Despite an extensive body of academic research, there is little consensus on primary causes of partisan dysfunction in the US. Many scholars agree that, as manifested in the Congress, polarization began worsening in the 1980’s and has continued so through today. Most agree the realignment of Southern politics played a role, and that of the two parties, the GOP has contributed somewhat more to divisiveness (though we’ve not encountered a scholar that fully exonerates the Democrats). Many also agree that followers of the various ideologies have over the last twenty years more uniformly collected themselves into whichever party most consistently represents their ideology (“sorting”), whereas this was not the case to the same extent prior; parties were more ideologically diverse.

That’s about the extent of consensus. Outside of that, the following is a fairly exhaustive list of observers’ various perspectives on the causes. Disagreement exists on most of these.

After the list, we distill it down for you into our own perspective.

  • Southern realignment (the movement of southern conservatives from the Democrats to the GOP in 1970-90s)
  • Increased minority voter representation & reduced white influence
  • Income inequality
  • Partisan news media
  • Growing influence of social media
  • Reduced civility and greater political competitiveness
  • Campaign finance
  • Social psychology
  • The political primary process
  • Districting (Gerrymandering and otherwise)
  • Non-proportional representation due to quirks in the geographic distribution of ideologies
  • Greater competitive intensity simply naturally results from an even ideological split
  • Rules changes in how Congress conducts itself
  • The strengthening (or weakening) of centralized party power
  • Greater (or lesser) role of religion in political parties
  • Polarization has not increased, voters are just better sorted
  • Polarization is normal, our brief post-war bipartisanship was actually abnormal
  • Polarization is actually preferable.
  • The elites/leaders are causing it.
  • The electorate is causing it.
  • One party alone is causing it.

(references coming for this entire list)

So what do we think?

The above is a long list. In order to be effective, one needs to get at the core of what one thinks is going on. Our view has evolved as we have studied our way through this and likely will continue to evolve as we learn more and new research is published. That said, here is our current perspective.

The human capacity for tribalism and collaboration

One must begin with allowing that tribalism is a natural human propensity. Evolution favored those that formed groups. A necessary counterpart to the formation of an “in-group” is the existence of an “out-group;” indeed the existence of one is often the raison d’etre for the other. But the formation of groups equally implies that humans also have a skill for bipartisan cooperation — the parties being those that came together to form the group. And this collaboration can be both within groups and between them. Hence, the thirteeen groups that came together to form the original “United States” of America. Human history can then be seen as, among other things, cyclical tension between these two behaviors — collaboration and competition between groups.

Economic shifts reignite tribal tension

The US saw a cyclical upturn in collaboration among ideologies starting in World War 2. More recently we’ve seen a swing back toward internal competition. We believe two fundamental factors drove that.

First was the inevitable erosion of the vast lead the US had on economic peers coming out of WW2. The economic opportunities that were easy for the taking in 1950, we now have serious competition for. Among other things this manifests in fewer job opportunities and lower compensation for those jobs that exist. Hence the economic angst in The Rust Belt.

Second, worsening this is that the opportunities where the US now dominates do not cleanly replace the jobs lost. Silicon Valley has openings for highly educated engineers and product managers, but they represent a fraction of the jobs lost by machinists in Detroit, who, incidentally, also are not easily retrained as engineers. This created an inequality of opportunity.

From these, two things were inevitable: (1) angst among those that suffered and (2) their resentment toward those that prospered. This initiated the growing divisions we see today. There are likely other fundamental shifts involved, such as the decline in relative political power of the white male class, but we believe economics to be the preeminent driver.

Exacerbating factors

Starting from this foundation, multiple factors then exacerbated it into the deeply confrontational polarization.

