Polarization is certainly a commonly cited cause of why the current governmental system and Congress seem to be unable to get anything substantial done. There are countless news stories about the subject with titles such as “Is America Hopelessly Polarized, or Just Allergic to Politics?” and “Don’t blame our polarized politics on the voters. Blame it on who runs for office” published in The New York Times and The Washington Post respectively within the last month. There is always disagreement in politics, but many argue in today’s political world, there are irreconcilable differences between the two parties that prevent them from agreeing on much of anything. Congress has been gridlocked and, as a result, has been unable to address the needs of its citizens in many areas in a rapidly changing world. For example, Congress has been unable to pass significant legislation to address a costly and ineffective healthcare market and address the student debt crisis. For these reasons, among others, polarization represents a significant threat to American democracy.
There have always been extremists in politics both in America and around the world, whose politics exist outside of the political mainstream. Milan Svolik argues, based on results from a survey experiment in Venezuela, that voters would rather have an anti-democratic politician whose policies they agree with rather than a fair, pro-democratic candidate. This is certainly a worrying finding for the future of democracy around the world. Focusing on the U.S., both parties have shifted away from the middle and embraced more ideologically opposed positions and policies. Although it can be argued the Republican Party shifted further right than the Democratic Party, in the last few years the Democratic Party has experienced a left-ward shift due to the popularity of an increasingly progressive policy agenda. The rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and self-described “democratic socialist” movement energized by Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign in 2016 highlight this trend. However, polarization is not always a hindrance to democracy and can actually be productive. Adrienne LeBas argues that polarization can “produce tension that can result in the creation of government institutions that decentralize power and improve accountability” and “creates incentives for office-seeking elites to build stronger and more durable structures for the mobilization of their base constituencies”. In short, polarization can lead to a competitive balance that results in the creation of democratic institutions to both engage voters and effectively accomplish actions in government.
Polarization has currently changed the discourse on politics in America. For example, President Trump has advocated for a hardline immigration agenda while Medicare for All has become a common rallying cry among progressive Democrats, neither of which were widely accepted by the mainstream establishment of the party only a few years ago. Although the causes of polarization are currently debated with several theories put forward by political scientists, the effects caused by this trend are apparent. Having disagreements between citizens and politicians expressed through polarization by itself is not a problem; however, it becomes a problem when support for democracy comes as a cost for support of polarized policies and politics.
U.S. citizens’ approval of Congress reached 40% several times from 1975 until 2008 and rarely dipped below 30% while in the more recent polls hovers around 20%. This erosion of Congressional approval can be connected to Congress’ perceived inability to accomplish much of anything. Therefore, as the government continues to function ineffectively, people could become disenchanted with American democracy and begin to favor other systems. As shown through Svolik’s work, people could prioritize particular policies they support over democratic principles and institutions. Populist politicians further drive the polarization in framing the “people” vs “the corrupt” elite” in a “Us” against “Them” narrative per Müller’s definition of populism. Regardless of whether or not Trump is a formal “populist” per Müller definition, one can make the argument that he has populist leanings and polarization has gotten worse in American politics since his election. This trend does not appear to be turning in the other direction and it certainly does not look like the negative effects of polarization will get much better in the near future.
Polarization, in its current form, is both a threat to functional government and the strength of American democracy. The democratic institutions created by the Constitution provide a framework, but the fate of American democracy ultimately rests in the hands of the American people and the representatives we elect to lead the country. If we as a country prioritize our own policies over democracy, per Svolik’s findings, I argue that polarization might lead to the dysfunction and decay of American democracy due to eroded public support. Therefore, both political parties can have very different policy viewpoints but must prioritize the preservation of democracy as a working and effective concept above all else. In the long-run, if American government remains ineffective and unable to address the needs of citizens due to continued polarization then perceptions of democracy may become eroded beyond the point of repair and people will start turning towards other systems. As was shown in the case of Venezuela, when support for democracy declines, populist authoritarian-leaning leaders can come to power posing a large threat to the country. Hugo Chávez rode a wave of populism to power in 1999 that saw the erosion of Venezuelan democracy that had existed since the foundation of the Fourth Republic in 1958. It becomes paramount that no matter how far apart political parties may drift on policy issues, they must remain steadfast in their commitment to both democracy and accomplishing their policy goals through the democratic process. Once popular support for democracy erodes as a price for win-at-all-cost politics, then it could be very hard to go back once the damage is done.
 Svolik, Milan. 2017. \When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conict andthe Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents.”
 LeBas, Adrienne. 2018. \Can Polarization Be Positive? Conict and Institutional De-velopment in Africa.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 59-74.
 Müller, Jan-Werner, 2016. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press. Chapter 1
Photo by Wikimedia Commons, “Trump & Clinton”, Creative Commons Zero license.