Table of Contents
It is evident even to the most casual observers that the American political arena is increasingly riddled with partisan conflicts. The political polarization has intensified over the past two decades, and it is set to deteriorate if no significant interventions are made on time. There is a growing discontent and animosity between the opposing ideological camps, so they cannot cooperate in the meaningful ways to promote the welfare of the U.S. citizens. The days when the Republicans and Democrats could share a meal, laugh together, and even co-sponsor a major legislative bill now seem to be in the distant past. This paper discovers the aspects and consequences of contemporary political polarization in the USA, diagnosing its possible solutions. The analysis indicates that the core reasons for the amplified political polarization in the USA are the increased ideological consistency and the growing contempt the opposing ideological sides have for each other.
Increased ideological consistency is one of the primary reasons attributable for the increased contemporary political polarization in America. The political leaders and the electorate gradually shift either to the far left or to the far right of the ideological continuum (Noel, 2015). The percentage of the U.S. citizens on the extreme ends of the political spectrum grows rather quickly. For instance, in 1994, the total percentage of those in the two extreme ends of the spectrum constituted only 10% of the politically active persons (Berman, 2016). The proportion of the people who upheld consistently liberal or consistently conservative views had grown to over 21% by 2014, signifying an augmented shift towards the ideological extremes (Farina, 2015). The implication is that it is now hard for people holding opposing political views to agree even on the issues that are not extremely contentious. It is even harder for them to reach amicable resolutions for the controversial issues such as abortion, the use of contraception, gun laws, and immigration among others.
Furthermore, the ideological overlap that has been the mainstay of American politics also wanes quickly. The implication is that the part of the populace with mixed ideological views diminishes and the minority groups that hold consistent political views only grow. A research study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 established that in 1994, the percentage of Republicans that were to the right of the median Democrat was 64%; the percentage had grown to 92% by 2014, indicating increasing conservativeness (Pew Research Center, 2014). The same trend was witnessed among the Democrats. In 1994, the percentage of Democrats that were to the left of the median Republican was 70%; by 2014, the percentage had grown to 94%, indicating increasing liberal sentiments among the Democrats (Pew Research Center, 2014). The effect of the polarization is that the ideological overlap diminishes while the two extreme hardliner groups grow.
The primary cause of the ideological swing is undoubtedly the close aligning of the ideological thinking with partisanship. Americans no longer interrogate the substance of the issues but rather take the ideal positions of their ideological leanings (Hare & Poole, 2014). Eventually, the mostly-liberals gravitate towards the consistently-liberals’ front, while the mostly-conservative people transform into the consistently-conservative ones. In the long-run, the increased ideological consistency promotes the development of ideological silos. Both the liberals and conservatives assume a hardline stance when discoursing on matters of national importance. They are also keen to surround themselves with persons of similar political sentiments.
The second primary reason attributable to the growing political polarization in America is the mounting political disdain that the two sides of the political divide have for each other. The contempt intensifies and it may spiral out of control if not addressed soon (Theriault, 2015). The period between 1994 and 2014 has seen the gravity of partisan animosity more than double. Not only do Americans of distinct political leanings differ with the views of their opponents, but they also strongly feel that their opponents are a threat to the national wellbeing (Shor, 2015). They increasingly hold negative views about the policies advanced by the opposite side of the divide and they are keen to discredit those policies.
While the disliking of the opposing party has been ongoing for decades, the passion, with which the disliking is currently being expressed, is what exacerbates the contemporary political polarization of American society. Three decades ago, there were many instances when the Republicans and Democrats could sustain amicable partisan relations. They still had unfavorable opinions of each other’s party, but there were no hostile estimations (Farina, 2015). For instance, two decades ago, nearly 80% of the Republicans had unfavorable impressions of the Democratic Party (Pew Research Center, 2014). However, only 17% of the Republicans felt quite strongly that the Democratic Party misled its followers (Pew Research Center, 2014). The percentage of hostile sentiments towards the Democratic Party from Republicans has since leaped to 43% (Hare & Poole, 2014). A similar trend is evident across the political divide. Two decades ago, nearly 75% of the Democrats had unfavorable impressions of the Republican Party, but only 16% had hostile sentiments about it (Pew Research Center, 2014). However, the relations have quickly deteriorated; nowadays, 38% of the Democrats hold very unfavorable views regarding the GOP (Pew Research Center, 2014). The hostility between the Republicans and Democrats strengthens as political contests intensify.
