How Has the U.S. Become So Polarized?

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

Polarization has been an ongoing trend for the past two decades in U.S. politics. As the current presidential campaign highlights, it has however reached a new record high. I see two main drivers for this.

The first is institutional, the so-called gerrymandering. The term refers to the concept of political leaders drawing the lines of their voting constituencies in a way that benefits them. For example, a Republican incumbent will try to draw the lines of the district in a way that makes it more solidly Republican. This has been happening for a long time and in many countries. But it has arguably reached new levels in the USA with past redistricting. During the 1990s, maybe more than a hundred house districts would be competitive. Today, much less than that are truly competitive in a non-wave election cycle.

This means that the dynamics of the races shift to the primaries. Less and less incumbents have to worry about losing reelection in the general election. Their survival and the real fight increasingly happen during the primary. If an incumbent compromises too much in Washington D.C. or doesn’t toe the party line, he or she might get a primary challenge. The result is polarization and fewer politicians who could be in both parties. Gone are the days when there were Republican congressmen who were more liberal than certain Democrats, and vice versa.

Another big driver of polarization is social media. Most people go online to like and forward what they already agree with. Emotions drive (online) activity. Trump took this to a new level, but in fairness, also Obama won to a large extent by pleasing and turning out the base.

The Zeitgeist, therefore, is for voters to express outrage and get scandalized about each and everything online. Scandals can now develop and spread very fast. The media is adapting because online traffic and the number of clicks are crucial measures of success and sales arguments. As a result, people live in their own echo chambers. A British client of mine recently told me that he doesn’t know anybody personally who voted for Brexit, yet the majority of the country did.

See my contribution to the compilation of expert opinions on polarization for the website UP Journey here.

See my quote on economic voting in an article published on Zenger News, the world’s first digitally native wire service.

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