The Extemper’s Briefing: American Political Polarization, Explained

The following article is part of a new series by the Extemper’s Bible where we’ll take a deep dive into relevant domestic and global subjects. For this post, we’ll examine political polarization in the US, including its causes, implications, and potential solutions. As a nation where political agreement is needed for unified action, the US could lose its status as a reliable global ally if polarization remains unaddressed. This article was written by Anne Smith.


Political Polarization: A sharp contrast or gap in the beliefs between two or more political sides.

Negative Partisanship: When a voter’s primary motivation for voting for a particular party or candidate is hatred of the other party or candidate. For example, someone may have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, despite disliking him, because they disliked Hillary Clinton more. 

Elite Polarization: Polarization that stems from the political elite of a country (typically politicians and party leaders) which trickles down to the populace.

Mass Polarization: Polarization that stems from the people and moves upward, often leading to polarization amongst politicians.

Closed Primary: An election used to determine the presidential candidate for a party in which only registered members of that party can vote. Some political scientists believe they increase polarization because candidates that only appeal to one party are more likely to hold extreme political views.

Partisan Sorting: The belief that people tend to live in neighborhoods primarily occupied by members of their party. This can breed extremism because it reduces the likelihood of being exposed to opposing views. 

Gerrymandering: Every ten years, the United States redraws its district lines for the House of Representatives. Gerrymandering refers to the process by which a political party manipulates the boundaries of different districts to favor one party over another. Here’s a really insightful image on this.

Echo Chamber Effect: An echo chamber describes a situation in which someone’s beliefs are insulated from criticism and amplified by the repetition of their beliefs. For example, a lot of Republicans are in a conservative echo chamber (they’ll only listen to sources like Fox News, Breitbart, etc) while a lot of Democrats are in a liberal echo chamber (they’ll only listen to sources like CNN or MSNBC). As social media companies find out that promoting liberal sources in front of a Democrat or conservative sources in front of a Republican maximizes their engagement, they’ll be more likely to show that content in the future.

Causes of Polarization: 

Humans are tribal creatures which means that, to an extent, partisanship should be expected. This is especially true given that Americans have become increasingly aligned with certain parties by virtue of their identity. For example, people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party, whereas whites and men are more likely to be Republicans. Christians also tend to be Republicans, while other religious groups skew toward the Democrats. Perhaps the most universal phenomenon has to do with the urban-rural divide: rural areas tend to be more conservative, and urban areas tend to be more liberal. When people’s other identities determine their politics, it is easier for the two parties to hold contempt for one another because their differences encompass identities that are more visible than purely ideological differences. 

Some blame social media for exclusively showing content that reflects an individual’s political views. Sometimes referred to as the echo chamber effect, this reinforces partisan behavior. Others dispute this pointing out the participants who were asked to follow an opposing party Twitter bot ended up supporting their original party more strongly. In other words, merely following sources from “the other side” may not be a solution to polarization. The changing media landscape and its increasing polarization may also be a driving force in the polarization of the populace. As news becomes less local and moderate, people can only listen to news channels that tell them what they want to hear, decreasing their exposure to opposing or contradictory viewpoints and unfairly invalidating them as well.

People’s natural tribal tendencies are compounded by the nature of the US political system. Most members of Congress are elected based on a first-past-the-post basis, in which the candidate who receives the most votes wins. In a race between 3 Democrats and 1 Republican, this could mean that a Republican candidate could win with 30% of the vote, even though 70% of the population voted for a Democrat. This system also makes it harder for small parties that rarely have a majority in a district, like the Greens or Libertarians, to get representation in Congress, even if they have single-digit support nationwide. A two-party system, which the US political system tends to promote, can lead to polarization because parties don’t have to compromise with one another in order to get majority support in the legislature. 

Historical Parallels:

While it’s easy to argue this is the most polarized America has ever been, history offers some counter-evidence. Indeed, perhaps the most polarized period in American history was the Civil War era. During this time, millions of Americans took up arms because they could not imagine a future as part of the same country. The carnage was predominantly motivated by a single issue: states’ rights regarding slavery. In this respect, polarization during the Civil War era differs from polarization today—modern polarization has fractured and now consists of a political landscape filled with extremely different viewpoints on a wide range of issues. 

The late 19th century was also a very polarized time and the polarization that occurred then could be considered a stronger parallel. During the Gilded Age, political parties were fairly homogeneous internally and far apart from one another ideologically. Some historians blame gerrymandering for this, just like some modern political scientists blame gerrymandering for elements of modern-day polarization. Partisanship in this era also had a strong correlation with geography: Republicans tended to be dominant in industrial areas and Democrats tended to be more common in rural areas. Although the parties no longer have support from the same groups, geography still plays a role in modern-day polarization. 

Implications of Polarization:

As politics becomes increasingly focused on partisanship rather than policy, the ability of the two parties to compromise is diminished. The checks and balances integrated into the US political system make it difficult for one branch to act without the consent of the other. Although this prevents one group from gaining too much power, different branches that are controlled by different parties can lead to deadlock. Many blame the current lack of a new economic stimulus bill on the lack of compromise between the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. 

The US is beginning to see the adverse effects of polarization on its most important institutions. For example, some Democrats believe that President-elect Biden should appoint more Supreme Court justices than the historical norm. Partisan loyalty can also undermine checks and balances: politicians are more willing to ignore the abuses of the other branches if they are from the same party; people are also more willing to vote for authoritarian candidates in a polarized environment. When voters and politicians see the other party as the enemy, they are more likely to ignore the authoritarian behavior from members of their party if it prevents members of the opposition from getting power. 

Political polarization also has implications for US foreign policy. Because the two parties have very different perspectives, changes in the Presidency and the Senate can lead to massive shifts in policy. Under former President Obama, the US agreed to remove sanctions on Iran if they accepted limits on their nuclear program. Under President Trump, those sanctions were reinstated. A similar event occurred with the Paris Climate Accord, an anti-climate change pact the Obama administration played a major role in negotiating that the US withdrew from under Trump. These massive shifts in foreign policy positions make the US seem like an unreliable, less attractive partner and hurt the continuity of American foreign policy.

From a social perspective, Americans shifting into two diametrically opposed camps has significant ramifications. An increasing number of people view members of the other party as a reprehensible “out group” worthy of rebuke, which has split society into an “us” versus “them” mentality. Last year, 45% of Democrats said they would be displeased if their child married a Republican and 35% of Republicans say they would be displeased if their child got married to a Democrat. Over the past few decades, families have become more ideologically homogeneous. Although their fears were largely unrealized, three out of four Americans worried that there would be violence after the 2020 election because they expected the antagonism between the parties. 


In order to reduce or mitigate the effects of polarization, some have proposed changing the structure of the US political system. In the last election, at least one party in 22 states used open primaries, which allow any registered voter to vote, instead of closed primaries. More widespread adoption of this practice could potentially lead to less extreme candidates. Some, however, advocate for a more radical overhaul, arguing that a parliamentary system which requires the executive to be picked by the party (or coalition) with a majority in the legislature would reduce deadlock. Others advocate for adopting a proportional system of representation in the legislature instead of a first-past-the-post system. This would increase the likelihood of third parties gaining representation and the need for compromise between parties. For similar reasons, some people oppose that most states give all of their electoral votes to the candidate with a majority during the presidential election and would like to see it replaced with a proportional system that would be less conducive to a two-party system. 

At the individual level, one can try to read a variety of sources and try to understand those with differing viewpoints. A great start could be to check the source list we’ve published! Focusing on policy rather than party can also help. Supporting local journalism could also reduce polarization because the perspectives it offers tend to be more moderate.

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