Political Polarization in America

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Just south of Big Ten territory, deep in America’s Heartland, yet another race for statewide office in Missouri came to a heated close two weeks ago as Republican Josh Hawley soundly defeated incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill after a late surge sparked by multiple visits from President Trump. While any displacement of an incumbent should warrant some interest in a region’s political climate, what’s most concerning about Senator McCaskill’s loss is that she was one of the upper chamber’s most notable moderates - a dying breed as politics grow ever more partisan, a trend that gained traction in the House and has since pervaded all levels of government. But how and why has political polarization grown so much and what can be done to mitigate its damaging effect on elections and legislation?


Partisanism has long been a force in American politics, dating back to the early days of the Republic as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists battled Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans for control of the young nation. In the days between, the country has witnessed instances of greater partisanism, notably during the passage of the New Deal and invasion of Korea, two defining points for American domestic and foreign policy, and lesser partisanism as the Vietnam War wound down during the Nixon years when much of the country shared the common goal of withdrawal. Almost a century beforehand, in 1861, tensions over slavery, states rights and expansion would take precedence over partisanism as both sides lost members amidst Southern secession. Regardless, there had always been a number of Congressmen near the center of the political spectrum, open to crossing party lines for the benefit of their constituency or even just to please large donors. This all changed as Southern Democrats began to dwindle in number and the party took a noticeable leftward shift in 1984 - a year in which President Reagan would win all but one state in the electoral college and 59% of the popular vote. Republicans had traditionally been more uniformly conservative in their views but one can clearly see a major shift to the right almost a decade later between the elections of 1992 and 1994, the latter of which would propel Newt Gingrich to Speaker of the House and ended the forty year Democratic majority in the lower chamber.

 bigthink.com - Congressional polarization from 1949 through 2011

bigthink.com - Congressional polarization from 1949 through 2011


As of January 3rd, 2019, the United States will again have a split Legislature, made all the more interesting by the surge of populism at the outer ends of both parties, further expanding the chasm between them. If not for the alt-right and Democratic Socialists, one could actually be somewhat optimistic that productive legislation, such as reigning in defense spending and a long-term plan to address the national debt, could come out of this. But is there a chance that elected officials may be dragged back closer to the center? One may wishfully think so in proposing that the principle of regression toward the mean could apply to politics, as The Economist did in 2010, but it remains unlikely as there is an ever lingering fear of someone from the populist fringes of society challenging the incumbent in a primary and attacking them as pro-establishment and a puppet of corporate America, as happened during Dave Brat and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upsets of Eric Cantor and Joe Crowley, respectively.


Before digging deeper into the dangers of political polarization, it’s necessary to ask what the value of moderate politicians is in the first place. In the context of history, most Americans have actually been quite moderate up until the rise of social media gave a disproportionately large voice to the unsophisticated masses and eccentric but unrefined individuals like President Trump and Representative Maxine Waters, both of whom have eschewed traditional statesmanship in favor of weaponizing the volatile emotions of their respective followers against each other. According to Gallup, Congressional disapproval averaged 49% during the Ford and Carter administrations of the mid to late ‘70s, before the parties had entirely polarized, but averaged 67% between 2012 and 2018 as the Tea Party and alt-right divided the GOP and socialism gained traction within Democratic ranks. It sits at 73% as of October 2018. So not only would greater moderation amongst elected officials better represent the electorate, it could also promote amicable relations between elected officials which will presumably lead to legislation that satisfies more parties and people with vested interests in it. Additionally, the risk of reckless legislation passing is significantly reduced, especially that which concerns increases in non-innovative defense spending or idealistic but fiscally irresponsible programs like free college tuition and open borders.


If rapid improvement is the goal, then the most reasonable solution to polarization would be to put an end to partisan gerrymandering. While limiting fundraising and campaign spending would allow a greater number and variety of candidates to run for office, it would also require the passage of a 28th Amendment, a formidable task for any legislature. This was enforced by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for communications by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions, and other associations. In his dissent, Justice Stevens stated that “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold” - an opinion echoed by many in the electorate but supported by few of the elected.


On November 6th, Colorado, Michigan and Missouri all passed measures that will rely on nonpartisan systems to determine Congressional and Legislative districts in the future. This will prevent ruling parties from selectively drawing and carving districts to preserve incumbents - a practice both parties are guilty of but in which the GOP has been devastatingly effective. In 2012, Republican candidates won 53% of the vote but 72% of Congressional seats in which they redrew the map. A relatively immediate effect of widely adopted nonpartisan redistricting is that fringe candidates will likely be filtered out early as the race left and rightward that has come to define the last two primary seasons will be marginally slowed and hopefully even reversed. What must happen next is the widespread adoption of similar policy which would guarantee greater fairness to aspiring Congressmen and women in all 50 states rather than allowing incumbents to further entrench themselves in artificially safe districts.


Ultimately, it is essential that the collective will of the electorate be reflected in the partisan composition of legislatures. The issue of polarization is far too large and complex for gerrymandering reform alone to fix, but it would be an excellent start. Residential self-sorting - liberal cities and conservative suburbs, to generalize, the primary process and the selection of Congressional leadership all contribute to falling trust in political institutions in an era where public confidence in government is already at a crisis point and the continued practice of partisan boundary drawing will only continue to enforce this spiral downward into further chaos. Realize that every empire, whether it be Roman, Ottoman, British or countless others, once thought themselves invincible, too. It is at the hands of lazy or incompetent leadership that almost all have fallen, and it is disheartening to think that the United States, which has overcome a devastating Civil War and two World Wars, been the first to put a man on the moon and become the greatest economic force the world has ever known, could fall victim to the personal ambitions of amoral officials who identify more closely with their party than with the country itself.