The Plague of Political Polarization

“In particular, democracies require high levels of personal grace. They are gravely endangered by its opposite, which is savagery” — Cass Sunstein, legal scholar

So . . . we have a problem. 

The Pew Research Center, seeking to determine how divided we are as a nation, asked a sample of Americans some extremely salient questions. Now, take a look at the results: a majority of Americans view discussion with political opponents as “stressful” instead of insightful. Most citizens ironically view the “other side” as more ideological than themselves. Partisan allegiances, instead of the “national interest,” dictate views on national priorities. And — strikingly, but unsurprisingly —  80% of respondents say voters of either party can’t agree on basic facts!

On a personal level, as a “pragmatic progressive” (as I like to call myself), I have found these statistics to be representative of my experiences on campus. As friends of opposing and rigid ideologies debated, they weren’t talking to one another but past one another.  They viewed the world in fundamentally and philosophically different ways. No common framework of logic or preferences existed. A simple discussion on health insurance, for instance, evolved into one side making moral claims regarding human rights and the other spouting diatribes against state intervention.

And this problem exists not just at the individual level, but also the highest levels of our government. Congress has been pushed to the extremes, left and right. Any semblance of bipartisanship has led to a punishment at the polls — over 70% of the House GOP members who lost re-election were “more moderate than the median Republican” and the rise of the prominent new generation of progressives in Congress was largely on the backs of moderate incumbents.

But, do the American people seek extremism? Is voter turnout dictated by one’s position on the political spectrum? Are citizens and candidates inherently hyper-partisan, or are they being polarized by third-parties or events?

Diagnosing the cause of reactionary politics is extremely difficult. 

In epidemiological terms, this polarization is not a recent “infection,” but a festering “retrovirus” that, once introduced, spread rapidly throughout the body politic and instilled radicalism as an element intrinsic to political participation. It weaponized the immune cells of society — institutions and the electoral process, civic engagement and the free press, the ability to reason and the capacity for discussion — against society itself. The left and the right have moved to the edges of the political spectrum with regards to both rhetoric and policy.

“In the 116th Congress, if you’re a Democrat, you’re either a socialist, a baby killer or an anti-Semite,” a recent New York Times article began, parodying the rise of inflammatory language in American politics. Except it wasn’t really a parody — these labels are part of a new Republican advertising campaign against the new Democratic majority. President Trump is, of course, known for his blistering (and dangerous) rhetoric against the press, and his love of “fake news.” And some on the left too have become increasingly radical in response, with a vulgar call to “impeach the motherf—er” by a sitting member of Congress being indicative of a new trend favoring Trump’s impeachment.

Similarly, the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress have enacted a range of policies that may be labeled as “abnormal” or extreme, such as its criticism of NATO allies and the US intelligence community, trade policies with China as well as allies, climate change denial, and, of course, its abysmal family separation policy — these policies are more harmful than helpful to US interests and moral standing. Moving further than the laudable aims of universal healthcare and carbon reduction, some Democrats (including most of the 2020 frontrunners) have been pushing “Medicare-for-All” and the “Green New Deal,” simple-minded solutions which have profound fiscal and political ramifications for some of the most complex problems faced by our nation.

[Author’s note: I am not claiming moral equivalence between the two parties’ policies; as a Democrat and an American, I abhor the Trump Administration’s policies on a variety of issues, especially immigration and family separation]

In both parties, what started out as fringe policies have slowly become mainstream. Do they have popular support? Maybe among certain political bases, left and right. For example, President Trump and the GOP’s policies on immigration may have support among an influential group of his supporters and some organizations, but does that hold true among the whole party and the nation? A recent Gallup poll found that 75% of Americans view immigration as a “good thing” and some argue that the policies triggered the GOP’s midterm routing. And the Democrats’ newfound love of the “democratic socialist” policies mentioned above may appeal to a powerful subset of young and progressive voters and many interest groups, but what everyone else? Moderate Democrats from all over the country, a large voting bloc, may not be comfortable with the shift leftward — many of the seats in the recent midterm victory were in right-leaning districts and most Democrats — not to mention, Americans — view socialism unfavorably.

