Polarization in U.S. Party Politics & What We Can Do

Today’s political climate in the United States is riddled with aggression. If you spend any of your time reading Facebook comments, you’ve probably noticed people attacking each other endlessly over a difference in politics. More often than not the conversation shifts away from any sort of legitimate issue and transitions into personal attacks. People call each other horrible names or attack intelligence, appearance, and spelling and grammar - turning what should be productive dialogue into a form of bullying. Ironically, it often seems that the inside of Congress isn’t much different.

To no surprise, studies conducted by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, indicate that political polarization has dramatically increased in the past two decades. Since the 1990s, the ideological gap between the two dominant political parties in the United States has grown to become a charged conversation of us vs them. While it was previously common for there to be ideas of liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats, the increasing polarization seems to have largely dissolved this: Republicans are conservative, Democrats are liberal, and the two groups seem to be at constant odds.

Pew Research Center’s report highlights key trends that shed light on the ways in which political polarization in the American public has increased since 1994. They reveal that since then, the median political viewpoints have shifted dramatically and those that express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has increased from 10% to 21%. The middle ground between the two parties is shrinking and the increasing number of intense partisans do not merely dislike those from the other party, but believe that they threaten the nation’s well-being.

Further, in light of recent thwarted attacks against prominent political and social figures including former president Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and the corresponding us vs them attitude and combative rhetoric coming out of the White House itself, it is no surprise that aggression and violence has leaked into our everyday life. Additionally, social media and the 24-hour news cycle provide us with more information and news about local, state, and national occurrences than we’ve previously ever had access to, and largely, various interest groups or news sources tend to add to the polarization of happenings in the country. Tensions between the two major political parties seem to become greater each day and with each news story that breaks.

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This conflict prompts a number of questions about the future of American politics and the feasibility of a healthy and functioning democracy. How do we begin to resolve issues while we are busy pitted at each other’s throats? How do we decrease this polarization and overcome our political differences? What can we do to reduce aggression in our political landscape?

Despite all outside stimulus, the single greatest thing we as individuals can do is to take responsibility for our role in contributing to the tension and consciously work to be more open-minded and understanding. The American Interest highlights the habits we individually exhibit which often increase polarization. These behaviors include the tendency to favor binary (either/or) thinking, absolutizing one’s preferred values, always and only looking for evidence that supports your point, relying on deductive logic, assuming the worst of your opponent, and allowing stubbornness to prevent the acceptance of basic facts and evidence. Additionally, it may also be beneficial to research other sides of issues, seek out a variety of news sources, and listen to opposing viewpoints.

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At the end of the day, the partisan divide has no easy solution ─ after all, there’s a reason we don’t all just belong to one political party. Regardless, political differences do not undermine the fact that we are all human beings. We deserve to be respected and we should respect others. This mutual respect is essential to constructive dialogue and understanding, and we need it now more than ever.