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A House Divided: Political Polarization in America

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“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

-Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858.

Why I Chose This Topic

Political polarization is a problem that pervades the United States’ system of government to its very core. The two main parties, Democrats and Republicans, have had starkly contrasting ideals since the beginning of the government itself. I would like to reveal why contrasting beliefs in government are now becoming a problem. I am interested in learning more about the current and historical reasons this problem exists, because as an American citizen, the nation’s politics directly affect the way I and my community live.

First we need to establish that political polarization is, in fact, a problem. And to do that we need to establish that it exists. Evidence shows that recent elections have caused many people in America to believe political divide within the government hinders its productivity: “in February 2013, Americans said by nearly 4-1 that the heightened division is a bad thing because it makes it harder to get things done” (Page and Breitman). That poll was taken during Barack Obama’s presidency, when there was a 67% approval gap (Tyson). Furthermore, “The Pew Research Center found last year for the first time that the gap between Republicans and Democrats dwarfed gaps between people of different races, genders, religions and education levels” (Peters). Extreme political divide hinders the American government’s general ability to govern, and thus has evolved into a critical issue. It has existed in America ever since the two parties originally emerged, and it has only worsened in the Trump era. I will go more in depth into these time frames below.

Why I Chose This Topic

What it is, and Why You Should Care

Political polarization in America refers to the decreasing ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans. In the best possible scenario, differing opinions drive advancement, which leads to a happier majority. However, as the divide between parties grows, the overall productivity of the government has been decreasing and will continue to slow. Partisanship within the United States government is at record highs, leading to many disagreements between parties, which in turn is limiting the government’s productivity. Never before have Republicans and Democrats seen this much divide regarding president approval ratings. As of November 14, 2018, only 7% of Democrats approve of president Donald Trump’s job performance, a far cry from the 84% of Republicans. To put this 77% approval gap into perspective, President Ronald Reagan had a 52% approval gap and G.H.W. Bush had a 38% gap. (Tyson). Evidence can also be found in recent events, such as the December 22, 2018-January 25, 2019 five week government shutdown. The shutdown happened because Trump demanded $5.7 billion to build a wall between the United States and Mexico; however, Democrats in congress vehemently refused to authorize the funds. Trump refused to sign the 2019 government budget without them. The Antideficiency Act prohibits federal spending without a passed budget, which made Trump declare the shutdown on December 22, 2018. On January 25, 2019, he announced that the government would reopen until February 15th. Both parties passed a negotiated bill for the 2019 budget on February 14 that finally reopened the government. This clearly revealed the problem with the massive intragovernmental divide, as almost all productivity ceased during these 35 days (Power Post). Extreme political divide hinders the American government’s general ability to govern, and has become a massive issue that is only worsening.

Although all hope may seem lost, partisan conflict is not an unsolvable problem; many people are actively trying to create solutions. One such person is Michael Tomasky, author of the book: If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved, published on February 5th, 2019. In it he addresses the historical causes for America’s partisan conflicts, and how to solve the problem. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan news source, also has numerous reputable articles on the topic. Furthermore, “two congressional scholars from opposite political poles–Thomas Mann… and Norman Ornstein,”(Farina) have published numerous articles explaining the causes and solutions to the US government’s partisanship. Their data showed a dramatic uptick in polarization, mostly caused by the sharp rightward move of the GOP” (Mann and Ornstein, “Let’s Just Say it: the Republicans are the Problem). Their book, It’s Even Worse Than it Looks, further illustrates their opinions and provides solutions to America’s partisanship. It won’t be easy, but political polarization is not an unsolvable problem.

What it is, and Why You Should Care

Divided Since the Very Beginning

It was 1796 when the two-party system first emerged in the run for president. Even from the very beginning, the Federalist party’s and Democratic-Republican party’s ideals and platforms were complete opposites–which left little room for compromise (Ushistory.org). Therefore, people would naturally agree with most ideals in one of either, but never some in both.

America’s civil war was largely a result of the growing partisan divide. Disagreements between parties about the ethics of slavery, the nation’s economic future, government spending, and the national bank sprouted into war in 1860. This was because 11 southern states seceded after president Lincoln’s inauguration. After four years of fighting, Lincoln instituted a process called Reconstruction to rebuild the South and admit the seceded states back into the union. It also forced them into cooperation with the North, at least in congress. After Reconstruction (but not necessarily because of it), political polarization gradually decreased.

