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Polarization Essay

In politics, polarization is the process by which the public opinion divides and goes to extremes. It can also refer to when the extreme factions of a political party gain dominance in a party. In either case moderate voices often find that they have lost power. This term comes from Political Science. It explains that there is a measure of the electorate’s response to a political figure or position; it is not an assessment of, or a value judgment upon, a political figure. It does not mean that a political figure is necessarily unelectable (Hetherington J. , The Discounted Voter).

Political figures can receive a polarized response from the public through actions of their own, through historical trends or accidents, or due to external forces such as media bias. Polarization is measured in two ways in political science: plain or generic and partisan polarization. Plain or generic polarization is mainly referred to as popular polarization, which occurs when opinions diverge towards poles of distribution or intensity. One metrics used to measure it is the American National Elections Studies feeling thermometer polls, which measures the degree of opinion about a political figure.

On the other hand, partisan polarization happens when support for a political figure or position differentiates itself along political party lines. Morris 2006, talks about “culture war” and the myth of a polarized America. He believes that the so called “culture war” between the left and the right of the American political spectrum is more a war between political parties and not the actual voters. Does polarization in American parties exist? It is said that American politics have become bitterly polarized. Many journalists speak frequently of culture wars, and of a chasm between “red” and “blue” states.

The last presidential elections’ were deeply divided over “moral issues”. Senator John F. Kerry’s defeat was imputed to his party’s alleged deficit in moralists. George bush’s victory was attributed to a mobilization of religious zealots. The passions and polemics of maximalists are crowding out the preference of moderates. The country’s traditions of pragmatic accommodation and centric policymaking are supposedly at risk in this hardened political landscape. Much of it can be debunked, but nonetheless, there remain reasons to explore the nation’s supposed political polarization because not all is a fiction.

Causes, consequences and possible corrective measures need to be understood. As Pietro Nivola asserts in the Brookings Policy Brief, contrary to the misapprehension purveyed by more than a few casual commentators, the bulk of the American electorate continues to share moderate political persuasions and is not increasingly split by wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. In 2004 elections, moderate voters were hardly sidelined. Both presidential candidates amassed support from them. 54% of them went to Kerry and 45% to Bush.

About 38% of those who thought abortion should be legal voted Bush and so did 52% of those who favored civil unions. In those elections, moral issues were a more leading concern and for the overwhelming majority of the voters, a combination of other issues such as Iraq war, the terrorist threat and the state of the economy were more salient. The TV maps that depict “red” America clashing with “blue” are very colorful but misleading. There are plenty of red states-Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina, New York, and even Massachusetts that have Republican governors.

Some red states such as Tennessee, North Carolina and Mississippi send at least as many Democrats as Republicans to the House of Representatives. Michigan and Pennsylvania-two of the biggest blue states-send more Republicans than Democrats. North Dakota is blood red yet its entire congressional delegation remains composed of democrats. The actual political geography of the USA, in short, bears little resemblance to the simplistic picture of a nation divided between solidity partisan states or regions (Pietro S. Brookings Policy Brief). Properly defined polarization of USA politics reflects a sorting of political convictions by either the mass public or ruling elites, or both, into roughly two distinct camps: persons inclined to support the Democrats or the Republican parties’ policies and candidates for elective office. Exactly how much of this sorting process is in fact taking place is hard to tell. But even granting that some has been underway, the upshot probably has virtues as well as liabilities.

It is not yet proven just how politically polarized Americans are and what are the supposed dysfunctional consequences that might occur. Assuming that there is a degree of polarization some of the root causes; Party parity; in America, political parties are colliding because they are competing for power almost in a dead heat. Unusual small margins make the difference between winning and losing the presidency, the House or the Senate. With so much riding on marginal changes in political support, it is not surprising to see both sides battling to gain an edge by whatever means are deemed effective.

Role of religion; religion is a stronger correlate of party preference and voting behavior in this age. Presumably, church goers are mostly Republicans and secular voters, democrats. However, some religious voters, centrists Catholics and modern evangelicals, often lean on Democrats. This implies that neither party, at least at a national level, can afford to embrace a strictly secular agenda. Role of media; “culture war” in American society is substantially an artifact of extensive but non-systematic coverage by the media, including flawed reportage by respectable news outlets.

