Dr. Democracy Diagnoses America

February 10th, 2021

By: Christopher Egan, Karina Zybaczynski


- Good morning, Miss America, I’m glad that you could make this appointment. What was the condition you had? Ah yes, I have it right here. A slight heart attack? It might be because of that drug you took a few years back. You seem to have had a violent reaction to it. I’ll see what I can do.

- Yes, that’s right, doctor. Yes, what I took four years ago did not help my condition, but I feel as though there’s something much deeper at work.

- You might be right, America. Let me see. Here are the symptoms of your recent insurrection: populism, right-wing protestors in your heart’s upper chambers, and the recent switch of your head of state. Only a brief reaction. I hope it will be spirited away quickly. But I think we need to address the more fundamental problems of your malaise.

“The political and social centre [is] more barren than at any time in memory” (Wall Street Journal, 2019). This is not a ground-breaking statement, though, from a distance, it feels exaggerated and desperately profound. Nonetheless, it is difficult to contradict. Furthermore, it is commonplace to assert that “America has reached record-high levels of polarisation, and is now excessively polarised” (Heltzel & Laurin, 2020). The effects of such polarisation have been considered to be extensive, self-reinforcing and dangerous to democracy; this will be explored shortly. But first, it would be prudent to address the nature of such polarisation and exactly how the world’s oldest democracy has reached this point.

Literature Review, or, “America’s Malaise of Bipolarity”

Polarisation in the American population is indeed one split precisely down the aisle of Congress. Although it is often characterized as such, I would argue that it is hardly as simple as that. In 2010, Abramowitz presented evidence from compiled American National Election Studies (ANES) from 1984 to 2008. His analysis demonstrated that Americans with higher levels of political engagement were more likely to take “consistently liberal or consistently conservative positions”, with engagement being defined as political activity in the layman voter. For example placing signs in front gardens, attempting to convince acquaintances to vote for their party, campaigning. It was found that the most politically engaged citizens had the greatest level of polarisation in their political views. Whilst puzzling, this is not entirely groundbreaking - it seems somewhat logical that those most engaged in politics might also happen to be those most fervent in their beliefs, and that this would lead to greater political polarisation in the category of politically engaged citizens due to the lack of a centrist political party and ideology; the American political arena presents a dichotomous choice for citizens quite dissimilar to European political systems which typically offer mainstream centrist parties such as the German Free Democratic Party. While it should be acknowledged that the Libertarian Party in the US offers a more central alternative, it is not a credible threat to the current hegemony for its novelty and lack of ideological appetite from the population.

Abramowitz further stipulates that Americans are not just ideologically polarised, but that there is a great deal of consistency between the ideological polarisation of the politically engaged electorate and the political positions taken up by the parties. Thus there is a great deal of “partisan-ideological polarisation”; because politically engaged citizens are ideologically polarised, both political parties are stimulated to value the perspectives of the politically engaged more than politically disengaged. Consequently, the ideologies of both the Republican and Democratic parties are highly correspondent to the ideologies of the politically engaged segments of the electorate. Thus, while the Democrats may take a broadly more liberal stance than Republicans, their ideology is not definitively liberal nor progressive but composite. Similarly, Republicans have a broadly conservative ideology but are classically liberal in their approaches to governance; the GOP was recently swayed by the Tea Party which vivaciously advocated for limited government before the pandemic. As such, ideology in the traditional sense is non-existent in the touted ideology of each party. It is rather more accurate to say that Republicans and Democrats both advocate for highly antagonistic broad-church ideologies that cannot be simply defined as a battle between modern liberals and progressives against conservatives. The voters are offered either a Republican ideology which was recently manifested as populist-nationalist Trumpism or a Democrat ideology - modern liberal-progressivism. Ideology in the traditional sense is expressed in the numerous factions of the parties. Thus, voters are unlikely to describe themselves as liberals or conservatives but rather as Republicans or Democrats. This is significant for understanding why the electorate is highly polarised - politically-engaged voters forge their party affiliation through ideology. The more politically engaged the citizen, the more likely they are to align their entire ideology with their chosen party. Abramowitz’s evidence empirically demonstrates this partisan-ideological consistency.

The implications of this are grave. Increasing education levels have led to greater coherence in ideological preferences in the American electorate; the number of university graduates has steadily increased from 4.6% to 43.5% of the voting-age population from 1940 to 2015 (United States Census Bureau [USCB], 2015; USCB, 2017). College graduates are more likely to be politically engaged, more aware of their ideological position than non-college graduates (ANES, 2004), which leads to greater uniformity of their view on separate issues. Ideological polarization increases as views on certain topics reinforce each other to produce an overall consistent ideology. With this, as the education levels of the population rise, so too the level of polarization in the electorate.

Polarization can also be viewed as partly stemming from the rise of identity politics in recent years. It is notable that as partisan-ideological identities have become more closely aligned, there has been a convergence of other social identities with partisanship (Iyengar, Lelkes, Levendusky, Malhotra & Westwood, 2019). It has been further stipulated that the proportion of the population displaying “cross-cutting identities”, namely the tendency of an individual to display contrasting identity characteristics has been in decline and has contributed greatly to polarisation as individuals are less likely now to display empathetic characteristics towards the values of the opposing party and become more hostile to them (Mason, 2014; Mason, 2018).

Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that social media fuels polarization by creating the space for outrageous and political content to be firstly posted and then amplified and spread, leading citizens’ perceptions of their ideological opponents to be shaped by abnormally extreme outliers whose voices are projected most vociferously. (Wilson, Parker & Feinberg, 2020).

