Yuvan Sharma
10 July 2021: Political Polarization in the United States
10.07.20214 Min Read — In Politics

The United States has a political system dominated by two parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Having just two main parties which can have a candidate elected as President can go either of two ways: the policies adopted by both parties are consistent with and complement each other in a positive feedback system, or,the two parties start adopting significantly opposing policies. The US has largely been subject to the latter situation. These two political parties have been diverging in terms of opinions for a long time, and the effects are increasingly noticeable.

A 2014 study by Pew Research Center showed a significant increase in political polarization in the American public over the past years. It found that 92% of Republicans in the public had a more conservative (right-wing) position than the median (average) Democrat, while 94% of Democrats had a more liberal (left-wing) position than the median Republican. The percent of people in both parties who feel that the other party is unfavorable for the nation’s progress has also been steeply rising over the years, showing that party enmity and hatred is rising as more people shift to increasingly extreme positions in the political spectrum. Another interesting inference that the study made was that the more politically polarized groups were far more likely to engage in political activities such as voting or contributing to campaigns. People whose political opinions are mostly in the center are relatively inactive in politics, with people who are consistently liberal and consistently conservative voting the most and donating to campaigns the most. This statistic is not surprising considering how political overlap has been steadily shrinking between Democrats and Republicans. Having worsening opinions about the other party and shifting to more extreme political positions will naturally lead to less agreement between the two parties, as has been witnessed in the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration. President Biden issued more than thirty-six executive actions in his first week in office, and most of them were to reverse policies made by his predecessor. Such a difference in opinions is a clear indicator of how the political differences between the two major parties in the United States have been increasing.

The Study by Pew Research Center

The Study by Pew Research Center

However, these growing differences in opinions might not just be because of growing hatred for the other party. These differences might also be deeply connected with political strategies adopted by both parties, as they both try to find voter bases that can help sway the election in their favor. The US has always had very close elections, so much so that it is sometimes called the ‘49 percent’ nation, referring to how each side has 49% of the votes, with the remaining 2% deciding the winner. In such close elections, each party must find a way to target as many people as possible. Over the past years, this has resulted in the party viewpoints diverging, with each party moving to more extreme positions to try and secure all of the votes in that particular region of the political spectrum. In such a system, any party trying to move back to the center will probably be vulnerable to attack from the other. A shift towards the center appears to be ‘soft’ in a politically polarized system, and this is a major factor in the two parties having little to no common ground in recent years. Being extreme has become a necessity to win elections.

As the political dynamic changes and becomes more hard-lined, so does the voter base for each party. The Republican party has a large number of supporters who are white and feel that they are victims of the new social and cultural changes that have been taking place. Such voters fear that the ‘pure’ white America might be destroyed by the consolidation of other cultural groups such as African-Americans and Latinos in society. These communities form the voter base for the Democratic party. This division by culture happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, when white nationalists and supremacists started to join the Republican party and the Democratic party became the party associated with the civil rights movement. One of the most interesting changes in American politics is how the two parties have completely switched roles from the slavery and civil war era to the present. The Republican party was formed with the liberal view of opposing slavery, and with the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, it achieved this aim after the end of the Civil War. The Democratic party had consisted primarily of rich, white landowners from the South who advocated for the spread of slavery throughout the nation. In contrast, the Democratic party now has a liberal approach while the Republican party is highly conservative-minded.

Political polarization also has a tendency to be associated with former President Trump, given his absolutist views on most topics. According to studies, a number of Republicans and Democrats developed more extremist views of political issues while the Trump administration was in office. This certainly makes sense when considering how Republicans had to start making decisions keeping their own political future in mind, which could be derailed if they disagreed with Trump. This obviously made them more likely to support more conservative policies which Trump advocated. In response, Democrats became even more liberal to try and counter what they see as a dangerous threat to the nation. Therefore, while it certainly is true that Trump’s presidential term exacerbated polarization in American politics, he is by no means the creator of this divisive political atmosphere, which has been forming gradually over the past decades as two major parties struggle to find the right mix of social, cultural and economic identity that can win elections in a country which is seemingly equally divided on every issue.