Some insights from “‘A Perfect Storm for the Ambitious, Extreme Ideologue’” by New York Times opinion essayist Thomas B. Edsall:
While previously polarization was primarily seen only in issue-based terms, a new type of division has emerged in the mass public in recent years: Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party. Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines. This phenomenon of animosity between the parties is known as affective polarization.
In their examination of affective polarization in advanced democracies, Boxell, Gentzkow and Shapiro tracked patterns in 12 countries over the 40 years from 1980 to 2020 and found that
The U.S. exhibited the largest increase in affective polarization over this period. In five other countries — Switzerland, France, Denmark, Canada, and New Zealand — polarization also rose, but to a lesser extent. In six other countries — Japan, Australia, Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Germany — polarization fell.
In 1978, they write, “the average (American) partisan rated in-party members 27.4 points higher than out-party members”; by 2020, the difference had doubled, to 56.3 points.
The authors stress that they are measuring the rate of increase in the levels of polarization, as opposed to comparing absolute levels of polarization in different countries.
“In the case of affective polarization, Edsall notes, “the authors collected “data on trends in economic, media, demographic and political factors that may be related to” partisan animosity and found that “trends in measures of inequality, openness to trade, the share getting news online, and the fraction foreign-born are either negatively or weakly associated with trends in affective polarization….Conversely, “trends in the number of 24-hour news channels, the nonwhite share, partisan sorting, and elite polarization are positively associated with trends in affective polarization. The association is strongest for the nonwhite share and elite polarization.”
Edsall shares a point made by Dartmouth professor Sean Westwood: “This subservience to party, in Westwood’s view, is driven by “activists on both sides of the aisle who have reframed political conflict as a battle over moral truth and not a conflict over issue positions. If you disagree with the other party’s stance on an issue, you are not just wrong, but amoral.” We don’t negotiate well in American politics; we just bellow at each other.
The phenomenon has gotten much worse in recent years, although it is not really all that new. Readers with a long memory may remember the Saturday Night Live ‘Point/Counterpoint’ skits with Dan Akroyd’s Jack Kilpatrick and Jane Curtin’s Shana Alexander, in which every liberal-conservative policy disagreement is paired with increasingly harsh personal insults. Or go back much further and check out the mud-slinging in the 1796 presidential election.
Edsall quotes NYU historian Steven Hahn: “A confluence of developments over the last several decades has led to polarization among parties and many voters. These include: the stagnation of wages and salaries for the white middle and working class since the 1970s; the process of deindustrialization and the weakening of the labor movement; the recognition that white people will become a numerical minority by the middle of the 21st century, and the related belief that people of color have become the political clients of the Democratic Party (a party which has until very recently abandoned social democratic ambitions and instead also cultivated segments of the college-educated upper middle class).”
Lots of fodder for argument there. But I would say amen to Hahn’s points about wage stagnation, deindustrialization and the weakening of the labor movement. Pair that with stratospheric tuition costs which make a mockery of the idea that one’s kids will have better living standards, and you have a ‘perfect storm’ for working class discontent, as well as “the ambitious, extreme ideologue.” Another amen for Jefferson Cowie’s observation that “In most social and political indicators of advanced industrial nations, the United States is an outlier in terms of inequality and the attendant negative social and political outcomes.”
Edsall also discusses the possibility that the two party system divides Americans into rigid ideological camps, while the multiparty democracies of other nations may reduce affective polarization. In these nations, there may be more of a “let’s split the difference, create a coalition and move on” attitude toward policy disagreements and governing. Check out the Danish TV series “Borgen” on Netflix for a few clues as to how this works.
Edsall has more to say about the causes of our deepening divisions. Anyone interested in getting a better understanding of the ‘affective polarization’ that has exacerbated America’s problems should give Edsall’s essay a thoughtful read.