The problem with political party polarization

Claire Maurer, Columnist

Americans have policy opinions almost entirely based on their party alignment – we are more sorted than ever. We are categorized by immigration, race, sexuality, religious affiliation and what the role of government should be in society, which all tend to align along party lines. 

It makes sense that people look to their party for guidance on big issues like national security, health insurance or copyright laws. Political parties are supposed to play the role of informing people on serious decisions, like the sensibility of going to war with Iraq or Syria, what the best policy is for addressing climate change or if people should be required to purchase health insurance. No one can gain enough expertise on such a range of topics, so the party system provides a shortcut to developing an opinion on each subject. 

Right now, we live in a time of extreme polarization. Additionally, this is a time when negative partisanship is ruling politics in state and national elections. Negative partisanship is when a voter forms opinions around a dislike for a party they don’t support rather than a passion for the party or individual they vote for. This drives parties and their supporters to become more polarized, as is clear with the near extinction of people who vote for candidates from more than one party.

Polarization is reinforced by media echo chambers carefully organized around each side. Where people live, what they listen to, what they read and the political parties of their friends can almost always predict how they will vote in national and local elections. 

 If we are not forced to articulate our beliefs to those around us, and the media we consume is reinforcing our opinions, we are rarely forced to compromise or change our minds about anything. Intellectual growth is marked by what we learn and how we reform our opinion in light of changing information. This type of intellectual growth is contingent on new information that does not fit with an existing understanding. 

Because the American political system does not give popular majorities much power, it requires a constant compromise between parties to function; the American political system halts to a standstill the more polarized the parties become. Polarization is incompatible with the American political framework and thus causes stagnation and frustration. Polarization is to blame for the continuous gridlock of national politics, but polarization is nearly inevitable with a two-party system. 

Politics will continue to be polarized as long as our other identities, such as our position on abortion, intertwine with our political identity and our social groups. It is difficult to really be aware of being in an echo chamber, which is why it is called a chamber. However, it is necessary to work to expand, or at least puncture, that echo chamber by engaging in conversations that require empathy. Understanding our own biases and the limitations of the information we can consume can begin to break down the instincts of negative partisanship and political polarization.