It seems that our current situation is reminiscent of the “security dilemma” in international relations theory — one side makes a move, which is then immediately countered by the other side, resulting in a spiral of intensifying and retaliatory polarity.

Scholars have laid out a multitude of reasons for this political polarization, including party realignment and purification, generational and demographic shifts, the radicalization of Congress and the media, and inequality and the increasing role of money in politics. Some causes of polarization are the inexorable and indelible results of history and circumstance. Others can be solved with effort.  The question then becomes: what can we, as a society, do to shift the balance?


In an op-ed, Arthur Brooks — president of the American Enterprise Institute — calls polarization by a different name: contempt. And to combat it, he urges citizens to avoid “rhetorical dope peddlers,” treat all with respect, and respond to contempt with kindness. I do agree with Brooks’ assessment that we must all collectively do better at working to understand our differences, and no doubt, if the whole country followed his advice, things would change for the better.

So, the first recommendation would be: let us be more civil, politically conscious, tolerant of other viewpoints, and look at the big picture. “What unites us is far greater than what divides us,” many sages have said. Or in the famous words of Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”

However, individuals alone can only do so much.

Brooks prescribes a Band-Aid when what is needed is surgical intervention, ignoring one large elephant in the room: the rise of cronyism. This juggernaut of lobbyists, interest groups, and SuperPACs constantly manipulate the American people with media and advertising and their representatives in Congress with financial incentives to push agenda-driven policies against the grain of public opinion. The result? Our leaders are pushed toward the fringes and so are we. Thus, this polarization is normalized.

The major solution to the polarization question is therefore the removal of “big money” from politics. It is not a cliché answer or a left-wing fantasy, but something, ironically, a majority of Americans agree on. In an AP poll, 75% of respondents agree that “people like them” have too little power. Correspondingly, 82%, 69%, and 65% of respondents agreed that “wealthy people,” “large businesses,” and “political lobbyists” respectively were all too powerful. Campaign finance reform, fighting the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, regulating the purview of lobbyists — all of these are solutions, and all are obviously opposed by most special interests in American politics today. Industry lobbyists as well as right and left-leaning interest groups have utilized the system and helped polarize Americans. It would take a bipartisan group, engaging in what John F. Kennedy might call “profiles of courage,” to get it done. It’s happened in the past (e.g. the McCain-Feingold Act). Let’s make it happen again.

Such reforms would make elections fairer debates about real issues facing Americans, leading to a more practical approach to governance and ergo a moderation in both policy and rhetoric. This effect leads me to my next point: the virtue of independence. Let the needs of districts and the organic views of candidates and voters dictate the candidate platforms, not national mandates from party headquarters. If candidates of both parties are competitively campaigning against each other, the higher the odds that the campaign will be about issues instead of rhetoric and the higher the odds that parties will be forced to negotiate and work with one another to govern. This effect was seen in Texas, where Democrats have been competing (and winning) in right-leaning districts for seats in both Congress and the state legislature, which has forced “moderation” on the part of the Republican-led legislature and Abbott administration to show voters “they can bring about change on bread-and-butter issues.” Similarly, let moderate voices like Larry Hogan and Bill Weld challenge President Trump in the GOP Primaries and promote moderates like Amy Klobuchar in the crowded Democratic primary. Win or lose, they can shift the debate away from the loudest or most powerful voices.

What’s next? 

To recap:

Let’s 1) be civil with one another, 2) remove “big money” from the equation, and 3) allow dissenting voices in our parties. By doing so, we can make our politics fairer, more moderate, and reflective of the vast melting pot that is America.

President Obama said it best in The Audacity of Hope: we need “a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point.” Is such a politics a dream in the current state of affairs? Maybe. But can we do better as a nation? Absolutely. Maybe I am naive; maybe the “average American” is not a moderate; maybe he or she doesn’t even exist; but it can’t hurt to reform our broken system — we can make our democracy function more effectively and we can get along better. It’s a win-win for all who matter.

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