Campaigning to be Turkey’s prime minister in the mid-1990s, Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan declared, “In this country there are two parties: the righteous and the fallacious.”
Surveying America’s current political environment, one wonders how many citizens hold similar views of others from “across the aisle.” In a recent report from the RAND Corp., alliteratively entitled “Polarized Politics and Policy Consequences,” researchers Diana Epstein and John D. Graham look at the issue from several different perspectives, offering a set of solutions. But throughout its 26 pages, one theme continues to show itself: We’re just not talking with each other.
From a historical perspective, it might surprise some to discover that we are not currently living in the most polarized era. Epstein and Graham’s research shows, somewhat understandably, that the three decades following the Civil War manifested the greatest level of divergence between liberal and conservative ideologies as measured by votes cast in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Still, using the same lens, we are witnessing the greatest level of political polarization in the last 80 years.
Reasons offered for the current climate range from the growth of conservative influence in the South and gerrymandering to an increasingly politicized media and the rise of politically active interest groups. All of these elements have contributed to the gradual entrenchment of the two major political parties.
What is unique about this period in our history, however, is the increasing amount of issues on which the two central ideologies diverge.
“A generation ago, the breadth of partisan disputes was narrower,” Epstein and Graham write. “In the past, some topics were excluded from partisan disputes; it is possible that their growing incorporation into political party rhetoric has stimulated and aggravated polarization.”
Granted, part of the reason for this has been that previously nonpolitical issues, like abortion and gay marriage, have moved into the center of the political Public Square, engendering fierce debate. But the RAND study indicates that polarization is now bleeding into issues where Americans have, generally, been more closely aligned: foreign and economic policy.
Epstein and Graham do allow that polarization can be seen as a good thing in some circumstances. First, it gives Americans a clear choice when making their decisions in the voting booth. In fact, analysis of voter turnout for presidential elections over the last few decades demonstrates that a greater percentage of the eligible population has voted during this recent polarized period than at any time in the last 40 years. As the researchers note, the clearer choices offered in such a climate “may help citizens understand what is at stake in an election, thereby encouraging them to participate in the democratic process by voting, working on campaigns … and making contributions to candidates.”
On the flip side, divided legislative bodies — at state and national levels — have shown an inability to find solutions to policy problems that have longer time frames, particularly entitlement spending and health-care reform.
“Polarization may prevent thoughtful consideration of long-term policy challenges that can be solved only with bipartisan compromises,” Epstein and Graham state. This lack of deliberation on economic and budgetary issues by our governing bodies appears to find some of its roots in the general schismatic climate founded in the aforementioned social issues.
In the end, Epstein and Graham see political polarization as generated from both the bottom-up (from a divided citizenry/grassroots organizations) and the top-down (elected officials and media elites). For the majority of us who are members of the former group, the researchers offer a logical, yet demanding, solution to polarization’s problematic effects: “A more fundamental yet promising strategy to reduce polarization would be to engage more citizens in local politics, including exercises in deliberative democracy where the influence of partisanship is weak and citizens can learn about issues.”
Finding local “spaces” where citizens of diverse viewpoints can deliberate — as opposed to yell past each other — has become increasingly difficult. Political columnist Jack Germond said a few years ago that, “If you characterize the political opposition as evil, there is no way you can compromise with them. There is no way that you can have a drink with them.”
Where polarization has been doing its greatest damage is in clouding issues that have little ideological motivation, by providing a set of simplistic labels for those who have pre-set panoply of views. While the media and political leaders do battle, it might be up to us citizens to demonstrate how thoughtful political discourse can occur.
Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California and lectures on state and local governance at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.