Politics is polarized in America. That fact is no shock to anyone who follows the news. But people often don’t know what that means.
Polarized politics does not mean that the two major political parties take opposing views on the major issues of the day. That is simply typical of democratic politics in general. And it’s desirable; we want a robust debate over important issues.
Issues Used to Divide
Polarized politics actually means that public opinion in the United States is sorting into two large political camps that do not overlap very much. We used to see more diverse points of view within the Democratic and Republican parties. Republican politicians and the party faithful sometimes agreed with Democratic politicians and partisans (especially southern conservatives) on key issues—and vice versa. Such occasional overlap allowed for compromises between the parties to emerge. We have seen the parties compromise recently over infrastructure, but that is relatively rare in this age of polarization.
The political incentives today push politicians to make every national issue a wedge that further pushes American citizens to one camp or another. These incentives are boosted by powerful cultural forces that act like political steroids. These include information “silos” involving social media, cable news and our sorted neighborhoods and friend groups, religious sorting that concentrates Republicans in culturally conservative white evangelical churches and non-religious people and minorities in the Democratic party; and a revived populism that gives voice to a large group of disgruntled Americans who blame the nation’s powerful elites for their economic woes and cultural discomfort.
Scientific Evidence Viewed Through Political Lens
The nation’s COVID response is now caught up in our toxic polarized politics. Vaccines and masks are not seen as apolitical solutions to an apolitical, technical problem that needs to be solved by experts and technocrats. No, scientific evidence is now seen through partisan lenses allowing both sides to claim scientific backing for their political preferences. Vaccines and masks are thus seen either as tools of an authoritarian government bent on undermining the freedoms of ordinary American citizens, or key fixes that must be mandated for all Americans in an effort to defeat a powerful natural enemy. Masks, especially, become visible symbols of your political loyalties, making it socially difficulty to either wear or not wear masks in certain settings.
In the end, it all comes down to the erosion of trust among Americans of all political persuasions in our institutions: Congress, the courts, law enforcement, election officials, churches, universities, the press, and many others. Most of all we have lost trust in our fellow citizens, especially if they admit loyalty to the enemy political party. Democracy doesn’t work well when citizens distrust one another. In fact, extreme polarization results in elections becoming the very battlefields they were designed to replace—as happened in this country in 1861.
American democracy needs a revival of local groups—churches, swim teams, charities, etc.—that bring people of different political loyalties together in common cause. If we do that, we might save democracy by learning, once again, to trust—even love—our enemies.
Professor of Politics and International Affairs