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Political Polarisation & its Impact on the Political Landscape


Image Source: Brown University

With the modern political landscape being drastically more polarised than in the past I would like to determine what is meant by political polarization. Political polarization on a whole can be described as ‘the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes’ and the ‘division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs’. This definition does not fully explain the extent of political polarisation and therefore cannot accentuate the increase that has occurred within the past century. Political polarization can be divided into two major aspects: Substantive political polarisation, which is the gap in ideological beliefs between the two parties and their members; and affective political polarisation, which is the social distance between the two parties, not the ideological differences, this is not a measurement of the amount they disagree with one another but the amount they dislike each other. Currently, the United States of America has the most polarised political landscape; its ideological, economic and political stances are becoming further partisan. This is largely due to the huge growth in social media, pressure groups and the media in general. All three of these have had substantial effects on the political polarisation of the United States and proceeded to grow with their control of the division. The colossal polarisation of the political landscape has led to a steady decline in the political productiveness of the US Congress, meaning more and more legislations are vetoed and less and less are passed through into US Law. Despite this, the bigger side of the argument is that the partisan of the political landscape is leading to a larger collective following positive movements that are making changes to injustice within the world.


Substantive political polarisation has risen at an increasingly large amount within the US since 1945. This is shown via the Poole-Rosenthal scores; this is a multidimensional ideological spectrum that places each US Politician in their determined position, outlining the United States political spectrum. Since 1947 the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans within the House of Representatives has increased by 150%, with the ideological centre of the spectrum depleting its numbers to almost 0. This clearly outlines the extremity of polarisation that is occurring within the political landscape of the United States. Looking at the political landscape as a whole, the reduction of the ideological centre can be turned into literary terms as saying that currently there are nearly no Republicans more liberal than the most conservative Democrats.


Affective political polarisation has equally risen over the past 80 years. A survey in 1960 revealed that only 4% of Democrats and 5% of Republicans respectively would have been disappointed in their child if they were to marry someone of the opposite party. The same survey was then carried out in 2019, revealing that 45% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans were anywhere from somewhat to very disappointed if their child was to marry someone from the opposing party. This partisan has raised a high level of abrasion in day-to-day life within America, the Democratic politicians have become more progressive on social and moral issues, supporting the change and development within the US. Republicans wholeheartedly oppose a lot of change within the US, they are more conservative and this difference and abrasion between them lead to a lot of discontent, especially concerning pressure group movements and social matters which distort the support from the public. The introduction of pressure groups and social media influence causes a rise in domestic discontent, the supporters and followers of each side become more separated as they are fed more and more opposing views, through social media and the right of the first amendment.


Despite the clear rise in both affective and substantive political polarisation, there are arguments to combat political polarisation occurring. Firstly it can be argued that republican moderates are more open to moderation within both congress and the house of representatives, they are more sympathetic and open towards progressive social and moral issues. For example, Maine senator Susan Collins, who is a progressive republican, has supported a large range of LGBT amendments such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which sought to end discrimination based on a person's sexuality or gender. This shows that despite there being a large widespread partisan there are still examples of equality within the US political landscape. Another example of there still being some political figures sitting in the overlapping zones in the middle is Libertarian Democrats; within the economy, it has been known that some Democrats support republican policy on federal spending. A personal example could be the Democrat Senator Ron Wyden. In 2019 Wyden supported and helped fund the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act that imposed a reduction in excise tax: This shows that despite the data outlining the development of this partisan, there are still a number of cases where there have been politicians within the ideological centre. Now, this isn’t the same sort of ideological fence-sitting that Eisenhower used during his term, with his domestic spending bouncing from private companies to state spending whenever he saw fit. Today the centre of this partisan is very empty and most notably the politicians who do have areas in which they agree with the opposing party, only do with certain matters. On the whole, political polarisation is still noticeable with the ideological centre housing almost no members from each party.