Another resurgence in political polarization occurred in 1890-1910. Here the parties disagreed on whether to “facilitate the growth of the industrial economy or protect the shrinking rural, agrarian economy”(Brady and Han, quoted in Walker). The divide today most closely resembles this one, because like then, today’s is caused by “economic and moral issues”(Walker). There was a forty year long stretch of bipartisanship after the 1930s, partly because other issues like race took a backseat during World War II (1939-1945). America saw mass ideological unification during this time, caused by the significant international threat (Ugarte). This period of respite was ended in the 1970s, and “polarization on Capitol Hill has increased dramatically since [then]”(Ugarte). The parties’ gradual separation was largely caused by the world’s growing access to media (Walker). “News stories exaggerate the intensity of our political warfare because acrimony and strident rhetoric make good copy, whereas footage of people getting along or reaching consensus doesn’t sell”(Nivola). Anger between parties would naturally increase because of the nature of American media.

The current growing intragovernmental partisanship is largely due to the same reasons present in the 1800s: an inherent divide between the political parties’ ideals. Obama’s election was the most polarized since the 1960s (DeSilver). During his presidency, “88 percent of Democrats approve[d] of the his job performance, but only 15 percent of Republicans d[id]” (“The Polarizing President”). Donald Trump’s platform supported racism and argued that there should be fewer immigrants, while Hillary Clinton’s did the exact opposite (“Issues Archive”). There was no middle ground, leaving both parties with staunchly different ideals.

Divided Since the Very Beginning


How You Can Reduce Political Polarization

Macro Solutions
There haven’t been many attempts to solve political polarization, although many have identified it. I will concede that it is a complex problem, and one caused by many variables, but a solution isn’t as out of reach as it might seem. First, let me clarify what a good “solution” would be. Political polarization will never completely go away, due to the United States’ two-party system of government. This is a good thing; our government needs multiple viewpoints to make correct decisions about laws and policies. Making choices that benefit the majority of the nation is near impossible without multiple perspectives. The objective should simply be to reduce political polarization. Taking small steps is a great way to do so, and is also completely within the realm of the average citizen. Large problems don’t always call for large solutions.

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein propose three large-scale solutions: converting votes into seats, restoring majority rule in the senate, and expanding the electorate (Mann and Ornstein).

Converting votes into seats would greatly reduce partisan conflict. Independent commissions drawing congressional district lines would greatly lessen gerrymandering. “Unusually small margins now make the difference between winning or losing the presidency, the House, or the Senate. With so much riding on marginal changes in political support, it is not surprising to see both sides battling to gain an edge by whatever means are deemed effective”(Nivola). This creates anger between the parties, a primary cause of political polarization. Another solution is to implement instant runoff voting (electorates can rank the candidates), which would ensure that every vote counts. “Building more legitimate majorities in this fashion could extend the electoral reach of the major parties and thereby reduce their polarization”(Mann and Ornstein).

Restoring majority rule in the senate is another possible solution. Mann and Ornstein believe that “restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action on issues of great national import–and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction–should be a top priority. Senate rules should allow only one filibuster on any bill (now there can be two or more)”. This will work because it will “allow… true majorities to ultimately prevail,” while also “finding a way to allow a minority to offer a respectable number of relevant amendments on most bills” (Mann and Ornstein).

Lastly, expanding the electorate “could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle”(Mann and Ornstein). One way to achieve this is by implementing a fine for choosing not to vote; Australia has already found success with this method.

Micro Solutions
Many of these solutions require the creation of a new law. Although it may seem daunting, proposing a new bill (an unpassed law) to an individual’s local, state, or federal representatives is something anyone can do. After this simple task, the law is out of their hands, and will go through a complex process that decides its ratification (USAGov). Individuals can also lobby for the passage of bills during the ratification process. Sure, political polarization is a very large problem, but a solution isn’t as far away as it may seem.

How You Can Reduce Political Polarization

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Bibliography

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If you have any feedback to give me, or solutions that you would like to suggest (that I have not covered), please do so in the comments below.

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COMMENTS: 2
  1. April 28, 2019 by Jalen.Evans

    I really the organization of this page. Very informative and aesthetically pleasing. Do you think simply eliminating the party system altogether would be a viable (albeit ambitious) solution?

  2. April 28, 2019 by Christopher.Tam

    I really liked the color scheme of the page, and it was interesting to learn that this was always a problem, all the way back to the 1700s. However, I don’t quite understand what you mean by “converting votes into seats”. Could you clarify a bit on this?

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