Political polarization is the defining feature of early 21st century American politics, both among the public and elected officials.
Pew Research Center, 2014
1. What’s the essence of polarization?
The concept of “polarization” comes from physics. It describes the phenomenon in which the two poles, governed by electromagnetic radiation, push one another apart. The very essence of polarization, then, is that it’s relational.
Some people in describing our current public life use words such as “incivility” or “extremism,” but these terms don’t necessarily refer to relationships. After all, I can be “civil” to you irrespective of whether I know you, or how you treat me. I can have an “extreme” political position, but that position only exists in relation to other positions, not other people. That’s why “polarization” is the most accurate word to describe our current predicament.
Societal polarization necessarily involves how we think together about each other.
2. What are the main qualities of today’s polarization?
First, it’s personal. It’s what scholars call affective. It’s believing that your political opponents are not simply misguided, but are also bad people who make you fearful, angry, or afraid.
By polarization I mean … an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.
James Q. Wilson, “How Divided Are We?” 2006
Second, it’s comprehensive and identity-shaping. Today as an American my partisan political views increasingly influence my overall identity. More and more, I see myself as belonging to a cohesive group or “tribe” whose members share not only my political views, but also my lifestyle and consumer preferences.
Partisanship’s power is not limited to politics … [Our study examines] a broader trend of partisanship shaping how people make economic decisions … Our results call for paying greater attention to potential discrimination based on partisan affiliation. To date, few social norms constrain such behavior.
“Political Polarization is Changing How Americans Work and Shop,” Harvard Business Review, 2017
And third, it’s elitist. Highly educated, politically engaged Americans tend to be more polarized and polarizing than other Americans. It seems that the more upscale we are, the more politically fearful and disagreeable we are.
For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party … 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.” [Moreover], among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are “afraid” of the other party.
Pew Research Center, 2016
3. Have we ever been this polarized before?
Yes. Other highly polarized eras in the U.S. include the disputes over foreign alliances and the size of government around 1800, the fight over the National Bank (the “Monster”) in the 1830s, the North-South split in the 1850s which led to a four-year civil war, the agrarian revolt and related currency disputes in the 1890s, the struggles over FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, and the conflicts over Vietnam and civil rights in the 1960s.
There was no extravagance … which he did not repeat; nor was there any possible deviation from truth which he did not make … the Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure—with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy … He cannot ope his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.
Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, speaking on the Senate floor about fellow U.S. Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, May 20, 1856
No person with the upright form of man can be allowed, without all violation of decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality … The noisesome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not the proper model for an American Senator. Will the Senator from Illinois take notice?
Sumner, speaking of U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the same day
On May 21, Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, a relative of Senator Butler, attacked Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor, beating him nearly unconscious. Many who approved of Brooks’ attack sent him new canes. One, sent by merchants from Charleston, was inscribed: “Hit him again.”
4. What are main likely causes of today’s polarization?
The end of the Cold War. The West’s victory in the Cold War means that (with the possible exception of jihadist terrorism) there is no longer a global enemy to keep us united as we focus on a powerful and cohesive external threat.
The rise of identity-group politics. On both the Left and the Right, the main conceptual frameworks have largely shifted in focus from unifying values to group identities. As Amy Chua puts it in Political Tribes (2018): “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism – bigotry, racism – is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism – identity politics, political correctness – is tearing the country apart. They are both right.”
Growing racial and ethnic diversity. In the long run, increased racial and ethnic diversity is likely a strength. But in the short run – which means, now – it contributes to a decline in social trust (the belief that we can understand and count on one another) and a rise in social and political conflict.
The passing of the Greatest Generation. We don’t call them the greatest for no reason. Their generational values, forged in the trials of the Great Depression and WWII – including a willingness to sacrifice for country, concern for the general welfare, a mature character structure, and adherence to a shared civic faith – reduced social and political polarization.
I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.
John Wayne (b. 1907) on the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960
I hope he fails.
Rush Limbaugh (b. 1951) on the election of Barack Obama in 2008
- Geographical sorting. Americans today are increasingly living in politically like-minded communities. Living only or mainly with like-minded neighbors makes us both more extreme and more certain in our political beliefs. As Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing put it in The Big Sort (2008): “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”
Percent of U.S. voters living in counties in which a presidential candidate won by a “landslide” margin of 20 percent or more of the vote:
- Political party sorting. Once upon a time, there were such creatures as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. No longer. The parties have sorted philosophically such that today almost all liberals are Democrats and all conservatives are Republicans. One main result is that the partisan gap between the parties is wide and getting wider.
