Texas House of Representatives candidate Jessica Gonzalez, running for District 104, seemed to be an excellent political candidate. I had the opportunity to attend one of her campaign events, and was impressed with what I saw and heard. She was running in an open primary against incumbent Roberto Alonzo, who has been criticized for doing little to help his constituents with his opportunity in office. Even before the event, in the context of democracy promotion, I was extremely excited. Ms. Gonzalez is a lawyer and has considerable experience in protecting voter rights and combating voter suppression. At the event, I was impressed further: almost all of the policies she supported aligned with my own beliefs and explicitly avowed her support for democratic values: equality, opportunity, fairness for all. However, as I got over my excitement at a candidate that I felt would help combat potential democratic erosion, I found myself worrying that she was promoting polarization, and thus a potential for democratic erosion.
Ms. Gonzalez often promised that she would work with fellow Democrats, not against them. This was presumably a reference to incumbent Alonzo working with Republicans to prevent a bill that would have potentially helped provide affordable housing to some in the district. That seemed a reasonable enough statement on its own, but her repetition and emphasis that she would work with Democrats, without a mention of any attempts at bipartisanship or compromise concerned me somewhat. After the event, I went home and looked over her campaign website once again. On the home page of the website, you can find the belief that: “Extremist Republicans have taken hold of our government in Austin. It is time for a champion who will stand up to the bullies in Austin on behalf of all families in House District 104.” And honestly, that notion greatly appeals to me and my partisan sensibilities. I am a progressive Democrat, and strongly disagree with a large number of Republican views, stances, and policy choices, as much as one can generalize. However, we cannot simply allow partisan rivalries and tribalism rule over how we conduct politics and make decisions, no matter how tempting it may be. If we cannot accept our partisan opponents’ views as in any way legitimate or backed by reason, we risk significant polarization, which can have significant negative effects.
The first, and most obvious, potential consequence of polarization is the shrinking of space available to compromise. As the ideal policy positions of either side drift further and further away from each other, the possibility of any overlap in policy that both sides are comfortable with dwindles. In addition, as Barber and McCarty note, increased polarization increases the incentives to “engage in brinkmanship in bargaining and negotiation,” as the potential movement towards one’s own ideal policy position increases, thus inhibiting even the relatively few compromises still available. The lack of ability to compromise can also lead to the majority party simply advancing legislation without input from the minority party, meaning that the minority party has little to no input on the legislation. One might accept that as a consequence of our majoritarian system, but in the 2016 presidential race, 43.24% of Texans voted for Secretary Clinton. One might suggest that the 2016 presidential election was unique and may not accurately reflect the partisan division of the state. However, it is likely that at least 40% of Texans are Democrats or lean that way: should we be comfortable leaving such a large proportion of people essentially without meaningful representation and input on legislation?
While the potential for polarization to limit effective legislation are worrying, the potential for polarization to potentially lead directly to democratic erosion may be more worrying still. In an extremely polarized society, the consequences for your partisan opponent to gain power are huge, as their policies are extremely far from your ideal policy preference. That is, if you are far-left, and your only alternative is far-right, you will be extremely unwilling to vote for your partisan opponent, and vice versa. Svolik cautions that “In a sharply polarized electorate, a signiﬁcant fraction of the incumbent’s supporters will be willing to sacriﬁce fair, democratic competition in favor of reelecting an incumbent who champions their interests.” That is, if the perceived disutility that voting for one’s (pro-democracy) political opponent would bring is higher than the perceived disutility of voting for the (anti-democracy) candidate of one’s own party, then voters will accept restrictions on democracy. The perceived disutility that voting for one’s political opponent brings increases with polarization. Thus, polarization can lead to voters knowingly, willingly selecting a candidate that will undermine democracy, because the alternative in a highly polarized society is simply too painful. It seems quite likely that the majority of a democratic society values society, and Svolik presents data that support that assumption. However, the citizenry and its support for democracy may not be as able to act as a deterrent against anti-democratic practices in a very polarized society. I do not mean to suggest that Ms. Gonzalez is intentionally stoking partisanship to lead to polarization to allow her to implement anti-democratic practices. However, given the potentially extremely deleterious consequences of polarization for democracy, we must combat it wherever and whenever we can.