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How Political Polarization Affects the Fabric of American Society

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

Since the beginning of the establishment of the United States, political parties have been the norm in how we decide the style of leadership we want in our country. Back in the year 1787, we had the Articles of Confederation, which was essentially the first written constitution that our nation had. It was flawed in that it didn’t bestow enough authority to the federal leadership, creating a very weak central government. To advocate the need for a new constitution, a series of essays were published, The Federalist Papers, under the pen name Publius, which was composed of Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. 

James Madison specifically wrote the Federalist No. 10, which warned of the dangers of the development of factions and the threat that they imposed on society and, in turn, in the development of the nation as a democracy. In modern times, these factions mainly refer to political parties, and even though they have been around since the beginning of American politics, some say that never in the history of this country have they been as divisive as they are in the present day. This is a separation that not only affects the legislation in the policies that are implemented, but also us, the citizens, and how we see and interpret the world around us.

Cherry blossoms with Jefferson Memorial in the background
Photo by Library of Congress from Unsplash

But, if we were warned of the risks over 200 years ago, then why are we in such a polarized political climate on the current day? 

In 1950, the American Political Science Association published a report titled Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System, which promoted more established party labels with the pretext that the positions of each party were too loose and often overlapped. It might have been then that the beginning of American polarization began and how through the years, in combination with other factors, political parties evolved to what we know them as today. 

The problem that we are facing currently is that political partisanship affects more than just who is elected to the legislature. It is continually affecting the lives of Americans in that people are so increasingly uprooted in their partisan beliefs that some no longer give thought to who their party is nominating for elected offices, but merely the fact that the nominee belongs to their preferred political party. This can be reflected in recent politics, as the United States as a country does not have very defined stances on certain issues, but rather has defined stances as a country based on what party is in office at the given moment. For example, while President Barack Obama was in office, he attempted for almost his entire presidency to reach the agreement that would result in the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015, only for the United States to pull out of it in 2018 through the term when our current president, President Donald Trump, took office. Likewise, in 2003 President George Bush sent troops to be stationed in Iraq, a conflict that was ended by President Obama in 2011. 

The same concept can be observed in more contemporary times with the upcoming election. The Democratic nominee promises to work on a new healthcare system while the Republican incumbent has different priorities. These seem to be contradictory, for every time a president of a different political party from that of the incumbent has reached office, he attempts to change positions in key issues. Now, it’s important to note that these distinctions could be based on the individual president, but the notable observation of these differing actions is party alignment. 

As Ezra Klein analyzes in his book Why We Are Polarized, he poses this issue as a question of identity politics, which talks about how we are becoming more and more aligned to our political identities, and that as this occurs, political parties become more polarized themselves to appeal to the polarized public. Klein goes on to explain that by taking political identity and making it a part of our characters, we are “blinding ourselves in a bid for political advantage. We are left searching in vain for what we refuse to allow ourselves to see.” Proposing that as we let politics shape us, we are consequently losing sight of the greater picture as to why we need government in the first place, which is to protect us and our individual issues as generally identified in the social contract, and not just in terms of partisan identities. Thus, Klein suggests that citizens are so uprooted in their sentiments that they are growing disconnected from the characteristics that as a whole make Americans from being so divided by their personal partisan agendas. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

James Madison warned us about the dangers of factions in American society, and today we can clearly see what he meant when he expressed this. Since way back then, people like him knew that this country had the potential of doing incredible things for itself and the world, and today we can appreciate that. Partisanship in the United States is a real issue that some agree deserves a more substantial conversation to be had. Until then, we must continue to rely on partisanship and continue to register to vote, and each partake in democracy this November. 

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Cynthia is a senior working toward obtaining a degree in International Relations, and two minors in Geography and Economics from Florida State University. She loves to watch historical documentaries, read, and cook in her spare time. You can also find her outside exploring nature or inside spending time with family and friends, and occasionally imagining a life in the South of France.
Her Campus at Florida State University.