Political polarization: damaging or valuable?
January 22, 2019
Political polarization encourages people to become educated and engaged
More than ever before, Americans are blaming their dissatisfaction with the current government on the increasing political polarization. In reality, political polarization has shown to contribute to a rise in voter turnout, which leads to a more representative government and satisfied populous.
At its core, political polarization is the division of citizens by their opposing political beliefs. With the extent of radical ideas being passed around in our government today and the amount of divisive social issues represented on the ballot, it’s inevitable that the populous is divided.
A study conducted by Pew Research Center within the last year found that 95% of Republicans are consistently more conservative than the median Democrat, and 97% of Democrats are consistently more liberal than the median Republican. These numbers are up nearly 30% from 2004, providing clear evidence that our polarized nation is only becoming more polarized.
On the flip side, a similar study done by the same organization analyzed the political values of only the Americans that are politically engaged and the results leaned more liberal for both parties than they had in the study done on the broader populous.
Fortunately, the difference in political stance between the general public and the engaged public is decreasing as polarization trends increase, because more Americans are participating in politics by voting.
Take the 2018 midterm election which raked in 113 million voters—or 49% of the eligible voters in America. According to CBS News, 49% is the highest percentage of eligible voters to go to the polls since 1966, and before that, 1914. In fact, the last midterm in 2014 reported only a 36.4% voter turnout.
When politics become as heated as they are in the current American political environment, those who are involved put a lot of pressure on those who aren’t to become educated and get out and vote. Without the persuasion from extreme partisan voters, these people would otherwise remain uninvested in politics. If it is the only thing that pushes people to get involved in politics who wouldn’t otherwise, then polarization is something to work with and not turn away from.
Currently, with only half of our country staying involved and voting, America is being represented poorly. Consistently, the same demographic of Americans is showing up to the polls while the same groups are ignoring them. As shown in the statistics gathered by Pew, there is a considerable difference in the beliefs and values between Americans and Americans who vote. However, if the recent midterm election is any sign of how our government will evolve in the coming years, then America will become increasingly more representative of the people, and more voices will be heard.
At the end of the day, a nation of polarized people is a nation of engaged people. We can’t form a cohesive nation if we don’t have everyone’s voices being heard, and opinions being represented first. Only after mobilizing voters can we start to work towards true cooperation and compromise.
A common complaint and consequence of polarization in government is the presence of gridlock, which typically occurs when Congress is split between two parties, and leads to few laws getting passed. However, putting a hold on the nation is not an entirely negative thing. For example, when the nation settles down, Americans are able to focus on and improve their own economic status without the extreme fluctuation of the economy to distract and hinder them.
In addition, when there is a balance at the national level, both parties are being represented and neither party can control the government against the extreme complaints of the other. Although nothing is getting passed that can improve the nation, no damage is being done to the nation either.
Whether we like it or not, our country has not strayed far enough from the tendencies of the past for polarization to be wiped away. For now, we have to embrace polarization for its mobilization of voters, and wait for the day that enough people are involved in democracy for polarization to change and for the country to be united.
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Hyper-partisanship has turned our nation into a political battlefield
In 2016, the United States saw one of the most politically polarized elections of the 21st century. Disputes were fueled predominantly by party tribalism, easy access to political arguments via social media, and a culture of fear promoted by both Democrats and Republicans. Since President Trump’s victory, political tensions have only increased, leaving America harshly divided against itself as new controversies surface every week. This ever-growing culture of hyper-partisanship harms the stability of America by pitting its citizens against one another and distracting from efforts towards unity.
Political arguments in 2018 are where common sense, respect, and “agree to disagree” mindsets come to die, but why is that? A large part of why the parties can’t seem to get along seems to be due to deeply ingrained partisan identities. A 2018 psychological study by the University of Maryland found that the likelihood of an individual holding negative opinions about the opposite party and distancing themselves socially from others with opposite opinions relies on political party allegiance as opposed to issue-based ideology. Unfair assumptions and stereotypes about Democrats and Republicans have become commonplace in modern political culture as both parties have taken ownership over objective views on controversial issues while the beliefs of individuals have lost value.
America’s current political culture makes it nearly impossible to create friendships across party lines, a problem that has increased almost tenfold in the past 58 years. In 1960, Pew reported that 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats would be upset if a son or daughter married someone from the opposite party. In 2008, the survey was replicated by YouGov and found that the results had jumped to 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats. In 2010, the question was posed again and the results increased to 50 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats. These statistics are an alarming demonstration of the growing political divide between Americans in an era where the United States needs unity more than ever.
Part of the open hostility in today’s environment can be attributed to the comments made by both President Trump and those who oppose him. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, okay? Just knock the hell … I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise,” President Trump said at a rally in Cedar Rapids Feb. 2016, encouraging his supporters to assault protestors of his campaign.
Similarly, U.S Representative Maxine Waters made a public speech June 2018 which called for the harassment of Republican officials. “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” Waters said. This rhetoric furthers American political culture’s descent into chaos and encourages violence in the place of discussion, a dangerous and irresponsible mindset for politicians to promote.
Anger stemming from fear is another reason civility is absent in today’s politics, largely contributed to by campaign ads. In September of 2016, Wesleyan Media Project reported that 53 percent of advertisements that aired during the previous month had been negative and attempted to “appeal to anger.” Minnesotans saw a variety of ads with this flavor leading up to the Midterm Elections on Nov. 6, most notably the attack ads aired by Dean Phillips and Erik Paulsen. “Phillips claims health care is a moral right, but he didn’t provide it to workers at his coffee shop because he said he wouldn’t make money,” the narrator of an Erik Paulsen attack ad targeting Phillips, said. However, this claim was based on outdated information intended only to falsely paint Phillips as hypocritical. In the 21st century, political disputes and elections are no longer about making America a stronger country. Candidates now grapple for power in a sole effort to prove the opposing party wrong, a childish and unproductive use of our government’s resources and time.
To truly bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats, the first values that need to be reinstated are respect and responsibility. Conversations can’t be productive when violence is seen as the logical alternative and lies are a political tool. Until both ends of the political spectrum can place more value on the people that oppose them than the uniform beliefs their party prescribes, unity is impossible in the United States.
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