The partisanship of American politics has been increasingly present over the last two decades, in particular since Pres. Obama’s election in 2008. With a flare-up of ideological tensions and emergency of various radical political groups and influences, polarization in politics seemed to reach its peak in 2020 with the simultaneous crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and a constitutional election debacle. It was at this point that most Americans realized the sheer divide between the parties and to go as far as to argue their perception of the world and its realities. The state of US politics is currently more polarized than ever in modern history, divided over multiple socioeconomic and ideological issues, while steadily shifting apart in the name of attaining more power with constitutionally questionable tactics.
The US has struggled with many divisive issues throughout modern history. There was the issue of race, which peaked during the 1964 Civil Rights Act but continued to be a divisive factor for parties through the 20th century. There was the Watergate scandal, the rapid shift to conservatism under Reagan in the 1980s. While these major political shifts were significant, there were always counterweighed by the opposition, such as the anti-war movement against Vietnam, liberalism, social security, and gay rights in the 80s. Neither side was entirely dominating, and there was fierce opposition and disagreement on many of the said social issues (Sullivan). The divides seen today; their foundational roots were laid down in the 70s through a range of policies that began the ideological pushback. First, there was the White House Conference on Families under Carter which opened up a pandora’s box of issues on gender, sexuality, and family values. These were further radicalized with the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment that received pushback as violating the rights of families, an incredibly sensitive topic. In the 1970s, the US manufacturing sector also began to decrease in size and influence, which was the start of the migration of production jobs overseas, greatly hurting those average blue-collar families. Finally, there was the finance reform of post-Watergate and the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendment in 1974, which created an unequal system of spending and influx of political action committees (PACs) (Sullivan).
The political division has notably always existed in the US, since the days of the Founding Fathers. That divide is arguably what American democracy was built upon, which is why there are systems of checks and balances to ensure that neither party ever consolidated too much power. Politically speaking, US policymaking has been largely based on compromise or the parties building off each other’s legacy. However, a shift occurred in the 1970s when major political parties strictly aligned with particular ideologies, and over decades, this pursuit of ideological domination has reached a point of radicalization and polarization (Boxell et al.).
The Political Divide
At this point in the 21st century, it has become evident to even non-political observers that the American political divide is pervasive and extensive. This is demonstrated in the stark difference between the two primary parties, Democrats and Republicans, on virtually major issues. The primary concern is not that there are differences, as those have existed throughout history, and America was built on compromise. The issue is that with each year, supporters and politicians on both sides are becoming increasingly radicalized into their respective camps, with 9 out of 10 people indicating that political victory in elections would result in irreparable and lasting harm to the United States (Dimock and Wike). That is both concerning and saddening, given that despite political fissures, the parties have always respected the rule of law, the transition of power, and the need for cooperation, all of which seem to be missing in the current climate.
A study by Jesse Shapiro from Brown alongside Boxell and Gentzkow from Stanford found that among all democracies, the US is polarizing at a much faster rate, with what is known as effective polarization, when citizens feel significantly negatively towards other political parties than the one, they support. In other countries currently, and previously in the US, people were more moderate, leaning towards a specific ideology but accepting that another party may have the better approach to certain issues. Now, Republicans are a religious, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, conservative, predominantly white party, which also must believe in Trump winning the 2021 election and vaccine mandates are a violation of rights. Meanwhile, Democrats are a party of liberals, pro-choice, strong gun control, ‘socialist,’ open border immigration, and strong government. While these describe the most polarized members of the party, they are characterizations that seem more fitting of a comic caricature rather than actual people, yet this has become a reality.
One of the best descriptions of the current political divide is perfectly summed up in these words:
“The political polarization in 2020 is a symptom of other divisions—especially the racial, class, and marriage divides. These are divisions that have stoked a massive crisis of trust and led us to the brink of a national divorce in the American family” (Lapp, 2020).
The causes are inertly complex and have been in the making for decades, as discussed earlier. McCarty et al., in a study at Princeton, found that income inequality is a significant contributor to voter partisanship, with data showing that it has become more stratified by income over decades since the 1970s. However, the stratification among income lines may be due to polarization itself, not a cause of it, because certain demographics have become pocketbook voters, voting by issues, and composition of the parties has not drastically changed with increased inequality (McCarty et al. 19).
