Since the late 1970s, the United States government and its politics have become increasingly polarized. There is an extreme, visible version today in the current presidential primaries.
Michael DIchio, assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College, said political polarization is, more the norm than the exception when it comes to U.S. politics. The U.S. political crossover between parties that occurred during the 20th century is not normal for politics, he said.
Causes and Consequences of Bipartisan Polarization
The causes of this polarization have had to do with the rise of media options Americans have access to, as well as candidates’ tendencies to appeal to the more radical voters of either party, Richard Foster, associate professor of political science, said.
“Politicians on both sides, Democrats, Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives have all figured out that it's more the radical people who pay attention to them when they get elected and not the general population. So they say the kinds of things that revive and reinforce their base voters,” he said.
Despite the fact that polarization is the norm in the U.S., there are negative consequences to political polarization. Most notably, it becomes harder to pass legislation, "there is no incentive for bipartisan cooperation," Dichio said. This can lead to conflicts over executive and judicial appointments as well as prolonged battles over budget appropriations.
Bipartisan cooperation was not as much of an issue in the past. “It used to be that the Democrats and Republicans in Congress took pride in working with one another to get legislation passed,” Foster said. “They would ‘compromise’ but now ‘compromise’ is a bad word.”
Foster said that in modern-day politics, Senators are less likely to work with those on the opposite party, mainly because those on the opposite party may have subjective reputations amongst the given party.
Another consequence of political polarization is that more incumbent congressional candidates win re-election than the congressional approval ratings might indicate. Even though most Americans disapprove of Congress as a whole, they approve of the representatives in their states and districts, Dichio said. Federalism plays a role in national polarization.
Examples of Today’s Candidates
There are similarities between Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaign movements, but when you look at their policies, they are founded on very different political ideologies, Cannon Sullivan, the president of Fort Lewis Students for Bernie Sanders, said.
“The political opinions of Trump are well known but I don’t think that he is the only GOP contender that we should be talking about,” he said.
While polarization can be seen primarily between the two main parties, what potential candidates like Sanders and Trump have in common is that, “they both defy the construct of a two party system,” Sullivan said. Sanders is not a self-proclaimed Democrat, nor is Trump a self-proclaimed Republican.
“I really do believe,” he said, “that it is problematic that candidates that don’t necessarily affiliate with these two parties are kind of forced into these political agendas based on our two-party system.”
With all of this information the question for political scientists is: How can they reverse political polarization?
There are no great answers because polarization has been the norm and it may just be time to develop a new norm, Dichio said.
Americans’ tendency to stay complacent to their trusted news source is a second hypothesis behind political polarization. “It's easier for us because of our natural human tendency, to watch what's closest to our own views, of what we think must be right,” Foster said. It might be time to accept that politics will remain polarized for the foreseeable future.