In 2004, a budding state senator from Illinois delivered a moving speech at the Democratic National Convention. The speech jump-started his career and sprung him onto the national political scene. At a time when Republicans and Democrats were becoming more and more polarized (here and throughout the article, the term “polarization” refers to polarization of the political elites. Political elites are those citizens that are most engaged in our politics, i.e. party extremists, people who donate to campaigns, etc.…), the young senator spoke of compromise and bipartisanship, saying:
There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America… The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”
His rhetoric captivated the minds of many of the conventions attendees and television audiences, and four years later Barack Obama found himself at the Democratic convention again, this time as the party’s presidential nominee.
Obama would go on to win the presidency, in part by running a campaign largely focused on the promises that he could bring bipartisanship back to Washington and prevent American politics from slipping further down the dangerous slope it was heading. In his resulting victory speech, he would again stress the importance of cooperation and friendship between Republicans and Democrats.
Obama urged Americans to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” He reminded the Democrats in the room that although they had claimed victory that night, he wanted them to do so “with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.” It was with this hopeful mindset that Obama began his presidency.
While Obama’s legacy is undoubtedly filled with many liberal policy accomplishments, he himself will be the first to admit that he failed in one of the areas that mattered most: halting political polarization. In his final State of the Union address delivered earlier this year, Obama humbly noted,
It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
This disappointing observation contrasted sharply with the optimistic rhetoric voters heard in 2004 and 2008. Despite having a seemingly genuine intention to bridge the gap between the two parties, as president, he could only helplessly watch as Republicans and Democrats became more polarized than ever. After eight years of serving in the highest electable office in the United States, it appears as if President Obama has come to terms with the harsh reality of modern American politics: the country is spiraling into unprecedented levels of polarization with serious consequences, and there is little elected representatives can do to stop it.
Polarization by the Numbers
Pundits and political scientists alike have been studying polarization in American politics for some time now, and while there are many reports out there on the subject, few are as comprehensive and as revealing as the Pew Research Center’s 2014 study “Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life”. Pew surveyed 10,000 randomly selected, nationally representative Americans across a three-month span. The results are truly remarkable, charting increasing trends of polarization and political antipathy in all parts of American life and proving that polarization has most definitely worsened during Obama’s time in office.
There are two trends the study outlines that are particularly noteworthy. The first is perhaps the most talked about, that constituents of the two parties are simply moving farther apart ideologically. Today, 92 percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat and 94% of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican. In 1994, only 64 percent of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican and 70 percent of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat. Put differently this means that in ’94, 30 percent of Republicans were more liberal than the average Democrat and 36 percent of Democrats were more conservative than the average Republican. Today, those numbers are just eight percent and six percent respectively. This means there is much less ideological overlap between the two parties, making compromise much more difficult.
The second, somewhat related trend is that more and more Democrats and Republicans are becoming consistently liberal and consistently conservative respectively. This is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. Being a Democrat did not used to mean that one was liberal on all issues, nor did being Republican require constant conservatism. Although the majority of Americans still claim to have a mix of conservative and liberal interests, those with consistent interests are on the rise. The percentage of Democrats who are consistently liberal has quadrupled over the past twenty years, going from five percent in ’94 to 23 percent in 2014. For Republicans, the increase is more recent; in 2004, just six percent of Republicans were consistently conservative, but today 20 percent claim to be consistent in their views. This type of party sorting has largely driven the ideological separation identified in the first trend.
What’s particularly concerning about the increase in ideological consistency is how strongly it correlates to these individuals’ increase in political participation. Engaged citizens (those who regularly vote and follow the goings-on of government and politics) are found to be much more uniform in their views. 70 percent of both engaged Democrats and engaged Republicans state that they take positions that are mostly or consistently in line with their party’s ideology. Similarly, 58 percent of consistent liberals say they always vote, with 78 percent of consistent conservatives saying the same. Ideologues of this type are also far more likely to donate to political campaigns, with 31 percent of consistent liberals and 26 percent of consistent conservatives stating they’ve donated to a campaign in the past two years. Conversely, only 39 percent of those with both conservative and liberal preferences always vote, and only eight percent donate to campaigns. Representatives are more responsive to those who always vote and contribute to their campaigns, and thus the hard line liberals and conservatives are having a disproportionate effect on the political process.
