Polarization has not only poisoned US politics, but is slowly, steadily poisoning people’s daily lives.
The building strength of partisan antipathy — “negative partisanship” — has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters. Ticket splitting is dying out. But perhaps the most important consequence of the current power of political anger is that there has been a marked decline in the accountability of public officials to the electorate.
How bad is this problem? Political scientists claim “We find that as animosity toward the opposing party has intensified, it has taken on a new role as the prime motivator in partisans’ political lives. The impact of feelings toward the out-party on both vote choice and the decision to participate has increased since 2000; today it is out-group animus rather than in-group favoritism that drives political behavior. One of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate. More than at any time in the post-World War II era, the outcomes of elections below the presidential level reflect the outcomes of presidential elections. As a result, the famous comment by the late Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local” now seems rather quaint. In the 21st century United States, it increasingly appears that all politics is national.”
The practice of voting against rather than for has grown steadily since the 2000 election, but it reached new heights in 2016, when both major party nominees were viewed substantially more negatively than positively.
On Nov. 7, 2016, the day before the election, 58.5 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Donald Trump and 54.4 percent felt the same way about Hillary Clinton, according to RealClearPolitics. Favorable views were 37.5 for Trump and 41.8 percent for Clinton.
In 2012, 33 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans described themselves as angry at the opposing party’s presidential candidate “most of the time” or “just about always.” In 2016, the percentage of Democratic voters who said they were this angry at Trump rose to 73 percent, and the percentage of Republicans with that level of hostility toward Hillary Clinton rose to 66 percent.
From one vantage point, the view of each major party has steadily worsened. As Abramowitz and Webster point out:
The percentage of Americans with favorable opinions of both parties is now the lowest it has been since the American National Election Studies began asking this question in 1978.
Architects of Party Polarization
Conservative Republicans advocated for a partisan realignment that would unite southern whites and northern Republicans. By the 1960s, Democratic-backed national responses to the civil rights movement made many southerners amenable to changes, as large numbers of northern Republican transplants were moving South, and intellectuals fashioned a national conservative agenda that included opposition to aggressive federal civil rights enforcement.
A wave of institutional reforms in the 1970’s provided a new environment for redrawing the lines of ideology and partisanship. Liberals pursued congressional rules changes that empowered party leaders, ended automatic seniority, and made committee chairmanships subject to the vote of the Democratic rank and file. Simultaneously, sweeping reforms of the parties’ presidential nominating procedures shifted control away from party actors and toward outside groups and primary election voters. Both sets of reforms rendered the political system more permeable and responsive to ideological activism. Liberal and conservative activists alike channeled the movements and issues emerging from the tumult of the 1960’s into new base party coalitions.
From the 1980’s on, party adherents sorted out along ideological lines, catalyzing a partisan resurgence that has continued, unabated, into the troubled present.
The ill “fit” between polarized parties and U.S. governing institutions may have to be rectified by institutional changes – such as getting rid of the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster. Of course, ending filibusters is an example of a reform intended to allow partisan majorities to more easily implement their agenda when in power, a change that would accommodate rather than mitigate polarized partisanship. Most Americans resist this kind of accommodation, but the story of the postwar polarizations reveals that there are hard trade-offs between worthy goals in the U.S. system – trade-offs between pragmatic bargaining and coherent policymaking, between clubby elite comity and democratic participation and accountability.
Riding on this way Donald Trump has made polarization into at least as much a social as it is a political phenomenon. This enabled Donald Trump to appeal over the heads of both parties to popular (and populist) resentment against what he calls “the swamp” – widely understood to comprise both an unelected but governing elite and a broad bipartisan consensus among elected officials that belies all their fierce and allegedly polarizing rhetoric.
In response, the scandal-mongering has become so routine that even if Trump were, as he is so often said to be, the most scandalous president in our history, no one not committed to one side or another in the political wars could ever know it, since that kind of claim and counterclaim is just how we do our political business nowadays. If this is where “party responsibility” and “principle” have led us, maybe it’s time for a rethink.
Recent events suggest that a new sense of realism about compromise and bi-partisanship are long overdue. There must be political gain in compromise, not polarization.