – conservative, liberal and libertarian – are brought together to debate challenging social or political issues and may even make policy recommendations
• Trump is partially channeling the stress white Christians in America feel, much of which has to do with becoming a minority group, so we should explore alternative ways to decrease our stress, including volunteering for minorities/refugees and general stress relief techniques such as meditation and exercise/hiking. Also, becoming a minority when I moved to the US was the best thing that has ever happened to me, although, of course, YMMV.

[1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3102652

[2] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1948550618778290

[3] http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/01/08/what-we-know-and-dont-know-about-our-polarized-politics

[5] https://www.people-press.org/2016/04/26/a-wider-ideological-gap-between-more-and-less-educated-adults/

[6] https://www.people-press.org/2020/06/02/in-changing-u-s-electorate-race-and-education-remain-stark-dividing-lines/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/19/us/gop-tries-hard-to-win-black-votes-but-recent-history-works-against-it.html

[8] In George Washington’s words, “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence … is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s].”

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legislative_Reorganization_Act_of_1970

[10] https://www.voteview.com

[11] https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/survey-people-who-watch-no-news-know-more-fox-viewers

[12] https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-it-encourages-division-top-executives-nixed-solutions-11590507499?mod=e2tw

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._FEC

[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/us/russian-propaganda-radio.html

[16] https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/483045-democrats-criticize-fcc-for-not-taking-action-against-dc-station

[17] https://www.cbpp.org/blog/working-families-tax-relief-act-would-boost-incomes-across-america

[18] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/us/politics/ranked-choice-voting.html

Liberal, outdoorsy nerd+geek in Austin. Love music, board games, books, volunteering for animals & refugees, hiking/camping, photography. Follow ≠ endorsement.

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