News stories exaggerate the intensity of the political warfare because acrimony and strident rhetoric make good copy, whereas footage of people getting along or reaching consensus does not sell. The modern proliferation of news outlets, growing segments of the public are able to select their sources of information on the basis of partisan proclivities. For instance, republicans choose talk radio, the Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal editorial page while democrats choose National Public Radio, the three old-line broadcast networks and the New York Times.

This partitioning of audiences might suggest that increasingly the media are becoming hostages to partisan markets, rather than the other way round. The role of technology; it is seemingly changing political patterns. The change in communication modes- cable televisions, internet, and direct mail has enabled ideological soul mates to seek each other out, organize, pool resources and proselytize. The dominance of primaries; theoretically, in a simple two-party electoral system, the natural tendency of candidates competing for single member districts is to move towards the center of the political spectrum.

But the balloting in direct primaries may discourage this convergence. The electorates tend to be small and often unrepresentative. Hence, candidates are frequently forced to protect their flanks by moving away from the center-positioning themselves further to the left or right of the general public on issues that small but intense factions regard as litmus tests. New institutional norms; habits of civility and collegial deference that used to be generally recognized and respected in institutions like the US senate have changed.

Abrasive adversarial seems more often on display. And the slash-and-burn tactics are used even when they appear to offer few electoral advantages. Thus, the level of discord is artificially heightened, as Gray C. Jacobson of the University of California suggests in a recent paper that analyses the ideological confrontations of the congressional parties. Morris P. Fiorina says that the commonly held belief that the majority of the American people are at either extremes of the political spectrum a misconception promoted by ideological activists and a sensationalistic news media.

He proves his hypothesis that most Americans are actually moderates and centrist in their political views by examining issues such as abortion, homosexuality, religious commitment and economic standing among voters. Firstly, he addresses the popular assumptions that the two sides in the culture war are the conservative red and liberal blue states. He uses the polls taken in 2000 to illustrate that unlike popular theory, most voters in both red and blue states are neither left nor right but moderate. In fact, there are more independents in America than Democrats or Republicans.

He takes a close look at voter’s preferences on different religious groups, political issues and party associations among red and blue states. He concludes that although there are differences between voters in red and blue states, they are small and not reflective of any deep divide. He also accounts for the gender gap among men and women in politics as only representative of political elites who push agendas associated with specific gender, such as the mostly female women rights activists and mostly male religiously conservative activists.

He disputes the belief that religion plays a bigger role in voter affiliation than economics in recent elections. Religion does play a bigger role than it did before 1992 (pg. 69), but economics has actually also grow in impact in recent decades (pg. 71). Although he acknowledges that religion did play a big role in the 2000 elections, he seems unconvinced that this is evidence of a new trend.

He argues that though Americans differ in their political beliefs based on factors inclusive of but not restricted to regional, religious and gender differences, these differences are not to a statistical degree that would support the theory of a truly polarized society. He believes that it is not the American voter who gets polarized but the political parties that are aligning themselves farther from center. This means even if the Americans are not having culture war, their political parties are thus forcing voters to take sides.

There is only the appearance of a polarized electorate when in reality polarization is occurring only among the elites who choose the candidates the electorate must choose from (pg. 78). The media are among the political elites thus further the image of a polarized nation. He takes a critical look at the moral aspect of Clinton’s impact on American society, as he goes on to say that if democrats nominated a truly moral candidate, one who both talked the talk as well as walked the walk, “the relationship between voter religiosity and candidate choice would be muted” (pg. 9). He offers some ideas for changing the direction of American politics, but he is skeptical as to whether they will do well. He suggests that primary reform which would change the way Americans are able to vote for candidates of both parties, and redistricting current voter districts. For example, a voter could vote a Democrat for one office and a Republican for another (pg. 107). He believes that this would attract more moderates to vote in elections.


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