Political polarization is one of the great challenges of our time because of the distance between the parties. For example, it is not uncommon for two-thirds of Republicans to favor one view, while two-thirds of Democrats prefer the opposite. This is true both on domestic and foreign policies.
The chasm that exists between Republicans and Democrats as well as liberals and conservatives makes it difficult for elected officials to engage in the compromise and negotiation that is vital to conflict resolution. It is hard to reconcile differing viewpoints when each side has its own facts and the policy gulf is so wide.
Huge gaps based on partisanship also pose dangers for democracy because they breed extremism and intolerance and make it difficult to have civil dialogue. Shrillness is typical when policy discussions are based on strong divisions.
For these reasons, we need to revive moderation as a central element in American politics. It is a way to strengthen our democracy, rebuild our societal glue, and promote meaningful substantive debate over major issues. It would help in political problem-solving and make it easier to address pressing national and international difficulties.
Failure to move in this direction will risk extreme policies. People will drift further apart, it will be impossible to solve policy challenges, and national discussions will intensify conflict and push people away from each other.
The country has not always been as polarized as it is today. In the 1950s, for example, more than half of the members of the U.S. Congress were moderate in their voting records. Many legislators routinely supported legislation from the other party and were willing to negotiate their differences in order to get bills enacted.
Jump forward to today and that no longer is the case. The percentage of House members who are moderate in their voting records is below five percent. It is hard to find moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats who vote with the opposing party. Instead, party and ideological divisions have hardened and made compromise look like selling out to the opposition and having no principles.
The current divide has unfolded over a long period of time and for a range of different reasons. Everything from economic disparities, news media coverage, technological change, and cultural values has intensified differences. As an illustration, the country’s prosperity is divided between the coasts and the heartland. A Brookings Metropolitan Policy program analysis has shown only 15 percent of America’s counties generate 64 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Far too many people are being left behind, and they are upset with the status quo and willing to support unconventional politicians who promise to shake things up.
News coverage has contributed to the political divisions as well. There is information segregation with each side having its own perspectives, and that prevents people from having reasonable discussions and taking steps to resolve tensions. Social media play a role in fueling extremism because it is easy to find like-minded people online and perspectives that echo one’s existing viewpoints. That is especially the case with opinions that are outside the political mainstream.
Disagreements over cultural values represent another part of the problem. There are major divisions between rural and urban areas as well as between people of differing educational attainments over religious liberty, personal lifestyles, and social issues. Unlike economic issues, where contesting parties sometimes can split the differences, it is hard to compromise on questions of fundamental values. Conflict over those types of issues can get quite intense and be impossible to reconcile.
Determining how to encourage bargaining and compromise involves addressing the current incentives politicians have to move to the extremes and fight the other side. One cannot make progress on political moderation without understanding the root causes of polarization and what can be done to address the sources of discontent.
One of the keys to the contemporary polarization is an electoral system and news media that rewards strong and uncompromising stances. For example, most American elections feature relatively low voter turnout. At the presidential level, only around 55 to 60 percent of the eligible electorate typically casts ballots. In midterm elections, the number is even lower, at 35 to 40 percent. Local races and primary contests sometimes have turnout as low as 15 to 20 percent.
In a situation of relatively low turnout, politicians have discovered one of the best ways to win is to play to the base and go to the political extremes. Rather than run as pragmatic problem-solvers who can work with the other party, many elected officials campaign by emphasizing their strong principles and willingness to stand up to political opponents.
It also is easy to focus on political extremes because they are more likely to vote than those in the political center. People who have strong feelings tend to vote, while those with a mild interest in politics often are among the non-voters. Those patterns skew the electorate in more extreme directions and make polarization more widespread.
Given this set of incentives, lowering the political temperature means raising overall turnout and reducing barriers to voting. If the United States had more people voting, it would be easier for moderates to be elected, and politicians would have fewer incentives to play to the extremes. Uncompromising rhetoric would turn off centrist voters and lead to the election of more pragmatic leaders.
How do we increase voter turnout so the political center has more weight? There are a range of election reforms that are associated with higher turnout. These include changes such as automatic registration for those turning 18 years old, early voting in the weeks leading up to the election, making it possible for people to register to vote while filing taxes and registering for motor vehicle licenses, and having a sufficient number of voting locations so people don’t have to go far or wait in long lines to cast their ballots.
