The Causes of Political Polarization

Rarely does a news cycle pass without the mention of political dysfunction in Washington, DC these days. From news reports of quid pro quo from the president of the United States against his potential opponent in the 2020 presidential election to failing to pass a congressional budget on time, news reports are filled with the incidents that fuel the rising polarization in the national and local levels. And as a result, public confidence in the ability of our representatives to govern effectively has eroded. According to a recent Gallup poll, for instance, the confidence in the US congress has decreased from 80 percent in 1988 to 37 percent in 2019. The major cause for the recent emergence of excessive partisanship can be attributed to the deep ideological divide among the political elites. However, due to the multidimensional nature of this issue, other factors such as mass media, partisan gerrymandering, and history of polarization also play a significant role. Therefore, this research report tries to take a more evidence-based approach based on several quantitative and qualitative sources to make a case on the causes of political polarization.

Scholars broadly agree that our history of polarization, polarization among the political elites, income inequality, and mass media are responsible for the current rise in polarization. In the 1800s, political pundits were complaining about the political parties having very little ideological difference, and any clean-cut principles and distinct beliefs. The two parties at the time, Federalist and Democratic-Republican, agreed on almost all the major issues except the separation of state power and central government power. Later in the mid-1900s, political parties were relatively far apart from each other on some set of issues at a given time: World War II in the 1940s, Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, and War on Drugs in the 1970s. Compared that to present-day politics, political parties are set apart by a set of cultural and moral issues like race, abortion, homosexual rights, immigration, health care, drug decriminalization/legalization, regime-change wars, and so on and so forth. Scholars have observed a clear trend while dissecting the history of political polarization in the United States. They found out that the polarizing issues from the past are taking a form and haunting the politics of the present. A growing body of empirical research further shows that political elites, particularly those in Congress, are growing more homogeneous in their policy positions, further expanding the distance between the two parties’ stances on major political issues. The growing difference in policies between the political parties is making it harder to find solutions to these polarizing issues. The 2014 Congress, for instance, passed fewer than 300 laws, the fewest in modern history. For comparison, the widely criticized Congress of 1947-48 passed 906 laws.

Similarly, scholars argue that the trend of rising polarization emerged over the same period as the gap between the richest and poorest Americans widened. While studying ninety years of available data, researchers found out that the graph curve of income inequality in the United States looks surprisingly similar to the graph curve of political polarization. They found that we currently have political polarization higher than in the 1910s when income inequality was very high. The political polarization dropped drastically from 1940 to 1980 and this era was also called the bipartisan era. This was the time when income inequality between the rich and the poor was historically low. Researchers concluded that the growth at the top of the income distribution gives more power to wealthy individuals as they pour money into politics for personal/corporate gains that may be against the liking of the general public.

In addition to rising income inequality, the emergence of partisan media has contributed to political polarization and led Americans to support more partisan policies and candidates. To appeal to its partisan viewers, the mass media, in this fragmented, high-choice environment, has opted for more antagonistic and one-sided broadcasts. In addition, the proliferation of media choices lowered the share of less interested, less partisan voters and thereby made elections more partisan. Political scientists fear that the influence of firebrands like Hannity, Jones, and Olbermann would attract less knowledgeable Americans that are easily seduced by the seemingly simplistic nature of populist views. This is particularly problematic in the current heated political climate where extremes appear eager to escalate.

In the research, I found out that there is an intense discussion among the scholars if partisan gerrymandering leads to polarization. Some argue that incumbents tend to be more extreme if their districts are gerrymandered, since they are sure to win the election, they will focus on appealing to more extreme voters in order to prevent a primary challenge. Others say that there has been a rise in polarization in the US senate in the same timeframe where redistricting is not possible. However, according to professor Hauser at the WVU Department of Political Science, partisan gerrymandering allows political parties to create safe uniparty districts which increases polarization in the state legislature. He noted that evidence suggesting that gerrymandering leads to polarization among the public is very minimal and that it only leads to polarization among elected officials. Moreover, while the Senate has become more polarized, even though redistricting is not possible for the senate elections, it is important to note that many senators used to be members of the House, so if a factor increases polarization in the House, it may also indirectly affect polarization in the Senate. 

07 July 2022
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