Across 10 measures that Pew Research Center has tracked on the same surveys since 1994, the average partisan gap has increased from 15 percentage points to 36 points.
Pew Research Center, 2017
- New rules for Congress. The weakening and in some cases elimination of “regular order” – defined broadly as the rules, customs, and precedents intended to promote orderly and deliberative policymaking – as well as the erosion of traditions such as Senatorial courtesy and social fraternization across party lines have contributed dramatically to less trust and more animosity in the Congress, thus increasing polarization.
It’s hard to exaggerate how much House Republicans and Democrats dislike each other these days.
Juliet Eilperin, Fight Club Politics (2006)
- New rules for political parties. Many reforms in how we nominate, elect, and guide our political leaders – shifting the power of nomination from delegates to primaries, dismantling political machines, replacing closed-door politics with televised politics, and shrinking the influence of career politicians – aimed to democratize the system. But these changes also replaced the “middle men” who helped keep the system together with a political free-for-all in which the loudest and most extreme voices are heard above all others.
As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.
Jonathan Rauch, “How American Politics Went Insane,” 2016
New political donors. In earlier eras, money in American politics tended to focus on candidates and parties, while money from today’s super-rich donors tends to focus on ideas and ideology – a shift which also tends to advance polarization.
New political districts. Widespread gerrymandering – defined as manipulating district boundaries for political advantage – contributes significantly to polarization, most obviously by making candidates in gerrymandered districts worry more about being “primaried” by a more extreme member of their own party than about losing the general election.
The spread of media ghettoes. The main features of the old analog media – including editing, fact-checking, professionalization, and the privileging of institutions over individuals – served as a credentialing system for American political expression. The distinguishing feature of the new digital media – the fact that anyone can publish anything that gains views and clicks – is replacing that old system with a non-system that is atomized and largely leaderless. One result made possible by this change is that Americans can now live in media ghettoes. If I wish, I can live all day every day encountering in my media travels only those views with which I already agree. Living in a media ghetto means less that my views are shaped and improved, much less challenged, than that they are hardened and made more extreme; what might’ve been analysis weakens into partisan talking points dispensed by tribal (identity-group) leaders; moreover, because I’m exposed only to the most cartoonish, exaggerated versions of my opponents’ views, I come to believe that those views are so crazy and irrational as to be both dangerous to the country and incomprehensible. More broadly, the new media resemble and reinforce the new politics, such that the most reliable way to succeed in either domain is to be the most noisesome, outrageous, and polarizing.
The decline of journalistic responsibility. The dismantling of the old media has been accompanied by, and has probably helped cause, a decline in journalistic standards. These losses to society include journalists who’ll accept poor quality in pursuit of volume and repetition as well as the blurring and even erasure of boundaries between news and opinion, facts and non-facts, and journalism and entertainment. These losses feed polarization.
5. What are the main benefits of today’s polarization?
- In-groups (an “us” in opposition to a “them”) can serve the goals of survival and success.
- In-groups can give life meaning and reduce loneliness, stress, and anxiety.
- Sharply drawn political differences can help to hold politicians and parties accountable.
- Polarization can be an effective mobilizing strategy.
- Polarizing tactics can help those with minority views win public attention.
6. What are the main harms of today’s polarization?
- It produces policy gridlock.
- It degrades our public discussion.
- It likely contributes to inequality.
- It segregates us.
- It undermines trust.
- It thwarts empathy.
- It weakens our intellects.
- It lowers the caliber of our citizenship.
7. In light of today’s polarization, which side is winning?
The question is debatable, but much evidence suggests that neither side is winning, and that both political and religious polarization will continue in stalemate form for the foreseeable future.
Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant.
Amy Chua, Political Tribes (2018)
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1861
The idea of recognizing something that’s shared with the other — even in moments of fierce conflict — is beautifully reflected in Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term “better angels” in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. William Seward, who would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, had suggested that Lincoln close his speech by calling upon the “the guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln changed it to “the better angels of our nature.” In Seward’s version, what was needed would come from outside us. In Lincoln’s version, it would come from within us, something “better” in the “nature” of both Northerners and Southerners.
Better Angels / 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 1706 / NY, NY 10170 / www.better-angels.org