On party polarization

It was front-and-center on last week’s debate stage — as two candidates talked to clearly respective audiences.

While Clinton touted her support for immigrants, Trump touted an endorsement from ICE. While Clinton talked about an increase in taxes on the wealthy, Trump bragged about avoiding federal taxes. 

The average American voter is now more elusive, and bitterly polarized, than ever. Literally, ever.


What was absent on the debate stage — vague, patriotic agreement, reassurance, and faith in the democratic process — is representative of the state of our two-party system. People in America simply have less they agree on, and therefore less faith in government. We are more polarized than the country during Reconstruction, and trust government less than when Nixon was exposed for Watergate.

“In the witches’ brew of fearmongering, unkeepable promises and poll-tested metaphors that both parties serve up to the electorate every four years, you can always find this predictable dash of inspiration: the image of Americans uniting and working together for the sake of the country. President Obama said in Charlotte, N.C. that America is ‘about what can be done by us, together.’ … And Mitt Romney closed his convention speech with three invocations of ‘That America, that united America.’

But America is not united and it is getting less and less unitable with each passing decade.”

– Jonathan Haidt Marc J. Hetherington of the New York Times

And today’s issues — social policy, economics, immigration — aren’t any more polarizing than in the past.

We may not be able to identify why Americans are growing apart, but there are theories.

Pew Research believes this dichotomy has something to do with preferred lifestyle. They found people who live differently — geographically and economically — are more likely to feel differently about politics. This doesn’t seem like a far-fetched theory, especially when America is more culturally and economically diverse than ever before.

People are more divided because they are more dissimilar. 

A hostile debate stage isn’t the only uncomfortable look into the effects of extreme party polarization. Not only does Congress gridlock more aggressively and often (its doubled since the 1950s), but people view each other and their parties with more disdain.

As of 2014, 24% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believe the opposite party poses a significant threat to the nation’s well-being. (This does not even take into account the last two years of turbulent political discourse.)

This statistic quite literally shows the hostility that polarization perpetuates. Almost 50% of the country believes another chunk of the country is a “threat.” The amount of Americans with mixed or centrist political views decreased by over 15% from 2004-2014.

Only time will tell if this phenomenon is a thing of brevity. As the author of Pacific Polemics points out, post-election fallout–no matter who wins–is poised to be extraordinary due to staunch party lines.

Additional resources: Q&A with the Atlantic, NYTimes data and interpretation, Pew Research, and thoughts from Gizmodo.


1 Comment

  1. Your post points out a very interesting topic that the American people have been dodging: polarization. Yes, as Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hetherington pointed out, America has become less and less united as the decades pass. However, no matter how much they disagree, people STILL need to vote, and ultimately learn to compromise their opinions for a more collective union.


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