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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Kim

A Breakdown of Political Polarization

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Protests in New York erupted against President Trump. Political polarization has pitted opposing parties against each other and divided the nation in unprecedented ways. (Romain Paget/Unsplash)

Political polarization has maintained an overwhelming influence on the realm of politics for a number of years. Strongly related to partisanship, political polarization is essentially defined as “the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes.” In simpler terms, it is the manifestation of division within the political sphere through the creation of factions. Although one may argue that organized opposition is a natural occurrence in society — as it is impossible for humans to agree upon every matter — the mindsets and attitudes encouraged by partisan division continue to degrade Americans’ sense of morality and promote tribalism.

Political Polarization Between Democrats and Republicans

The greatest example of political polarization is the tension between the Democratic and Republican parties. To provide context, Democrats are described as liberal and left leaning, and Republicans as conservative and right leaning. Economically, Democrats believe in progressive taxation (higher taxes for higher income), while Republicans believe the opposite. Socially, Democrats are focused on community and social responsibility, while in contrast, Republican ideals tend to be based on individual rights. Both parties are known to disagree on issues such as abortion, LGBT+ rights, and immigration. The strong differences separating the Democratic and Republican parties have made them especially prone to becoming politically polarized.

According to Pew Research, “Partisan animosity has increased substantially… In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994.” Moreover, Pew Research has determined that “43% of Republicans and 38% of Democrats now view the opposite party in strongly negative terms.” This wave of enmity has only continued to rise.

Polarization in the Public and Political Spheres

Over time, both the American public and its politicians have increasingly identified as members of a political party. One can imagine the effect that this subtle bias would have in government affairs. Frank Newport of Gallup firm reports that, in regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s decision of whether or not to adopt the Impeachment Inquiry Report, “all 13 Democrats on the committee voted ‘Yes’; all nine Republican committee members voted ‘No.’” He discussed how partisanship has also influenced American society as a whole, rather than just our leaders, claiming that political loyalties affect how one views the nation’s healthcare system, economy, and personal outlook on societal circumstances. Further asserting that political polarization has reached an all time high, Newport stated that “the difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ job approval ratings of President Donald Trump was “the largest Gallup has ever measured for a president.”

Shedding light on political polarization in everyday life, Greater Good Magazine offered a clear description of this overlooked phenomenon: “Polarization is about more than just having a different opinion than your neighbor about certain issues. Polarization occurs when we refuse to live next to a neighbor who doesn’t share our politics, or when we won’t send our children to a racially integrated school. The force that empowers polarization is tribalism: clustering ourselves into groups that compete against each other in a zero-sum game where negotiation and compromise are perceived as betrayal…”

As Americans become more invested in politics, a greater understanding of the government is not gained; instead, information is absorbed blindly, without consideration of other political perspectives. Although there are some benefits to partisanship, such as how constant criticism leads to better solutions, becoming partisan to the point of polarization only leads to an increasing rejection of opinions that differ from one’s own. According to Ezra Klein, author of the book Why We’re Polarized, the notion that we’ve “cocooned ourselves into hearing information that only tells us how right we are” is a fear shared by many members of the public. This is a genuine and valid concern. If Democrats and Republicans ignore the opposing party completely, learning from one another and engaging in cooperation will be impossible.

There is a reason why Democrats and Republicans are split down the middle. There is a reason why friends don’t always agree on election results, and there is a reason why disagreements arise. Despite our differences, exploring various perspectives and maintaining an open mind is imperative for the peace and evolution of America.

Two Solutions

The first solution to lessening the antagonism brought about by political polarization is simply to prevent political bias from influencing how we treat others. A study done by Annemarie S. Walter and David P. Redlawsk presented 2000 participants with examples of moral violations done by various actors. The study found that the participants’ responses to the nature of the moral violations did not largely differ, but were largely affected once the political allegiance of the violator was revealed. The study found that “Democrats in the study were prone to giving Democrats a pass; the same was even more true of Republicans.” Political affiliations have become a decisive factor regarding how one judges others. The initial responses of the participating Democrats and Republicans were similar, but were then altered by political bias. In the future, society should focus on reaching compromises through shared goals, rather than engaging in conflict spawned by tribalism.

Another way for opposing parties to reach reconciliation is by viewing issues from the perspective of the opposition. The current mentality associated with partisanship is one similar to “I’m right, you’re wrong.” Hostility between parties has been largely caused by each side believing the other is misguided. Humans have a tendency to champion their personal views as the most correct. However, it is also true that people tend to exclusively follow news or read articles relating to the party they belong to. The power of perspective was highlighted in an experiment that attempted to garner support for issues faced by transgender minorities. According to the study, “a brief exchange exploring a range of issues from the perspective of a trans individual was sufficient to shift people’s attitudes.” Although LGBT+ rights is a controversial topic, hearing from a transgender person was enough to sway opinions. If opposing partisans took time to carefully consider the perspective and the humanity of members of the opposite party, empathy would replace immediate antagonism.

In a country as vast and diverse as America, unity is essential. Political polarization creates conflict and encourages members of opposing parties to despise each other instead of working together. In his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein states that “an identity, once adopted, is harder to change than an opinion. An identity that binds you into a community you care about is costly and painful to abandon, and the mind will go to great lengths to avoid abandoning it.” Polarization will be solved by choosing to be American, not partisan. It will be solved by building toward unity.


Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein


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