On April 24th, a longtime Iowa republican state representative declared that he was leaving the Republican party. In his announcement Representative Andy McKean stated that the republican party had “veered very sharply to the right” and that he would no longer be able “to support the standard-bearer of our party.” McKean’s statement echoes a concern in American politics about the ever growing shift between left and right that is causing deadlock and conflict in the highest reaches of our government. In their book How Democracies Die Levitsky and Ziblatt noted that “Among politically engaged Americans … 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they live in fear of the other party”.  While the separation between right and left grows, populists like Trump take advantage of the fear to chip away at American institutions by capitalizing on that fear of the ‘enemy’. McKean’s actions stand out as a break from the norm of increasing polarization, a reminder of how parties should act when faced with dangerous leadership. The reality however, seems to be that growing divides have weakened the guardrails for democracy, and fear mongering remains on both sides of the ticket.
Polarization is widely seen as a danger to democracy. This is based in rational thought; How can democracy function when segments of the population are so drastically separated from each other that no similarities can be found between them? How can any government hope to administrate to both of those opposing sides? But polarization is not always necessarily an evil. A recent paper by Adrienne LeBas, for instance, argues that political polarization can in ways be “generative” by creating tensions that “result in the crafting of government institutions that decentralize power and improve accountability” or “produce stronger party organizations” which are vital to democracies.  The danger is, of course, when polarization extends past those generative levels and results in a population that would willingly risk their democratic values for ‘victories’ at the polls. Polarization at this level becomes demonizing, where rival parties become enemies rather than simply opponents, and plurality is no longer sustainable. Such a circumstance is certainly not far-fetched, with a paper by Milan Svolik presenting data taken in Venezuela, where it was found a “significant fraction” of citizens in the state were willing to “trade off democratic principles for their partisan interests”.  It is an alarm bell many in the United States have raised as well, with a seemingly unshakable base that Trump continues to pander too, rather than expanding his rhetoric to a larger electorate.
But how far has this polarization progressed? Can the United States hope to remain in that generative phase? Reporting shows that the American populous as a whole remains far more moderate than those they put in office. If parties as the main vector with which to hold populist leaders accountable has failed, what faith can we put on the American people to remain pluralistic and open to the political game? If, for example, the American people as a whole reject or show trepidation to Trump’s rhetoric, it may benefit other republican’s to follow McKay’s example and gain support by dumping the president. While there is some research basis to show that the most extreme or polarizing actions preformed by Trump still elicit majority condemnation, it is hard to say whether the American people will, or even can defend their democracy from their own leaders. For parties to be gatekeepers, citizens must keep them accountable, and for the most part unpopular or deeply partisan, seemingly anti-democratic, actions taken by senators continue to be punished by voters in polling as seen in Maine while Trump still also sees a low approval rating despite his ravenous base. So while polarization in Washington continues to advance, perhaps the story on the ground is less dire. It is yet to be seen if party loyalty will outweigh democratic ideals as has been the case in so many other democracies, and if citizens can keep their parties, and thus their government, accountable. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019. How democracies die. [London]: Penguin. pp. 168
 Svolik, Milan W. “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents” 2018.  Adrienne LeBas, “Can Polarization Be Positive? Conflict and Instiutional Development in Aftica,” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 62 (2018): 59-74, SAGE publications.