by Bob Miller
Editor’s Note: Bob Miller majored in political science at Ohio State University and earned a law degree from Ohio State University College of Law. He has participated in several political campaigns. He leads a study group on political polarization which is part of the fall 2015 offerings, where they break the rule about not talking politics with others and enjoy doing it.
Political polarization is a term that is frequently mentioned, but rarely defined, in the media. Briefly stated, political polarization means a sharp division, as of a population or group, into two contrasting or opposing groups.
In the context of U.S. politics, it means the separation into liberal and conservative camps. As the two political parties have pulled apart ideologically, liberals and conservatives have become almost synonymous with Democrats and Republicans and moderates in each party have been vanishing from Congress.
This is by no means the first time in U.S. history that polarization has occurred. Political scientists have measured polarization based on roll call voting in Congress and determined that our legislators are as divided as they have been in over one hundred years. Past instances when polarization happened were in 1812, in the pre-Civil War years, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the Progressive era, and in the New Deal era. The consequences of polarization are gridlocked government and increasing partisan animosity.
But is it that simple and where, exactly, do you fit into the picture?
Explore your place in the polarization spectrum with this quiz on the Pew Research Center’s website which will help in understanding how each of us perceives reality and responds to events:
How does your birth year influence your political views? How has your age group has changed political preferences over time? Get some answers here,
Of course polarization isn’t just about us as individuals. There are many complex factors that contribute to our current situation, such as:
- What social scientists have discovered about the differences between the world views of liberals and conservatives and whether there is a biological basis for such differences;
- What the regional cultures are that contribute to development of the political divide in the U.S.;
- What the structural problems of our federal form of government are and how they contribute to polarization;
- Whether one political party is more to blame for the gridlock in government;
- What the media habits of liberals and conservatives are that may contribute to polarization;
- What the historical reasons are for the rise of partisanship on the part of our elected representatives, party officials, and the electorate;
- What can be done to reduce the impact of political polarization;
- What the partisan responses to the Great Recession have been and how austerity has contributed to our current economic condition; and
- How capitalism and inequality are connected and how our current Gilded Age is affecting our representative democracy.
Want to learn more? The book It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norman J. Ornstein is a great starting point. We’re fast approaching another major election and taking a closer look at ourselves and our country from the perspective of polarization can be a good way to better understand what’s happening today.
We visited Bob’s study group this spring, camera ready. While the result will give you a visual feel for a Second Half study group experience, there’s nothing like being there.