These same ideologues tend to have a deep dislike of the opposing party, according to the survey. Republicans and Democrats have certainly always disliked each other to a degree; however, those negative views have significantly spiked in the last 20 years. In 1994, only about 17 percent of Republicans and 16 percent of Democrats claimed to have a “very unfavorable” view of the opposing party. Today, those numbers have practically doubled, going to 43 percent and 37 percent respectively. Of these people who view the other party very unfavorably, 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats claim that the other party’s policies are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well being.” That there are individuals sincerely believing that the other party is harming the nation reveals a level of partisan antipathy that is itself “a threat to the nation’s well being.”
How it Happened
Any discussion of political polarization must go beyond a survey of its effects. A deeper question to ask about these shifts in the American political landscape is why they occurred in the first place. How did a country that was being governed by a moderate Democratic President and a tough but compromising Republican Congress only 20 years ago become a gridlocked political battleground, a chaotic mass of opposing factions and interests? While political scientists are divided on some of the particulars of America’s polarization problem, it is clear that the divide in American politics has been a long time coming and is the result of a deep erosion of American political culture.
One source of this erosion has been the infectious spread of political distrust. For much of the 20th century, the two major parties were able to effectively govern, despite often-divided government, due to their willingness to compromise. However, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal dashed the political trust that the American people had in their government. Since 1958, the American National Election Studies, a research-based organization that conducts surveys on a variety of political and electoral questions, has been asking Americans the question: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right — just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?” The numbers don’t lie; the period between 1964 and 1980 saw the most drastic decrease in the percent of Americans saying they trust the federal government “most of the time” or “just about always,” with that percentage going from almost 80 percent to an abysmal 25 percent.
This period marked the beginning of a patent shift in American political culture; as Americans began to distrust their government, their antipathy toward government increased. The emotional distance this has created between the government and its citizens has had mixed effects, fueling both political movements, such as the rise of the conservative right, and political apathy. Political distrust has led to the emergence of an increasingly significant minority with strong ideological views on either side, and has simultaneously contributed to the relative apathy of the political middle, thereby creating incentives for polarized behavior.
After the rise of distrust in American politics, many citizens did not believe in their government’s capacity to help them, and so they became less inclined to be politically involved. Today, this trend has continued, as evidenced by the record low primary turnout rates of recent Congressional elections in both parties. Strength of preference and ideological extremity tend to go hand in hand. Those with more ideological views are more willing to mobilize for their political causes, because they are more passionate about their beliefs than their more moderate compatriots, as evidenced by the results from the Pew report.
Voting is a form of self-selection, and therefore it naturally amplifies the preferences of those with intense views, since a citizen with a less intense preference is less likely to make the effort to get out to the polls. Political distrust has exacerbated this effect by emotionally distancing most citizens from their government, which has led to a significant drop-off in political participation. However, since those with intense preferences are more likely to mobilize and vote, the depressant effect that political distrust has on voting has served to further magnify the political power of the ideologically extreme, as there are fewer competing votes from moderates. This is especially true in primaries, where candidates in both parties are strongly incentivized to run campaigns geared toward their highly ideological bases because of the lack of moderate votes. In all, the political distrust that is ubiquitous in modern American politics has empowered and normalized the views of the extremes on either side of the political spectrum, while simultaneously diminishing the profile of moderates in political life.
Political distrust is not the only factor that has led to our current polarization, however. The proliferation of choice has also contributed heavily to the current stratification of our political discourse. One perfect example of this phenomenon is in the media. As the form and distribution of media has evolved, citizens’ ability to choose what media they wish to consume has evolved along with it. Today, between the rapid growth of cable news and the explosion of online media sources, consumers are freer than ever before to choose a media source — and it is this ability to choose that has led to the demise of more nonpartisan mass media. Statistically speaking, the vast majority of conservatives and liberals obtain their news from sources that espouse opinions in line with their own. A full 47 percent of consistent conservatives get their news from Fox News, according to Pew, while a full 48 percent of strong liberals get their news from MSNBC, a more liberal source.
