An article published in the Economist titled “Feeling Out Left,” which discussed the increasing number of Democrats that self-identify as ‘liberal,’ presents copious amounts of evidence that suggests that the Democratic party is facing increased polarization, like its counterpart, the Republican party. In it, the article quotes statistics to say “According to the newest figures from the General Social Survey (gss), a long-running poll from the University of Chicago, 54% of Democrats describe themselves with the L word. In 1974, when the gss first asked the question, only 32% did.” While the article did a great job explaining the results of the increasing polarization, it failed to identify the causes. I argue that both sides of the aisle are experiencing increased polarization due to increasing conflict and the reward system associated with party affiliation.
In Katherine Cramer’s book The Politics of Resentment, she argues that the increasing conflict across the aisle is caused by isolation, 0-sum politics, and an overall lack of objective judgment. Both sides are subject to creating echo chambers of sorts by refusing to discuss and debate topics with the other side. Instead, the echo chamber is created when a group of like-minded individuals discusses ideas with no contestation or no corrective elements. This isolation of homogeneous parties does not allow for critical thinking or analysis, as John Stuart Mill argues in his essay On Liberty that the freedom of expression and contestation is vital for society to discover the truth, by permitting the marketplace of ideas.
Along with isolation, the 0-sum game present in American politics incites increased conflict. In a congressional race, for example, it doesn’t matter if the votes are tallied and the winner is separated by a one-vote margin, that political party will win that congressional seat, not allowing for the other 49% that lives in the state to be represented. The winner and loser mentality in the winner-take-all voting system primes polarization because both sides will try their hardest to vote only for democrats or vote only for republicans because ‘we can’t afford to let one of them into power.’
Finally, a lack of objective judgment shows cause for concern. As demonstrated in Bartles’ and Achen’s article “Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Droughts, Floods, and Shark Attacks,” American voters tend to blame the government for problems out of their control, such as the Shark Attacks in New Jersey. Because voters couldn’t understand that there was nothing the government could do to curtail the shark attacks, they acted without objective judgement in Eisenhower’s reelection. This scapegoating of the current administration shows the subjectivity of the average American voter.
When an American decides to be affiliated with one party, they view it is a transaction. The opportunity cost is the potential polarizing stance makes friends and family upset, yet the rewards reaped is group mentality, heuristics, and the social capital gained. These rewards often times outweigh the costs and are a key piece in increasing polarization.
The group mentality is best highlighted in the experiment described in the book Uncivilized Society: How Politics Became Our Identity. The experiment, designed by Muzafer Sherif, was meant to study the effects of artificial group affiliation and the resulting contestation. When the two warring groups of boys became further immersed in the group mentality, the resulting contestation was raiding the other’s camp, throwing rocks and stones, and calling the other group of boys derogatory names. Even though the groups the boys rallied behind were artificial and arbitrary, the groupthink that resulted set an important precedent when researching group mentality.
By affiliating with a political party, a person is granted the heuristics, or small sound bites that act as shortcuts to information. For example, when someone asks a conservative where the highest amount of drug trafficking is, their response is a heuristic, “across the southern border.” In actuality, the major drugs are taken through ports. Nonetheless, with the access to heuristics, it increases polarization by reinforcing the echo chamber. There is no ability to submit ideas to the marketplace of ideas if the only information given is false or predicated short-cuts. Because of these easily digestible pieces of information, the pursuit of truth is even harder to complete.
The last major reward gained when joining a particular political party is the social capital gained. For example, in the book Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild details the attitude of rural white America. They feel cheated that they are being ‘cut in line’ to the American Dream with programs created to help minorities, such as Affirmative Action. The ‘Us’ Vs. ‘Them’ mentality that is created with rural consciousness means that by joining ‘us’ your social capital increases. You are automatically treated as one of the hard workers of America, not the free loaders. When a person joins a political party, they reap the reward of having an increased positive image within their community.
These two major facilitators of increasing polarization have the potential to change the path of U.S. party affiliation forever. Returning to the article, more than 50% of Democrats identify as liberal, the second most polarizing option in the party. That alone shows cause for concern. However, as discussed in class, survey results show that people are more likely to not identify with a political party than to identify with their own. Not only that, with our political party becoming part of our identity, voting has become simplified.
As shown by the chart above, people in political parties are more likely to vote for a candidate simply based on their party affiliation, not platform.
When the United States’ political climate is poisoned by increasing polarization due to increasing competition and the new rewards associated with each party, the constituents have no choice but to change the political parties forever. In order to have their voices heard, the parties must become more polarized, actively playing into the democratic erosion present in the U.S. without a drastic change in our future, this could be the first event of many that causes the collapse of America’s Liberal Democracy.