Political Polarization in America: Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?
April 23, 2023
Tensions in American politics feel as though they’ve never been higher. During this last mid-term election season, there is no doubt that many candidates spoke the words: “democracy is on the ballot,” but was this really the case (Nichols, 2022 and Milligan, 2022)? The Pew Research Center reports that 61% of U.S. adults have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party and 57% hold a negative view of the Democratic Party (Pew Research Center, 2022). Even still, today’s Democrats and Republicans are more consistently liberal and conservative, respectively, than in past years. How is the American democracy polarizing faster than others? (Pew Research Center, 2014 and Brown University, 2020). How did we get to this point where one can kill lifelong relationships at the very mention of any topic remotely political? Answers to the last question may include modern social media, racial division, increases in derogatory political rhetoric, and even policies from decades long past. Nevertheless, political polarization is a prevalent issue in modern American politics that requires careful examination.
Polarization, as it is often being used in the political sphere, generally refers to an increasing divide between ideologies and the associated increase in antipathy. More specifically, the European Center for Populism Studies writes that “political polarization can refer to the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes” (European Center for Populism Studies, n.d.) In America’s two-party system, this occurs along bipartisan lines. As mentioned, this polarization includes antipathy or hostility toward members of alternate parties and stronger, more negative rhetoric when speaking toward or about them.
As the issue is very complicated, the exact causes of this increased bipartisan divide are relatively unclear. The Pew Research Center does show that approval ratings of presidents from their own party versus the opposing party have grown further and further apart (Pew Research Center, 2014).[A1] Eisenhower averaged an 88% approval rating among the Republican party and 49% among the Democratic party—that is a 39-percentage point gap. Fast forward to Obama and there was an average 81% approval among Democrats and 14% among Republicans—a 67-percentage point increase approximately 1.7 times greater than 50 years prior. Some explain this gap by turning to divisive presidential policies like Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs,’ Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter’s creation of FEMA, or JFK’s creation of the Peace Corps; however, these provide little explanation. Afterall, what is it that caused these policies to be controversial? One source says that, as of right now, the best explanation is media bubbles and in-group bias (Facing History & Ourselves, 2019). Media bubbles refer to the fact that “many Americans are exposed to partisan news in their social media feeds and often have very few social media friends on the other end of the political spectrum. Online platforms, such as YouTube, use algorithms to expose viewers to increasingly extreme content, which can lead them to fringe political views without their realizing it.”
The status of this issue in the United States seems rather disheartening. Politically, we agree less and less each election on how our shared country ought to be run, and there doesn’t seem to be any hope that things will change soon. On the contrary, the simplest acts can have the greatest impacts, and such is the case for this issue. Namely, working collectively and individually to overcome in-group bias. Just because we feel more comfortable with those who agree with us politically doesn’t mean we can’t listen to opinions from other sides or surround ourselves with people who disagree. Approaching difficult topics with an open mind and an open heart is one of the easiest yet most difficult actions we can take to combat political polarization in America.
[A1]We also have to add APA in text citations where applicable so just something to keep in mind when you edit your draft
Barrett, P., Hendrix, J., & Sims, G. (2021, September 27). How tech platforms fuel U.S. political polarization and what government can do about it. Retrieved from The Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2021/09/27/how-tech-platforms-fuel-u-s-political-polarization-and-what-government-can-do-about-it/
Brown University. (2020, January 21). U.S. is polarizing faster than other democracies, study finds. Retrieved from News from Brown: https://www.brown.edu/news/2020-01-21/polarization
Desilver, D. (2022, March 10). The polarization in today's Congress has roots that go back decades. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/10/the-polarization-in-todays-congress-has-roots-that-go-back-decades/
European Center for Populism Studies. __. “Political polarization.” Retrieved from European Center for Populism Studies: https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/political-polarization/
Facing History & Ourselves. (2019, October 22). “Political polarization in the United States.” Retreived from Facing History & Ourselves: https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/political-polarization-united-states
Jensen, J., Kaplan, E., Naidu, S., & Wilse-Samson, L. (2012). Political Polarization and the Dynamics of Political Language: Evidence from 130 Years of Partisan Speech. Brookings Papers on Economics Activity, 1-81.
Kolbert, E. (2021, December 27). How Politics Got So Polarized. Retrieved from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/01/03/how-politics-got-so-polarized
Milligan, Susan. (2022, November 2). “Biden: ‘Make no mistake: Democracy is on the ballot.” Retrieved from USNews: https://www.usnews.com/news/elections/articles/2022-11-02/biden-make-no-mistake-democracy-is-on-the-ballot
Nichols, Tom. (2022, November 9). “Democracy Was on the Ballot—And Won.” Retrieved from The Atlantic Daily: https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2022/11/democracy-won/672061/
Pew Research Center. (2014). Political Polarization in the American Public. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center. (2022). As Paritsan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration with the Two-Party System. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.
Solman, P., Koromvokis, L., & Jacobson, M. (2022, January 10). Political polarization prompts efforts to bridge the gap through shared experiences. Retrieved from PBS Nebraska Public Media: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/political-polarization-prompts-efforts-to-bridge-the-gap-through-shared-experiences