  • Geographic separation: Ideological and economic differences are clustered in separate geographic and urban/rural zones. With some exceptions, those prospering tend to be urban and coastal while those struggling tend to be rural/suburban and in the heartland. This complicates the tribes’ ability to interact with and understand each other.
  • Non-proportional representation in national government: The nature of the US electoral system currently results in Republicans being over-represented in the national government, relative to their proportion of the national population.1 We don’t necessarily oppose this, but observe that when a majority is unable to realize goals that it feels it has the necessary majority support to implement, in this case for decades, that naturally foments frustration, directed toward the obstruction.
  • Decreased empathy toward the challenged. For some reason the Democrats — a party that has historically prided itself on sensitivity toward the struggling — for a period neglected said empathy toward the legitimate economic challenges troubling the Midwest and this arguably culminated in the Democrat’s losses in 2016.2 Its presidential candidate that year had helped negotiate globalization agreements that arguably displaced thousands of workers in the Rust Belt, appeared to devote more attention to the plight of non-citizen immigrants over those same out-of-work citizen Rust Belters, accepted vast donations for visiting with the coastal prosperous on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley and then infamously chose not to visit Wisconsin at all during her campaign. It should be no surprise that this contributed to alienation among the struggling. To their credit, the Democrats quickly corrected this in 2018 and 2000 but by that time the US had already elected possibly its most divisive and polarizing leadership ever.
  • Changing media landscape. The emergence of partisan news media (eg, FoxNews, MSNBC, etc.) has had the result of both inciting in-group emotion and reducing exposure to out-group perspectives. Simultaneously the explosion of social media has introduced such things as filter bubbles, fake news, micro-targeting, dubious news sources and malevolent manipulation. There is debate around how influential these two effects have been on polarization, with the primary skepticism relating to the fact that the recent polarization cycle began at least by the eighties, well before either of these two effects arose. That said, we believe partisan news media, at least, to be a meaningful “exacerbant.”
  • Politicians’ increased willingness to indulge in divisiveness. There is debate over whether politicians are leading or following the divisiveness, but general consensus that in recent decades many have shown greater willingness to indulge in combative and divisive behavior, relative to historic norms.3,4 This downtrend seemed to begin about the time of the “Gingrich Revolution” in the mid nineties and culminated recently with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) refusing to disavow her own comments supporting the execution of her now colleague, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).5 There appear to be a number of factors driving this behavioral shift, one of them distilled by Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon, “Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”6 Whatever the rationale, a politician that promotes to the electorate a worldview of intransigent, combative division will necessarily find it difficult to later collaborate across the divide to get things done. And whether they are leading, or channeling their district by expressing that sentiment, by echoing and championing it, especially as leaders, they propagate it.

We believe these to be the primary factors driving our current division: increasing economic competition and opportunity disparities reopened the rationale for US tribalism, which has then been exacerbated by geographic separation, non-proportional representation, lack of empathy, a dramatically changing media landscape and leaders’ increased willingness to exploit divisions.

What, then, can be done about any of this?

NEXT >> Solutions to partisan polarization


1 This is a function of (a) Senate representation not being population-based and (b) the more even geographic distribution of Republicans (eg, Democrats are over-clustered in the cities) conferring upon the GOP a geometric advantage in House and Electoral College districting.
2 One could similarly argue that Republicans have displayed a lack of empathy toward social injustices faced by African Americans. This is an important point, but it is not clear that it has correlated with worsening polarization.
3 Sean Theriault, “Partisan Warfare is the Problem,” in “Political Polarization in American Politics,” Daniel J. Hopkins and John Sides, editors, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, p. 11. Also the incivility section
4 Michael J. Barber and Nolan McCarty, “Causes and Consequences of Polarization,” in Solutions to Political Polarization in America, Nathaniel Persily Ed. New York,: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 38.
5 Andrew Solender “Marjorie Taylor Greene Ends Press Conference When Asked About Endorsing Pelosi’s Execution.” Forbes, Feb 5, 2021.
6 Thomas B. Edsall, “What Motivates Voters More Than Loyalty? Loathing.” New York Times, March 1, 2018.

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