This self-sorting does not end with media consumption — 44 percent of consistent liberals admit to having de-friended conservative friends on social media due to their political beliefs, and 66 percent of consistent conservatives state that most of their close friends share their political views almost exactly. Even more alarming, 50 percent of consistent conservatives and 35 percent of consistent liberals have a desire to live in a place with people that share their political views. From media to friendships to even the places people decide to live, political partisanship has slowly crept into every aspect of personal life, separating our country into two disparate fragments, one red and another blue. These isolated colonies of political thought have become echo chambers of ideological fervor, without dissent and without deviance.
This vast chasm of separation has become an increasingly great obstacle to political compromise. Historically, Congressional politicking has been inherently contingent on compromise. A lot like an efficient offense in football, everyone, both Republican and Democratic, would work together to ensure that they would all walk away with something they wanted: a three yard run one day, a five yard pass the next, gradual gains on a long drive to a policy goal. Rarely did either party get the touchdown legislation they would have preferred, but they were content to be moving in the right direction. Whether it was the formation of Johnson’s Great Society or the welfare reform passed under Clinton, major policy shifts were almost universally bipartisan events, representing a convergence of diverse interests and viewpoints.
Recently, however, this pragmatic approach has become less tenable. As regular voters, and consequently their representatives, have moved further apart ideologically, the temptation to demand purity has mounted. Neither party’s politicians or constituents are content with simply gaining a few yards anymore — they want a Hail Mary touchdown, and they want it now. Whether it was Obama’s Democratic Congress passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote or the Republican Freedom Caucus shutting down the government in 2013 in an effort to defund the ACA, both parties have exhibited a blatant preference for purity over pragmatism. Both parties cannot achieve every one of their policy goals at the same time — in a system without compromise, one party must always lose, and this sense of increased competition has only intensified the vitriol between them.
The Worst is Yet to Come
If we fail to repair our fragmented politics, unforeseen but increasingly dangerous consequences will come as a result of the increased partisanship. Congress, for one, will be continuously faced with the impossibility of a win-win situation, i.e. neither party will be able to succeed without the other losing. In recent years, the country has either had a majoritarian system in which both chambers of Congress and the Presidency are all controlled by the same party or gridlock due to divided government. With the latter, it’s easy to see how neither party can accomplish many of their respective policy goals because nothing will get done.
Historically, even in the former situation, where there’s united government, parties would still need some sort of bipartisan support to get legislation passed. There used to be conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and a party could not always expect to receive votes from every one of its members. Instead, leaders would have to appeal to conservative members or liberal members from the other side of the aisle, and thus both interests would have a better chance at being represented in the final bill. But even so, there was no practice of using tools like the filibuster to obstruct majority policies. There was a certain respect the two parties had for each other. However, the increase in both ideological consistency and partisan animosity has lead to a situation where either the majority completely steamrolls the minority as the Democrats did with the Affordable Care Act in 2010, or the minority prevents the majority from doing anything with a filibuster.
Unfortunately, everyday Americans are needlessly suffering amidst all this inaction. Two years ago, both parties watched as interest rates on federal student loans doubled, going up from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. This rate hike made it far more difficult for 7.4 million American students at the time to pay off their student loans. Although both parties expressed genuine interest in preventing the rate hike from ever occurring, partisan stubbornness on both sides of the aisle prevented any bill from ever coming close to passing. Similarly, just a couple of months ago when the Zika virus broke out in the state of Florida, Congress was unable to pass a bill to provide funding to the state to help address the health crisis before they went on a month long recess. Consequently, a largely underfunded Florida was left to deal with the breakout by itself. As was the case with the student loans, Republicans and Democrats alike wanted to get the legislation passed but were somehow unable to.