Some countries have boosted their voter turnouts above 90 percent through universal or mandatory voting. In places such as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Singapore, and Switzerland, people are required to vote and failing to do so results in the equivalent of a small traffic fine. Creating the norm that people should vote and backing it up with a legal requirement and small fines leads most people to vote and generally creates a more moderate electorate that elects more pragmatic leaders.
But encouraging moderation will not be achieved simply by top-down election reforms. Polarization now is baked into America’s culture and media system. Addressing it will involve ordinary people undertaking efforts to depolarize political conversations and understand that opponents are not enemies.
In my book Divided Politics, Divided Nation, I suggest what I call “take a liberal/conservative to lunch.” Too often these days, political intolerance and mistrust has risen to the point where many people do not like to talk with people having opposing viewpoints. It is more comfortable to have friends and workmates with similar views. That way, there are no uncomfortable arguments or disputed facts.
Having conversations with political adversaries represents a way to put a human face on disagreements and learn why others have a different point of view. It is not that the lunch will produce political agreement and “Kumbaya” and hugging at the end of the meal. But people are likely to see the other person not as an enemy, but as someone with a different point of view. In the long run, engaging with those who have differing opinions will help to encourage moderation and bring the country back together.
Today, we are far from that kind of model. National surveys show that 50 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats would be upset if one of their children married someone from the opposite party. People live in gated communities that separate individuals along political, cultural, racial, income, and educational lines. Research by the Public Religion Research Institute has found that “if you looked at the average white person’s 100 closest friends, you would find that 91 would be white. If you looked at the average black person’s 100 closest friends, 83 of them would be black.”
As long as the broader society is divided along these kinds of lines, it will be hard to overcome polarization and extremism. Having a lack of social interactions across categories of race, gender, and class intensifies suspicion and misunderstanding, and makes it difficult to bridge personal differences. Cultural gaps widen in that situation and produce clear divisions.
The digital world is equally isolating. People can find politically reinforcing communities whenever they want, whether it is liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, libertarian, green, or gay. Technology helps people overcome the limitations of geography and find the individuals who share their basic viewpoint. An analysis of social media tweeting by sociologists Eric Forbush and Nicol Turner-Lee found a communications “echo chamber” in which people retweet within very narrow political networks. That kind of behavior promotes both extremism and polarization, and it makes it more difficult to govern fairly and effectively.
The problem with clear-cut separation based on party or ideology is widespread misunderstanding. It is hard to understand people from differing backgrounds when there is limited personal or social contact. Opinions are more likely to be stereotypical and based on what you think the other group is like rather than what they actually are. Caricatures create hidden or unconscious biases, and these stereotypes have political and social consequences. For example, if you have a low opinion of adversaries, it is easy to justify poor treatment of them. This type of mentality also encourages voter suppression and efforts to marginalize the opposition.
To combat this cultural divide, people need to diversify their information sources. Individuals should get their news and information from a variety of places. One major contributing force behind polarization is a sharply divided news media system and social media networks. People need to end that approach to information-gathering and seek material from across the political spectrum. For example, I get news from liberal, moderate, and conservative points of view. I like to hear information from multiple points of view because it helps me make up my own mind. I find it easier to break through the cacophony of information when there are divergent points of view. That way, I have a deeper understanding of major issues and have the material necessary to determine my own perspective.
In today’s galvanizing environment, people need to resist the social media temptation to jump to immediate conclusions based on single words or sentences. It is easy in the worlds of Twitter and Facebook to overreact, take things out of context, and judge others based on incomplete or misleading information. Rather than being judicious and taking time to assess a new development, a particular event, or a provocative statement, social media encourage instant reactions that can inflame people’s discussions. Being more thoughtful in drawing conclusions would restore some moderation to political debates and help the country have more reasonable discussions about major issues.
Finally, it is important to address geographic disparities and differences based on financial well-being. As long as there are fundamental differences in economic circumstances between rural and urban areas as well as the coasts and the heartland, it will be impossible to bring people together. Lingering resentment from those left behind will fuel political discontent and intensify societal conflict. People who aren’t doing well will be more likely to turn to extreme policies and unconventional politicians in an effort to improve their personal situation. They will find scapegoats to blame for their dismal economic conditions. Dealing with these types of inequities is vital to reducing polarization and reviving moderation in American politics.