In a previous essay, “How We Are Politically Divided,” I demonstrated how Americans have been divided today and for most of our nation’s history. But political divisions do not necessarily become polarized into stark and uncompromising positions represented by two-party combat: A divided nation is not the same as 50–50 polarized nation. In other words, divisions are necessary, but insufficient, to explain our level of partisan polarization. The question we face today is: What polarizes us beyond our mere divisions?
Much research and polling has been conducted to answer how and why we are polarized. Scholars have measured the ideological consistency and divergence between the two parties in Congress, showing that that legislative body is more divided now than at any time since the end of Reconstruction. Others have focused on partisan media bias, both mainstream and alternative, and how those biased networks create information bubbles among their viewers. Still others have examined psychological factors that have sorted the electorate into opposing ideological camps. Ironically, it’s been said that the most conflicted day in American society today is Thanksgiving.
One can point to many interrelated factors, but most of these trends can probably be traced to various changes in political and social culture over the past half century. These changes have been enabled along the way by technological advances affecting political news media, election campaigning, and social interaction. Finally, the citizenry has begun to sort itself spatially — urban vs. suburban/rural — in response to these various pressures. This spatial sorting circles back to amplify our historical legacy of geographic divisions based on economic interests. Perhaps the best way to make sense of all this is with a historical narrative rather than a compendium of statistics.
The 1960s was a seminal decade marked by the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. These events brought various conflicts to the surface — generational, racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation, ideological — that came to be reflected in the two political parties as those parties began to target these various constituencies with electoral appeals. After their chaotic 1968 National Convention in Chicago, the Democratic Party changed its delegate rules for party nominations to greater reflect changing demographics. This fractured the party into many different camps. Soon after, the Watergate episode and Nixon impeachment split the Republican party between the establishment Rockefeller wing and a new conservative wing heralded by Ronald Reagan.
The fracturing in party cohesiveness was reinforced by various rules changes that served to weaken hierarchical control within the party apparatus and empower individual candidates in election campaigns and policymaking. Candidates became more like political entrepreneurs rather than good partisan soldiers and found success by appealing to targeted identity groups rather than more consistent party principles. This came to the fore of national politics with the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election and was reinforced by the Carter-Reagan face-off in 1980. Political freelancing would soon become the norm, but could also still coalesce around strong party leadership, as it did with the Gingrich and Pelosi majorities in Congress.
During the 1970s and 80s, traditional print and broadcast media was under pressure from new competition in cable television and Talk Radio that threatened their hold on market share. The logical marketing strategy to hold onto audience shares was to give readers and audiences what they wanted, especially on hot-button emotional issues. This strategy fed the rise of infotainment, celebrity scandal, and political opinionating. These emotional triggers soon dominated our air waves.
Not surprisingly, most major media companies found their audiences in the urban and suburban communities and tended to interpret politics through the lenses of those communities. It was also not coincidental that most of the reporters and journalists who staffed these companies also lived and worked in these communities. Many journalists, some still operating in 2018, came of age during the Nixon impeachment. In that experience, they saw corruption tainting a Republican Party that happened to be aligning, over time, with non-urban voters and the agrarian South associated with traditionalist social and cultural attitudes. All these factors have contributed to and accentuated the urban media bubble, which shifted away from Middle-American concerns and attitudes over time. The divide became much more contentious when Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News channel stepped into the void abandoned by the old media, and filled it with content meant to appeal to non-urban, non-Democratic viewers.
The final disruption of traditional broadcast and print news media came with the dawn of the Internet. As digital technology has disrupted most of the ad revenue streams of traditional media, the industry is less able to cope with adaptation. With the proliferation of news blogs and social networks, citizens are disconnected as they self-select their news sources. The main focus for media relevance is now an amalgam of celebrity politics and, in order to maximize audience share, one must choose sides and perfect the art of click-bait, sound bites, and photo-ops. The more outrageous and controversial the scandal, the better. It’s a matter of survival — one cannot report the news if one cannot stay in business.
This ideological polarization that has infected the two parties and media is partly a reflection of, and partly a catalyst for, the polarization of the electorate. An important transformation in American social culture over the past century has been the rise of new or formerly disenfranchised groups that seek greater democratic representation and political influence. These groups have naturally sorted themselves into identity groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. As a result, traditional class divisions based on socio-economics have been largely subsumed by biological identity. While one can list many positive effects of identity coalitions in terms of opening up democratic politics, the problem arises when it comes to democratic compromise. Identity politics makes it difficult to compromise policy positions when those positions are defined by immutable identities.
These battle lines have been drawn over many contentious issues that are likewise resistant to compromise, such as moral value differences dealing with faith, religious conscience, abortion, and differing conceptions of marriage. Political rancor has also bled into judicial appointments and rulings, professional sports, education, and entertainment and cultural expression. The result, as we have seen, is a series of win-or-die wars over every possible political, economic, or social skirmish. The battle is fought over who controls the message, the agenda, the news cycle, policies, electoral rules, campaign funding, and more. It seems that if everything becomes a matter of win-or-die, one had better get off the sidelines and join the winning team. What we get is smash-mouth politics, where ultimately power prevails.
How does one respond rationally to such extreme polarization, as we witness the dysfunction and disintegration of democratic politics and social organization? Does one engage or disengage? We’ve seen the rise of both trends as citizens become either more activist or more disengaged from party politics. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party on the right and the Occupy/#BlackLivesMatter/#MeToo/Democratic Socialist movements on the left. In the meantime, the fastest growing faction in American politics is now “Unaffiliated,” and likely “Disgusted.” This fracturing of the electorate has introduced a new volatility to electoral and policy outcomes. The successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders attest to these unconventional figures’ disruptive appeal to the angry and disengaged. This is no longer your father’s party politics.
So what can we do?
This brief history points to several driving explanatory factors: political parties, the media, and the cultural narrative. The political parties as currently organized have no incentive to reverse their divide-and-conquer electoral strategies, at least not until the electorate demands different politics. Certainly there are wings within each party seeking to upset the apple cart, but neither party can abandon identity politics without suffering the existential threat of persistent electoral defeat. The news media business model is hanging on the thin threads of political conflict, so we cannot expect these companies to fall on their swords either. That leaves it to us — the voters.
A time-proven antidote for the dysfunction of democratic politics is electoral competition, which forces accountability. Unfortunately, many of the solutions for changing institutional rules and practices actually reduce competition in favor of one party’s constituents or the other’s. The arguments for and against the Electoral College, the Senate, and winner-take-all elections rarely present a balanced or comprehensive analysis. Certainly gerrymandering of congressional districts is anti-competitive, but the uncompetitiveness of districts also reflects voters’ deliberate political sorting.
From a practical point of view, the individual citizen who seeks better functioning of our political democracy should advocate against unnecessarily politicizing non-political issues. Don’t politicize; de-politicize, if you can. It would also behoove us all not to meld our personal identity to our political preferences, but rather to promote political and moral principles that transcend our person. Lastly, a major psychological detriment has been how we signal our own virtue as we negatively characterize our political opposition and stifle dissent. I would gently suggest this is more a projection of our own character rather than the ‘other.’ Let us be principled, but humble and generous.
Our American political experiment has enabled us to self-govern a large, diverse, pluralistic population across a very large landmass for most of our history. It would be a shame to let it disintegrate for a self-congratulatory, but temporary, political victory.