Racial politics has played a major role from a societal perspective. The reason that certain demographics tend to lean Democratic or Republic is often based on race. For white Americans voting Republican, although not necessarily feeling hostility towards minorities, they feel that they are losing out of their ‘privilege’ in the context of liberal politics, which seeks to appease racial minorities at all costs. Meanwhile, black Americans and other minorities are continuing to experience prejudice, antipathy from both regular citizens and institutions such as the police. The demographic is seeking reform from the attitudes and beliefs which have helped to upkeep a system of racial inequality and sometimes blatant racism in society (Ferreri). Racial politics is a divisive and controversial issue, it has been for decades, but the US is continuing to face the challenges of the past, nor does it know how to deal with this reckoning. Rather than attempting to find a solution, for many, it has become easier to radicalize and throw accusations towards each other.
Finances also play a role, with the practice of injecting millions of dollars into campaign funds, as well as allowing candidates to fund themselves is resulting in money influencing elections. Findings indicate that jurisdictions with higher limits on individual contributions produce ideologically extreme politicians (Barber 296). With instruments, such as super PACs, big donors can donate significant sums that hold some influence. In other words, it has become a form of an official bribe because although unspoken, it is expected that the politician receiving the money will lean towards certain policies beneficial to that donor. The concept of dark money is also an issue, which is completely legal using loopholes, but refers to political funds from groups that do not disclose donors. As a result, the money of unknown origin, potentially even foreign governments, is being used for influence in American politics. Using these hundreds of millions of dollars, the political system is injecting the hardline partisans into the legislative body (Vandewalker).
Political scientist Ian Shapiro notes that one of the primary causes of the divide is weak political parties and institutions. Over the years, much political power has been transferred to grassroots movements, eroding trust in democratic institutions and political parties. Therefore, leaders such as Trump, who has extremely fueled the divide with his rhetoric and actions, and notably damaged trust in American institutions, are ironically the product of those institutions themselves. The parties are weak because they are dependent on unrepresentative voters on the fringes as well as those who provide funding. Due to the way that the primary system is set up, and because primaries and mid-term elections have much lower turnouts (it can be as low as 11%), it is usually the fringe voters who determine the fate of American politics (Cummings). In turn, when national elections come, the politicians chosen in the primaries attract the people with their ideological stance and message, the politicians frame the issues for the voters, not the other way around.
The US political divide is prevalent and highly concerning. This paper outlines the range of causes starting with the historical alignment of parties with hardline ideology to aspects of inequality, race, and finance politics. There are no easy solutions, and both parties are digging deeply into polarization, seeing it as the only means of survival and defending America from the opposing ideological side. Both sides are also using politics and media to drive their voters to the fringes in an attempt to secure political influence. However, there are notable consequences as a result of this. Such actions had already begun, such as seen with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots, where radicalization is challenging the very foundations of America’s democratic institutions. Polarization is creating a society of what can be described as “a poisonous cocktail of othering, aversion and moralization” (Edsall). This is being reflected everywhere, from Congress not being able to cooperate to everyday people choosing to hate their neighbors over politics. It represents America in a divided and very weak state of Democracy.
Barber, Michael J. “Ideological Donors, Contribution Limits, and the Polarization of American Legislatures.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 78, no. 1, 2016, pp. 296–310.
Boxell, Levi, et al. “Cross-Country Trends in Affective Polarization.” National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020.
Cummings, Mike. “Polarization in U.S. Politics Starts with Weak Political Parties.” Yale News, 2020, Web.
Dimock, Michael, and Richard Wike. “America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide.” Pew Trust, 2021, Web.
Edsell, Thomas B. “How Much Does How Much We Hate Each Other Matter?” The New York Times, 2021.Web.
Ferreri, Eric. “How Racial Identity And Polarization Could Influence The Election.” Duke, 2020. Web.
McCarty, Nolan M., et al. “Political Polarization and Income Inequality.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2003, Web.
Sullivan, Robert. “Political Division? That’s Nothing New.” Vogue, 2019, Web.
Vanderwalker, Ian. “How to Change Incentives for both Politicians and Donors.” Brennan Center, 2021, Web.