The FOX News phenomenon can be viewed as one of the most prominent cases of political polarization in American society. Since its creation, some say that FOX News has served as an effective method of propaganda for the Republican Party. It is a platform almost exclusively used by Republicans to further their agendas and swing the public opinion against their competition, FOX acts as a catalyst of polarization in the age of social media. This kind of political marketing is particularly effective in the context of the deep schism between society and government: as some lost their faith in the president during the challenging times of the pandemic, others found comfort in the information supplied by some arguably biased news stations. Behavioural psychologists have found that the tendency of people to take information from their close friends and acquaintances for granted is one of the root causes of rampant polarization in society. (Waldroff, 2021)

Social media has further catalyzed the chain reaction caused by the innate tendency of people not to question information that they would like to be true. Before social media, only some influential individuals could express opinions that would be taken into account; now, the online medium has facilitated the access of nearly 60% of the world population to express their own opinions and exchange ideas with others (mainly those with similar ideas and views). This particularly unique chance of having access to both sides of an argument wasn’t seen as the blessing it could have been; instead, people are now more polarized than ever. Taking a look at voter patterns since the 1950s, it is obvious that society has fundamentally pivoted as a direct result of the internet, social media and, most importantly, news channels, becoming irreversibly polarized, as some argue.

The Effects of Polarization in the Electorate, or, “E Pluribus, Varia”

The effects of polarization are severely detrimental to the stability of the American political system, though that is an understatement. Extensive political polarization, as can be seen in the current US electorate, has increased the likelihood that ideological conflicts will be expressed in the political sphere now, one might be inclined to assert that ideological conflicts characterize the political sphere; there is little compromise between the parties, and can even lead to democratic erosion (Arbatli & Rosenberg, 2020). Furthermore, the likelihood of political conflict increases exponentially with increases in political polarization. This has come to influence representatives of the parties themselves: in order to win the greatest number of votes, they must appeal to their core party supporters rather than just moderate swing voters. With a highly polarized electorate, this requires politicians to drift away from the centrist portions of their party and to the ideological extremes - both parties have exhibited this trait, with Republicans ostensibly increasing the conservative-nationalist rhetoric of their ideology, and in the popularity of more left-wing Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who both featured prominently in last year’s primaries. Therefore, it can be suggested that political polarization in the electorate leads to the polarization of both parties.

Trump exemplified this quality to the greatest extent with his push of the Republican ideology to the populist-nationalist extreme. With his isolationist targeting of the Evangelical, highly conservative, right-wing vote which aimed to stimulate the MAGA vote as well as his portrayal of Biden as a left-wing socialist candidate to attract the Latino-Cuban vote. It is clear that Trump played upon the polarizations of the electorate in 2020 in his attempt to win a second term. Trump’s encouragement of the far right-wing of the Republican party conceivably pushed the party’s ideology to unprecedented, populist levels. Trump’s rhetoric undoubtedly had some influence in causing the Capitol riot. But it is not the whole story. The Capitol riot is emblematic of an extreme segment of a mainstream political movement refusing to accept the victory of the opposition and highlights the political divisions and conflict between the parties. These political divisions are resultant from the growing partisan-ideological polarization of the electorate which has helped influence a socio-political environment where, for politically engaged citizens, there is a fundamental, irreconcilable, disjunction between one’s ideology and that of the opposition. This is demonstrated by the fact that 27% of registered Democrats and 36% of Republicans believe the opposition to be a “threat to the nation’s wellbeing” (Pew Research Centre, 2014).

The American population is more polarized than ever, and this is leading to the creation of two antagonistic political paradigms in the politically engaged electorate. Political conflict is rising, and there seems to be no way out of this positive feedback loop. Perhaps the hope rests with a Biden presidency that achieves some form of bipartisan progress. Else, America will remain E Pluribus, Varia.

-So, Dr. Democracy, will I ever heal?

It’s difficult to say, but with polarization still on an ascending trend, it is unlikely that anything Dr. Democracy is going to prescribe will act as something more than a band-aid on the problems deeply rooted in society itself. Nationalism, populism, polarisation all stem from the choices each and every one of us makes. Historically, climates of increasing division have proven themselves to be the perfect breeding grounds for extremism. So, unless Dr. Democracy finds the miracle panacea to cure America’s malaise, the next adverse reaction might be even more grave. Should the world’s oldest democracy rethink its place in the world as the global defender of justice and accept that it may not be able to even protect itself?

References

Websites

How America Became a Nation Divided

Polarization in America: two possible futures

Polarization in the contemporary political and media landscape

The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States

Healing the political divide

Worldwide digital population as of October 2020

Polarization

Books

Abramowitz, A. (2010). ‘The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy’. New Haven, London, Yale University Press.

American National Election Studies, (2004) ‘Time Series Study’

Mason, L. (2014, March) ‘I disrespectfully agree: the differential effects of partisan sorting on social and issue polarization.’ American Journal of Political Science. Volume 59, Issue 1.

Mason, L., (2018). Lilliana Mason. ‘Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.’ University of Chicago Press.

United States Census Bureau (2015) ‘Educational Attainment in the United States, 1940 to 2000: Tables’

United States Census Bureau (2017, March), ‘Educational Attainment in the United States: 2016’

Arbatli, E., & Rosenberg, D. (2020). ‘United we stand, divided we rule: how political polarization erodes democracy.’ Democratization.

Pew Research Centre, ‘Political Polarization in the American Public’, June 12, 2014