The two crucial factors that have developed this increase in political polarisation are most notably, pressure groups and social media. Most powerfully the Black Lives Matter campaign has brought the divide within the political parties. In 2015, at the peak of his presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump was noted as saying that any NFL player who took the knee during the national anthem should be removed and fired from the league. Furthermore, the social media campaigns that followed the BLM movement helped to develop enough leverage that the political figures within the US had to break the silence. The 2020 presidential campaign was shaped and swayed by the BLM movement. Just before the campaign, the movement launched a #WhatMatters2020 campaign, introduced to mobilise the black vote and draw attention to the injustice. This elevated the number of actual votes compared to the predicted votes, as many black voters who were unaccounted for took a stand and helped push the BLM movement. More controversially, Trump was on record saying, ‘I feel very, very badly….That’s a very shocking sight’, in response to the death of George Floyd, despite it possibly seeming like he meant it, most Americans and almost all activists believed it was just a media stunt to make sure he didn't lose any of the voters he already had. Equally, Biden had a very mainstream and passive response, with many arguing that this was purely to keep the majority of voters on his side. This clearly outlines that the presidential election was chosen to some extent on how each candidate responded to the BLM movement. These different responses of political parties are what create political polarisation; each side becomes more and more detached.


Social media has had the largest and most profound effect on the polarization of the contemporary US political landscape. The importance of social media on the connectivity and spreading of ideas, made easier with the first amendment, cannot be undermined. Previously people with extremely one-sided political views could not reach an audience larger than one that could fit in the local town hall; currently, however, it is safe to assume that within more recent times, left or right-wing extremists are able to push their political views to a wider audience. The speed and ease that comes with social media leads to huge numbers of people being able to view these different opinions, where most of the time they attack the other side to elevate their own standpoint, creating a huge increase in affective polarisation.


The question to then ask is, once it is clear that political polarisation is occurring at large levels, is this an issue within today's ever-changing society? There are arguments to be made for both sides. Firstly, the most common issue that has occurred because of political polarisation is a gridlocked government. A growing trend that has been seen is a steady decrease in the level of productivity within congress. Factualism is there so when cooperation cannot be achieved within congress, the government shuts down. The unique set of checks and balances has recently become a big occurrence much more of the time due to the partisan government. On the whole, considerations concerning nominees of the other party have become much more violent with people's privacy occasionally being ignored.


To further strengthen this argument, within the current US political landscape, the constitutional process is poorly equipped to deal with the new polarised government. Any form of power congress tries to enforce has little to no effect as most commonly it is passed through legislation. The US political system is weakened by the partisan, leading to a significant decrease in productivity. More domestically, the partisan has started to leach into people's everyday life. A Reuters-Ipsos poll showed that in March 2021, 60% of republicans still wholeheartedly believed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by the democrats from Trump. Alongside this, the rise in both aspects of polarisation elevated public disagreements and dislike significantly. Violence is becoming more and more ingratiated within the civilian side of the political landscape; this development has brought about the public defamation of respective parties and their members.


Although on a whole the polarisation of the modern US political landscape has had damaging effects on both the government and the public. There can be a case made saying that the partisan is helping large pressure group movements be heard. The success of a pressure group is largely based on how open-ended, simple or popular their aims are. Recently, the views of the largest pressure groups and movements have been discussed within congress. Most commonly a pressure group stands fully left-wing or fully right-wing; with the development of a partisan government, extreme levels of pressure groups are being matched by politicians within congress. As a result of this, more dramatic change is being pressed upon legislation within the US. For example, the introduction of LGBTQ+ laws within the contemporary landscape has had a positive effect on the development of the US. People's rights to freedom of speech and the ability to try to make change are making positive developments in people's lives. Although social media's impact may be damaging in many cases, the ease of communication and spreading of ideas has helped to build constructive pathways for the movements such as #MeToo which would never have been possible without social media. The attention brought upon these cases has pressured the government to discuss policies and legislations to improve the lives of millions of women, unable to have their voices previously heard. The partisan government has enabled strong connections between the politicians and the leaders of the movements. Governmental thinking has swayed during the past decade and the openness to development has been brought to light by the development of a partisan government.


Overall, political polarisation has occurred at a drastic rate within the modern US political landscape. A consequence of this is that economic, foreign and domestic stances have become highly polarised. Social media, the internet and the media are on a whole, inevitably to blame for the speed and scale of the divide. It can be argued that this is having a negative impact on the productivity of both congress and the house, the increase in contested ideas between each side of the political scale and the resentment felt by each side. However, the stronger argument lies in the fact that despite the negatives, positive, effective development is being made within the US, due to the access provided to the public by the partisan government. Injustice is able to be tackled and changed with the help of polarised politicians.

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