In both these instances, inaction was driven by the fact that each party was willing to test the other’s resolve to the point where nothing got done. With the student loans, Republicans had legislation on the table that would’ve prevented the rate hike; however, it did so in a manner that was unacceptable to Democrats. So, congressional Democrats decided to sit back and do nothing, thinking Republicans would cave and simply pass a bill that would freeze the rates at 3.4 percent. Unfortunately, Republicans had the same strategy in mind. Accordingly, neither party was willing to admit defeat, meaning no bill was passed. The same mindsets were employed in the Zika case, this time with respect to an amendment in the funding bill having to do with Planned Parenthood. These sort of strategies make it very easy for each party to blame inaction on the other one, and while they all engage in these finger-pointing games, voters are left helpless.
When both parties consistently fail to produce results for their voters, the voters get upset. Grievances within the party lead to intra party conflicts and rifts, as is currently occurring with both Democrats and Republicans. Such a lack of productivity in Congress also diminishes faith in government and discourages even more people from participating in politics. Again, lack of participation from would-be moderates allows the party extremists to command political discourse across the nation.
Furthermore, Congress’ unproductiveness has detrimental effects on the Supreme Court, the one branch of government that is supposed to remain insulated from the political rancor that can sometimes consume the nation. Plaintiffs have taken more and more issues to the courts in an attempt to resolve them, seeing as how Congress is incapable of doing much of anything. This tendency has forced the Supreme Court to take up politically divisive cases that can expose their partisan divide. Those cases, of course, create their own set of consequences for both the rule of law and the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.
Similarly, the Executive branch also suffers at the hands of the inactive Congress. Executive orders and actions, the President’s way of furthering his/her policy goals without going through Congress, have greatly expanded in scope as partisanship has increased. Most recently, Obama’s two largest actions on climate change and immigration have both come under fire in the Supreme Court. In February of this year, SCOTUS temporarily blocked the administration’s plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. Then, in June, the Court effectively blocked the implementation of Obama’s executive actions regarding immigration by coming out deadlocked on the case that challenged the immigration plan. Clearly, the executive branch is beginning to step over its legal boundaries in a desperate attempt to enact some sort of policy change, since polarization has made it too difficult to work with Congress on efforts such as these. Continued litigation over executive orders and actions reflects very poorly on the President, further diminishing trust in government.
As one representative once told me, Congress is perhaps the only group that is actually less than the sum of its parts. Our congressmen and women are, for the most part, pragmatic individuals with a fair grip on both the most pressing issues facing the nation and, in some cases, the best policy solutions to those issues. Unfortunately, some of their constituents, particularly those that vote in primaries, are not as pragmatic. Ideologues on both sides of the aisle are hijacking our political process and discourse. The Constitution was not designed to account for such strictly ideologically sorted parties; in fact, it wasn’t really designed to account for political parties at all.
The founders intended the act of creating new laws and amending old ones to be difficult but not impossible. Consequently, such bitter divisions among our politicians cause our system of government to come to a legislative halt. While government’s standstill has led to some calls for an abandonment of our Constitution, there are far less radical measures each and every one of us can take in order to truly bring bipartisanship back to the United States.
It’s easy to blame the current state of disunion on Congress or the Constitution. But what’s necessary but difficult to do is to recognize that everyone is partially at fault. Much like implicit racism or sexism, there exists a certain blind-spot bias with regards to political polarization. Educating voters on the existence of this divide and the detrimental consequences it brings could help remove the blind-spot bias. Refraining ourselves from posting that one inflammatory status on social media or from implicitly judging a stranger because of his/her political partisanship are little things each of us can do to help re-instill some sense of respect and civility into our politics. It’s not necessarily inherently bad to be one of these “ideologues,” but those with strong opinions need to understand the consequences of their unwillingness to compromise. Similarly, moderates need to shed their apathy and vote.
More than anything else, polarization in America is a collective action problem. If we can agree to put aside petty personal differences in order to have substantive and civil policy debates, our representatives will do the same. But until that day, the United States Congress will remain committed to the most vocal and engaged citizens: the stubborn ideologues.
Lucas Rodriguez, a sophomore studying economics, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal, and Spencer Segal was a freshman but is currently taking two years off to serve his LDS mission in Benin and Togo.
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.