Polarization and Elections in America

Hallie Lam, Emily Cohen, Ben Painter, Will Hutchinson

Polarization in American Politics: A Brief Overview

Polarization refers to the “vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives” (Pew) in the United States. A state of extreme polarization would indicate an environment where the public is divided into two camps who agree on little.  There would also be few “mixed” people who do not always agree with one camp on all issues.  Polarization is a destructive trend in America, as polarization leaves little room for compromise that could produce effective legislation.

Perceived polarization vs. actual polarization

Due to a variety of factors, including the media, polarization of choice vs. opinion, and inefficient congress, Americans tend to “overestimate the mean difference between Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitudes.” (http://themonkeycage.org/2013/02/the-exaggeration-of-political-polarization-in-america/). In other words, we (Americans) tend to think that the general public is more polarized than it actually is.  While polarization is a problem, and a growing one, it is important when talking about polarization not to blow the problem out of proportion.


As you can observe in the above graphs, even with a growing gap between liberals and conservatives, a large portion of Americans fall into the “mixed” category.

Danger of Polarization

Unfortunately, the people on either extreme of the political spectrum tend to be more involved in the political process from start to finish. This unequal spread of political participation results in elected officials who are more polarized that the general public.


Political Realignment in the U.S

When referring to partisanship, it is denoting the relationship between the two major political groups that control our government. The birth of the Republican Party came from antimonarchical views thus advocating for a decentralized government. The party was coined as Jeffersonian Republicans after its founding father Thomas Jefferson, who held a strong antislavery stance in the political realm. Questioning the ethics of slavery in politics forced a fissure in the Democratic party, thus creating Northern and Southern Democrats. Southern Democrats, who were proslavery, identified themselves as “the white man’s party” and used this ideology to convince/force all Southern states to have proslavery sentiments; this realigned the South to become the Democratic Party.

Up until the Civil Rights Movement, the South and remained stable as a one-party region. The upheaval started with the DNC’s choice to back Truman in the 1948 presidential race. A candidate likely to succeed due to his stint as Vice President of FDR, he was representative of upholding the same war effort policies during WWII. Backing Truman meant also backing his pro civil-rights ideologies, which unsettled many Southern Democrats and brought political instability to the previously unified region. The Democratic Party directly challenged the disenfranchisement of people of color, so those who previously identified as Southern Democrat had to realign with the Republican Party in order to maintain state autonomy to filibuster the passing of the Civil Rights Act.


How Media Has Affected Polarization

Technological developments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have allowed, or even encouraged, increased polarization among Americans. The large number of cable news networks permit viewers to choose where they get their information. The Internet has an even lower barrier of entry: a wordpress account and an opinion are all you need to start a political blog. We can easily pick and choose what we see and who we interact with, creating a negative feedback loop that only reinforces our previously held beliefs.

The Pew Research Center studied political polarization and media habits and found that liberals and conservatives overlap on very few news sources. For example, respondents who defined their views as consistently conservative overwhelmingly said Fox News was their main news source (47%), while consistent liberals were less centralized and included sources like MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%) more often than less liberal respondents. The figure below illustrates the number and range of news sources and shows that many news sources skew highly left or right and therefore have audiences that follow suit.


The study also examined the role of polarization in social media: 47% of consistently conservative respondents said that the political posts they see on Facebook mostly or always align with their own views, while 44% of consistently liberal respondents said that they have blocked, unfriended, or unfollowed someone because they disagreed with what that person posted about politics. These statistics further demonstrate how political polarization is exacerbated by the myriad options and freedoms that have come with changes in mass and social media.

How Polarization and Partisanship Will Shape the Future of Politics

The Republican party is in free fall right now. Trump has lost support of long term Republicans among others, and has spoken out against the party in recent weeks. The Democrats on the other hand have a well-established candidate in Hillary, who in turn boasts a favorability rate of 42%. Because of the two weak candidates, voters are showing more anti-republican and anti-democratic support rather than support for the candidates themselves. This anti-party rhetoric shows the true polarization of the nation.

Theoretically, if the nation wants to vote party over person in the presidential elections from now on, because candidates aren’t favorable enough, what does that mean for the future of political parties and polarization in American politics? Currently, the bulk of the Republican Party is made up of upper class and white evangelicals typically from the South and Midwest. Democrats on the other hand, are typically made up of minorities and young educated populations. Party affiliation is dramatically changing and will continue to shift towards these groups.

But how will this shape the future of parties? The GOP has a very narrow constituency and it will prove to be damaging if Hillary wins, meaning there will be 12 straight years of a Democrat president. FWD.us (http://www.fwd.us/gopfuture ) used census and voter data to show the trends of past and future elections to display what the electoral college will look like if the demographics of each party do not change.



These may only be forecasts, but it is clear that the GOP is in danger and a major party realignment is in store within the next election cycle and will shape the future of American politics and partisanship.












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