DISCLAIMER: This article is the opinion of the author and is not intended to reflect the opinions of Lumination Network.

Moderation is disappearing in the American political landscape. Over the past twenty years, there has been a continual shift or reoccurring trend in the politics of the everyday citizen where viewpoints across the partisan spectrum have started to become less and less varied. In turn, many citizens are slowly pulling away from the opposing side and becoming more self-contained within their preferred party. The middle ground we used to find between the parties is being swallowed up by a more radical wave stemming from both sides of the issue.

This trend, often referred to as political polarization, paints a potentially bleak future of American politics as both parties continue to become more and more enveloped in their own views. The rise of polarization has had an inverse effect on compromise as these like-minded bubbles often breed little criticism, which opens the way for more extreme views to be adopted. The ideas put out by politicians keep getting more and more radical because we as a society allow them to.

In many instances, polarization is furthered by the everyday people you associate with. A majority of people say that their friends and family share similar if not identical viewpoints to theirs. The Overton Window is a political theory that defines the boundaries for what stances a politician can take and still be elected. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy states that “The [Overton] window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.” The public then acts as a test to see how far ideas can be pushed on a federal level. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that an attitude of intolerance has already begun to creep into more common and mainstream levels of discussion, whether that be forums on social media or on college campuses. If this trend continues uninterrupted or unchallenged, the default public attitude could very well be to live in contempt for our fellow citizens who are on the other end of the aisle, leading to a not-so-United States.  

From the years 1994-2014, the PEW Research Center has surveyed and collected data contributing towards its extensive study on political polarization. What this survey has uncovered is that the separation between what the study calls median Democrats and median Republicans has doubled, and there is now very little overlap between the two sides. Today, “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”

While not yet a majority, there is also a growing number of the politically active that are becoming more ideologically consistent. In fact, those who play a more present role in politics seem to be especially impacted by political polarization. At the time of the most recent survey, “almost four-in-ten (38%) politically engaged Democrats are consistent liberals, up from just 8% in 1994. The change among Republicans since then appears less dramatic – 33% express consistently conservative views, up from 23% in the midst of the 1994 ‘Republican Revolution.’ But a decade ago, just 10% of politically engaged Republicans had across-the-board conservative attitudes.”

As a result of the politically active starting to confine themselves to their own values, they also hold the most disdain for the other side. This is what the PEW Research Center calls “a rising tide of antipathy.” The survey found that “36% of Republicans and Republican leaners say that Democratic policies threaten the nation, while 27% of Democrats and Democratic leaners view GOP policies in equally stark terms . . . This kind of hostility toward the opposing party is strongly related to political participation and activism. For example, 54% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats who have made campaign donations in the past two years describe the other political party as a threat to the nation. In other words, those who arguably have the greatest impact on politics are most likely to have strongly negative feelings toward the opposing party.” Each affected side is now being influenced by a larger number of people with like-minded ideas and policies, which has a negative effect on citizens who aren’t as involved in the political realm and at the same time share views closer to center. These views are overshadowed and are becoming less represented by the parties they choose to vote for.

Therefore, we can see in the state of the nation and in the statistics that polarization is having unhealthy effects on our democracy; thus, it should be imperative to try and find the origin. If there can be an understanding as to how polarization began to develop, perhaps we can then make a more educated diagnosis in order to stop the bleeding. At this point, it is worth pointing out that ending polarization does not equal an end to disagreement. Rather, polarization is a kind of snowball effect that is derived from ideological intolerance. We by nature will always have our differences and will never be completely like-minded. Differences, however, aren’t inherently negative, as they contribute conversation and diversity to our worldviews.

David French, a senior writer for the National Review, has identified one primary cause for polarization that continues to make waves in both the federal and social levels. This cause is called centralization, which is the redistribution of power from the states to the federal government. This move for centralization was largely created because of several crises that impacted the United States and pushed people to favor more government control. French writes, “What we stitched together in response to an unusual one-two-three punch of American history (the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War) during a period of extraordinary Democratic political dominance is now straining under its own colossal weight. It’s not responsive to a nation that lacks a mortal threat to its existence, and it’s incompatible with a population that is using the combination of geographic mobility and technological flexibility to wall itself off in increasingly cocooned and polarized communities.”

Now that we’ve entered a sort of grace period by comparison, our frustrations with the political system and the influence of the President have only been magnified. Centralization leads to the President and ruling party having too much power. Policies established by the previous party can be wiped away by the party that follows, which leads to unrest among the American people, because it detracts from the impact of their vote and helps fuel the propaganda that their vote doesn’t matter. This idea of fraudulent democracy disincentivizes the less politically inclined, making it easier for the politically active to have more of a say. It also creates an attitude of political bitterness, and from this bitterness stems a feeling of disrespect for the other side.

In response we expand the Overton Window and become more polarized because if we can push as far to one side as possible, maybe the other side won’t be able to wipe out all of the progress once they get their turn. Therefore, we no longer seek compromise; we seek a win condition, where we can outdo what we view as the incorrect political ideology. Typically, the opposite sides would attract discussion and argumentation between themselves. But now the two sides have become so far removed, they no longer hold that same pull.

There’s a general misconception out there about the overall function of government. Each side selfishly asserts that the purest form of their policy is the most correct; however, oftentimes not only is that unrealistic to implement, but a true solution could also be found in the middle. The actual destiny for government is dysfunction and gridlock — like many things, in order for political growth to occur, there needs to be conflict. True government is not a free-flowing stream of one-sided policies; it is a struggle to make decisions that represent the overall population and diversity of ideas. For that reason, in order to slow the effects of polarization, we need to begin the process of decentralization and return the power from the federal level to the states.

Photo credit: Macieklew [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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