In the midst of a rapidly changing global political landscape, the United States has experienced increased polarization of political parties and ideologies. Differing political opinions is a core component of democracy. However, increasing distance between political parties in the United States today has surpassed party mobilization and is nearing a dangerous era of democratic backsliding and political gridlock.
What is Polarization?
In the context of politics, polarization generally refers to ideological differences and the process by which these differences increase over time. In theory, these differences are used to fulfill varying political expectations within a democratic system (Slater, 2016). However, political scientists have redefined polarization to represent, “a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’” (McCoy, 2018). This sense of distance within a political system creates a dynamic of intergroup conflict, leaving democracies vulnerable to gridlock and in more serious cases – collapse.
The threat of polarization is rooted in the movement of party identity from issue-based differences into an entire social identity. When opinions are united under a single identity or faction, as they are in the American political party system, members of that faction are likely to question the legitimacy of rival factions, or the “other” (McCoy, 2018). By grouping rivaling factions into different social identities, members then perceive each other as a threat to their own ideals. This in turn manifests itself as distrust towards opposing political parties and candidates. This breakdown of trust within a political system threatens the potential for political compromise, leading to gridlock. In worse-case scenarios, political gridlock can completely paralyze a government, resulting in the breakdown of government institutions (McCoy, 2018).
The effects of polarization are already impacting American government institutions.
As the United States political party system becomes increasingly more polarized, it is quickly approaching the dramatic effects of extreme polarization on democracy. As of 2014, the Pew Research Center reports that 36% of Republicans and 27% of democrats view their rival party as a threat to the nation’s well-being (Pew Research Center, 2014). The growing sense of distrust within the American party system has already begun showing its effects within U.S. government institutions.
Examples of gridlock within Congress have been prevalent throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. As reported by The Washington Post, open feuds broke out between democrats and republicans over relief packages. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke to the matter, stating, “Why can’t they come to an agreement? We don’t have shared values. That’s just the way it is. So it’s not bickering. It’s standing our ground. We’re trying to find common ground.” This statement directly reflects gridlock within Congress brought on by a polarized party system.
Gridlock in Congress does not come without consequences. Analytical company GALLUP reports that as of February of this year, 75% of Americans disapprove of Congress. Congressional approval ratings have been on a steady decline since the start of the 21st century. That is, as polarization increases within the United States, the public perceives congress to be less and less successful.
Democratic erosion is a domino effect of polarization. As the public’s faith in government institutions dwindles, democracies are more vulnerable to democratic backsliding. Polarized perceptions of the government result in undemocratic practices by both government supporters and opposition parties. Under the “Us versus Them” rhetoric of polarization, government supporters are more likely to tolerate illiberal practices within government institutions, while opposition groups are encouraged to use undemocratic means to express opposition (McCoy, 2018). The United States has experienced increasing disparities between political parties. As American political identity becomes more intertwined with social identity, the threat of democratic erosion becomes much more real for American democracy.