Americans have entered a state of negative polarization. It’s not so much that we like our own party, we just hate the other because we fear our opponent wants to rule and dominate us. Between 2000 and 2012, people who liked their own party more than they disliked the opposition went from 61 percent to 38 percent, while the number who disliked the opposition more than they liked their own party went from 20 percent to 42 percent. This political extremist environment that hums in the background while we try to engage the opposition has all but ruined political discourse.
Political extremism by itself is not necessarily bad for a nation. On the contrary, extremist ideas have served our country well. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights were, at one moment in our history, extremist ideas. Thankfully with time, endless amounts of work, heroic sacrifice, and too much violence, ideas that were once extreme became mainstream tenets of our culture. But when both political parties flock to the extremes with no common ground in the middle, progress stops, hatred flourishes, and the loss of a common national identity begins.
Political extremism and the hate that follows in its wake come to a head every four years during presidential elections. Presidential election campaigns have shifted from trying to influence independent voters to motivating the base. The reason is simple. There are very few true independents to influence. Surveys report 38 percent of Americans claim they are independent. But when it comes to the presidential race, most voters who identify as independent have already made up their mind. A more accurate number of truly independent voters is likely around 7 percent.
Congressional races have been similar in their focus on motivating the base and mirror presidential races. Today, more than 90 percent of House elections and the vast majority of Senate elections are won by the candidate who is in the same party as the president who carries that district or state. Party loyalty and straight ticket voting has increased so dramatically that even the election of local officials mimics the presidential election outcome. As a result, personalities and voting records matter much less than in the past. The more a congressional candidate walks and talks like the favored presidential candidate in that geographic area, the better the chances of getting elected. Blount County, Alabama, the most politically conservative county in America, is every bit as likely to elect a Republican candidate as Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the most liberal county in America, is to elect a Democratic candidate.
If a congressional incumbent is going to be ousted, the challenger is best served by being more of whatever the incumbent is perceived to be. Challengers to incumbents in Republican congressional races mostly come from the political right of the incumbent, while challengers to incumbents in Democratic congressional races come from the political left of the incumbent. Moderate candidates that used to have an electability advantage over ideological extremists have almost evaporated.
The same polarization holds true of state legislature elections. A generation ago, it was not uncommon for political control in state legislatures to flip back and forth between the parties with more frequency than the Olympic Games. Between 1990 and 2010, control between Republicans and Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives flipped six times. A more moderate national voter base created an environment that was politically flexible and constantly ripe for change.
That is no longer the case. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, red and blue are in, violet is out. Today, only one state (Minnesota) has a legislature that is divided between the two parties. Of the remaining forty-nine, thirty-one are controlled by Republicans and eighteen by Democrats. Thirty-seven states have both houses of the legislature and the governor in the same party, twenty-four Republican and thirteen Democrat, with Democrats dominating the West and Northeast and Republicans dominating in the Southeast and Midwest.
Polarization is not just a phenomenon of the past two decades. We have been sorting ourselves into like-minded communities for a long time. In 1976, less than 25 percent of Americans lived in a county where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, half of all voters lived in landslide counties, and in 2020, it was 58.2 percent. The result is Balkanized communities whose inhabitants find those not in their political camp to be culturally incomprehensible. Americans are now the least likely out of citizens from twelve countries to talk about politics with people holding different worldviews. We prefer the company we keep to be as politically similar to us as possible.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in