By Elias Norin
The United States is more polarized today than it has been for decades. This year’s massive protests against racism, and the longest government shutdown in history in 2018 are some recent indicators that something has gone wrong. Even though polarization has surged under Trump, it’s by no means a new phenomenon. The division between Americans has only grown larger over the last 40 to 50 years, and with an upcoming presidential election that’s already permeated by drama and uncertainty, America as a unified country faces a worrisome future.
The antipathy between liberals and conservatives grew in intensity during Barack Obama’s time in office. When he was elected president, 230 years had passed since the ratification of the U.S constitution. During that period, opposition parties had blocked a total of 68 presidential nominees. During Obama’s first four years, Republicans blocked 79 of his presidential nominees.
Looking at presidential approval ratings between the two major parties indicate a deepened division within the public. Data from Pew Research Center show that an average of 49 percent of the opposition party members approved of both president Eisenhower and president Kennedy. For Obama, the percentage was 14 percent. For Trump it’s 6 percent.
This polarization is also evident in the private sphere. A recent survey showed that over 42 percent of both Republicans and Democrats view the other party as not just worse for politics–they are “downright evil”. That’s over 48 million voters saying their fellow Americans are a part of something evil. The results get uglier when the question turns to political violence: “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans said “a little” to “a lot” of violence would be justified.
The United States relies heavily on bipartisan compromises due to its political structure. This is why this extraordinary partisanship is so worrying. More government shutdowns, political gridlock and violence can be expected if this trend continues to grow.
How did it come to this point? Political polarization has not always been this strong. The period after World War Two is sometimes referred to as the era of “consensus politics” in the United States. The economy was booming and the U.S had become the new superpower of the world. The self-esteem of the country was on a high.
From the 1960’s and the 1970’s, things changed. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, Watergate, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King — were some of the events that set the trend of polarization in motion.
It has to be acknowledged that America’s poisoned history regarding slavery is still very much alive today. Up until 1964, it was legal to discriminate against Blacks. About 90 million people living in the U.S today were alive when it was still legal. This conflict did not magically disappear with the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Many political scientists partly explain Trump’s election to office as a response to racial hatred towards Obama. Race has been, and continues to be, a major fault line in the American public and is a key to understand the polarized America.
Partisan cable news also seems to increase polarization. In a study comparing polarization in the U.S with eight other countries since the 1970s, the authors found that it had grown much more rapidly in America. In the countries where polarization had declined, public broadcasting received more public funding than it did in America, where there has been a rise of 24-hour partisan cable news, primarily through Fox News.
Is there a remedy for the divided United States? First of all, a new leader has to come into office. Trump isn’t only leading a polarized country — he’s using polarization as his main weapon. However, Trump leaving won’t be enough. Polarization didn’t arise overnight and it won’t go away quickly either. A reconstruction of the political system has become necessary.
There is hope in the non-extreme part of the electorate. A 2016 survey showed that those who are extremely ideological in their views make up only a third of the electorate but are twice as likely to be involved in politics and vote in primaries, compared to more pragmatic citizens. The key here is to encourage the other two-thirds to make an impact. If it’s easier to make an impact, more pragmatic citizens will engage in politics and vote. This would have an effect on what type of politicians Americans elect. Presumably, there would be more moderates and fewer Trumps.
The question is how? The U.S is notorious for its exclusionary voting system, which is reflected in voter turnout. In presidential elections, it’s usually around 60 percent, and in midterm elections it’s about 40 percent. Putting an end to gerrymandering would be a good first step. Drawing political boundaries to give the ruling party an unfair advantage is an insult to voters, since it’s a way of picking voters instead of voters picking politicians. A more controversial suggestion is to ditch the “first past the post” system. This system makes it almost impossible for third parties to have political influence. Letting more parties compete for voters could force the Democrats and the Republicans to become less extreme, to avoid losing voters to other parties.
Finally, there is hope in the demographic shift. Projections from earlier this year show that a majority of the under-18 population would be non-white in 2020. And this shift is only accelerating. In the 2040’s, the majority of the whole population is expected to be non-white. Since minorities tend to vote blue, the Republican party has to adapt if it’s looking to survive. This also goes for partisan cable news, like Fox News, which depends on its viewers to survive financially. A future where no party could benefit from marginalizing minorities doesn’t seem to be far away. And wouldn’t that be a nice catalyst for depolarization?
Illustration: Sonja Nordman
Elias Norin studies political science at Uppsala University. He is a big fan of sitting at cafés on a Sunday afternoon, and enjoys a game of football almost as much as an intriguing conversation with a good friend. In terms of writing, his favorite topics are human behavior and lifestyle, preferably related to politics.