The escalating partisan antipathy may be attributed to the deteriorating state of the U.S. economy. Each side strongly feels that the opposite camp of the political divide does not do enough when it is in power. The Democratic Party was hugely critical of the Bush administration, and to date, it still blames it for the economic recession experienced at the tail end of the past decade (Shor, 2015). It also blames the Republican Party for the many challenges President Obama had faced when he assumed the Oval Office. The Republican Party, on its part, also increasingly shows dissatisfaction with most of the Obama policies, terming them as ineffective. The sentiment that the other party does not have the wherewithal to improve the welfare of the U.S. citizens exacerbates partisanship and animosity between the republicans and democrats, in the process intensifying the already dire political polarization.
One of the most notable consequences of the intensifying political polarization is the increasing gridlock on Capitol Hill. There are more and more stalemates in the political negotiations between the Obama administration and the leaders of the Republican Party in Congress. Their partisan approaches to tackling important national issues undermine the attainment of optimal outcomes that bestow maximum benefits to American citizenry (Theriault, 2015). The gridlock, for instance, has caused a government shutdown, a stall in debt ceiling negotiations, and even the passing of the jobs bills. Ultimately, American citizens suffer the adverse effects of the indifference and callousness of their partisan leaders.
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Nevertheless, numerous possible interventions can be implemented to reduce the extensive polarization itself or its adverse political effects. One of the solutions that may prove effective is changing the Congressional redistricting system to level the playing ground for all political aspirants (Berman, 2016). The intention here would be to make it possible even for the ideological non-extremists to secure representative seats and neutralize the intensive contemporary polarization. Even though the redistricting process varies from state to state, their underlying feature is that they are often explicitly partisan. The party in power structures the system in such a way that it favors the incumbent party making it hard for a change to take place. The implication is that the chosen leaders profess ideological extremes and represent only a homogenous electorate (Farina, 2015). There is only an outside chance that a moderate candidate is elected. The Congressional redistricting reforms will ensure the adoption of bipartisan redistricting commissions that are fair to the moderates and other people of mixed political ideologies (Shor, 2015). It will enable a shift back to the center of the ideology spectrum, thereby reducing political polarization.
Another possible solution is promoting the participation of the less ideologically extreme people. In most instances, the most passionate of the electorates, who also happen to be the most partisan, are the ones who participate in the electoral processes (Noel, 2015). Perhaps, the moderates are increasingly apathetic to the American politics because the Republican and the Democratic parties are too powerful. These groups of extremely partisan voters choose equally partisan political candidates who, in turn, legislate partisan policies, consequently intensifying the polarization (Hare & Poole, 2014). Encouraging the participation of the less ideologically extreme candidates should effectively dilute partisan sentiments and policies. The best tactic to promote the inclusion of the people at the center of the ideological spectrum would be to make participating in the electoral processes compulsory (Berman, 2016). However, it is prudent to note that although pragmatic, it may be a difficult move to implement.
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It is evident that there is intensifying political polarization in the USA. The schism manifests itself in the form of the increased ideological consistency and the growing contempt of the opposite parties towards each other. Americans progressively gravitate towards the liberal and conservative extremes. The number of Americans who hold overlapping ideological views shrinks quickly, intensifying the gap in the already divided political realm. Furthermore, the republicans and democrats also progressively detest the policies of their rival parties as the partisan animosity deepens. Changing the Congressional redistricting system and encouraging the participation of the ideologically neutral candidates in the political processes are some of the potential solutions that may address the contemporary polarization. Addressing the polarization crisis would enhance bipartisanship and political collaborations between the Republicans and Democrats for the benefit of the American citizens.