The 5 Ds of Polarization

We are thus living in a time of immense upheaval and uncertainty.  The summer of 2020 witnessed the largest protests in the history of the country.  A record percentage of Americans – 80% — believe the country is on the wrong track, and over 50% think that violence will likely be a result of the upcoming election.  How did we get here?

Over the past century, the power of political partisans in America has strangely and simultaneously both fallen and risen.  On the one hand, as Americans have become educated and better off, they have felt less dependent on the parties for guidance and support.  They have become more aware of the parties’ corruption and inconsistencies and ineffectiveness, and their loyalty to the parties on average has understandably decreased.  In 1952, less than 25% of Americans self-identified as independents; by 2016, over 40% did (Dalton 2012).  Since 1994, more Americans have identified as independents than either Republicans or Democrats. 

And yet on the other hand, this process has paradoxically given more power to strong partisans who have taken control of their parties as those less committed have left.  It has disenfranchised the largest block of American voters, independents, because they have no one representing them. 

With more homogeneity and unity, the parties have had a more singular focus, which revolves around defeating the other party.  Given the dynamics of election primaries, the Electoral College, and other aspects of American democracy, politicians no longer prioritize reaching the median voter but instead emphasize “getting out the base.” 

This disenfranchisement has led to a deep destabilization of American institutions, where partisans are increasingly taking a scorched earth “win whatever the costs” approach to electoral politics.  As President Trump talks about voter fraud and delaying the election, Americans are concerned about the very survival of their democracy.  With 40% of the population leaning towards authoritarianism and US senators disputing the value of democracy, this fear is justified.  Such anti-democratic sentiments can lead to more destabilization, as authoritarians, in their quest to enact their own political vision, can provoke their opponents to fight back, sometimes violently. 

This destabilization is in turn driving a dark sense of disillusionment and despair – a sadness and anger that has no outlet because of a shared sense of powerlessness to change the situation.  And finally, many of us are feeling a sense of defeat, not only of ourselves but also of the American democratic experiment.

So where do we go from here? Click below to learn about one possible way forward…

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