Every day brings more evidence of the United States’ profound political polarization. Partisan intransigence, vitriol, and divisiveness now contaminate most government institutions. What is more, these sentiments have steadily infiltrated every nook and cranny of American life.
The 2020 presidential campaign will only further intensify the country’s partisan tribalism.
The more than 35 books published on this subject in the past decade have shed much light on partisan dynamics. Yet almost without exception, they examine U.S. polarization as an isolated phenomenon, separate from the experiences of other countries. In our research and advocacy work, we have taken a different tack.
Although polarization in the United States shares some basic features with political divisions elsewhere, we found that it stood out in many crucial respects. American polarization has deep roots that have taken decades to grow and strengthen. The United States may look much like many other angry, divided countries, but its brand of polarization raises specific concerns about the future and functioning of its democracy.
In most highly polarized states, the fundamental divisions arose first among elite political actors. They then spread throughout society when politicians made calculated efforts to solidify or expand their bases. U.S. polarization has altogether different sources. Partisan sentiment bubbled up from the belly of American society, not the head.
Until recently, there was no American equivalent to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Donald Trump is a startling exception in this regard. He is the first U.S. president within living memory to wield polarization as a core political strategy, deliberately seeking to intensify partisan emotions around the most divisive issues facing the country. But his administration is as much a symptom as it is a cause of polarization. In this, Trump is unlike his counterparts in Ankara or Caracas.
To the extent that polarization in the United States comes from the bottom rather than the top, political elites cannot easily reverse or moderate it, even if they genuinely wish to do so.
What is more, polarization in the United States is especially multifaceted. In most cases, polarization grows out of one primary identity division—usually either ethnic, religious, or ideological.
In Kenya, for instance, polarization feeds off fierce competition between ethnic groups.
In India, it reflects the divide between secular and Hindu nationalist visions of the country.
But in the United States, all three kinds of division are involved.
Source: In the United States, Polarization Runs Particularly Deep