There is no doubt about it: Political polarization is the norm in D.C. and the states. A recent Pew Research study, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” finds that political and ideological lines of division are not limited to the political elites but are embedded in the American public itself.
More and more are identifying with the extreme left or the extreme right. According to Pew, this division leads to more negative results. These include a) more negative views of the opposing party, b) “rising tide of mutual antipathy,” c) personalization of politics; and d) less beneficial political compromise.
We are told that polarization is like the plague: Avoid it at all costs. There is nothing redeeming about split-voting, rancorous debate, mud-slinging on both sides, vitriolic accusations, slow to no movement on policy making, a divided Congress and Republicans versus Democrats. No good can possibly come about as a result.
Correct? Well, not so fast.
Lee Hamilton, former U.S. representative from Indiana’s 9th District, wrote in November 2010: “Let’s hope that congressional leaders listen to the American people as a whole, rather than simply play to their core constituencies, because the spiraling polarization they’re engaging in is clearly turning Americans off.”
Hamilton was reacting to the heated debate of the then midterm campaign rhetoric, rhetoric that was so divisive and so negative that public opinion polls showed strong dislike on the part of the public toward the partisan bickering and wrangling.
But dial up a campaign. Stop and listen to Barack Obama lambast Republicans for obstructing policy progress, or hear Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lay into the Democrats for the umpteenth time, and polls show Americans respond best when the rhetoric is fiercest and most deeply dividing. The American populace may say they dislike polarization, but their actions speak louder than their words.
Are there any benefits to political polarization? There may be one: Increased political awareness means increased political action.
Recent research in Indiana University’s Department of Sociology suggests that polarization has in fact increased since the 1980s; at the same time, argues Kyle Dodson, a sociology graduate student there, political participation has increased.
Examining National Election Studies data of presidential elections between 1960 and 2008, Dodson found between 1960 and 1980 there was a decrease in most forms of political behavior and activity. He accounted for this decline as a result of decreasing “social involvement” on the part of the average voter.
However, between 1980 and 2008 the trend reversed: As political polarization increased, political behavior and activity increased. Dodson contends there is a relation “between the growing partisanship of political parties and the perceived increase in political rudeness and incivility.”
So, what observers such as Hamilton see as negative regarding polarization, such as decreasing political and policy activity on the part of Congress; researchers like Dodson see as the provision of “relevant (political) information that both voters and politicians can learn and grow from.”
No doubt, increasing levels of polarization increase the political rhetoric. Ideological divides and conformity to non-mainstream ideas are on the increase.
Some would argue that the recent victory of Dave Brat in Virginia, upsetting the incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was a boon to the rise of right-wing populism, introducing a more acceptable brand of political ideology for Libertarians, some moderate Democrats and tea party Republicans.
The real question, though, is this: What does the American populace want? If Dodson is correct, it means more political activity and potentially increased civic engagement.
That has to be a good thing.
Stephen M. King is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and holds the R. Philip Loy Endowed Chair of Political Science at Taylor University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.