The nation isn’t getting critical things done.
We are failing to successfully address critical problems we face.
Among many examples: for Republicans, border security and middle class economic opportunity; for Democrats, climate change and social justice; for everyone, healthcare and gun violence.
Why are we dysfunctional?
We’ve become more consumed with defeating each other than with figuring out how to jointly overcome obstacles.
“Polarization” typically refers to people separating over ideological differences. “Partisanship” refers to elevating one’s party’s interests over that of the union. In our frustration with each other, we’ve devolved past “partisan polarization” to contrive a cultural conflict, where “the other side” is seen not simply as different thinking, but as deplorable opponents to be defeated, rather than negotiated with (as we would ideally do within a union).
With respect to ideological polarization, Pew Research has documented the two parties moving apart since 1994, as illustrated by the time sequence shown in this video.1 It shows the distribution of ideologies within each party (blue Dem and red GOP) and how they changed from 1994 – 2014. One can clearly see them growing apart.
But beyond the ideology, more troubling are our scornful perspectives of each other personally. Pew Research found that roughly half of Republicans and Democrats think the other side is straight-up “immoral.” Additionally, 64% and 75%, respectively, think the other side is closed-minded (which is a bit ironic).2 And both of these results were meaningfully worse than three years prior. Immediately after the 2020 election Politico reported that 80% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats believed “People from the other party are RUINING (sic) this country.” Further, 72% and 75%, respectively, reported they were less likely to trust people from the other party.3
This polarization in the electorate is mirrored in the Congress. Political scientists often use the scoring system DW-NOMINATE to plot the relative ideologies of politicians. With UCLA’s Voteview tool we can use DW-NOMINATE to compare, as shown in Figure 1, the ideological distribution of the current 117th Congress (bottom) with that of the 102nd Congress 30 years ago (top).4 Again, blue denotes Democrats, red Republicans. We see that not only have representatives today more fully separated left and right, but remarkably there are no representatives that even approach overlapping each other’s ideologies, whereas in 1992 there were dozens.
However, Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch argues that the conflict is no longer driven by just these ideological issues.5 Indeed, the parties have arguably become ideologically fluid: Democrats are now free-traders and Republicans trade warriors. Democrats are associated with the wealthy in Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, while Republicans champion the concerns of the steel worker and rural farmer. Democrats used to represent the Southern white, now Republicans do. The tension transcends ideology; Rausch argues the conflict has devolved to partisanship for partisanship’s sake. It is what Princeton professor Amy Chua laments as “the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.”6
So, is this bad?
Read on >> How Partisan Polarization hurts the nation
1 “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, June 12, 2014
2 “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal.” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, October 10, 2019
3 “2020 Voter Priorities Survey.” Politico, November 2020. Slide 3.
4 “DW-Nominate Plot > Representatives.” Voteview.com, UCLA Social Sciences Division, Department of Political Science, 2021. You can learn more about DW-NOMINATE on Wikipedia: “NOMINATE (scaling method)“
5 Jonathan Rauch, “Rethinking Polarization“, National Affairs, Fall 2019.
6 Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. New York: Penguin Press, 2018. p. 12.