Hillary Clinton; Donald Trump (Getty/Joe Raedle/Photo montage by Salon)

The hyper-polarization of America: It didn't start with Trump and Clinton, and it won't end with them

This year's campaign might be the worst yet, but the anger and divisiveness is nothing new


Alexander George Theodoridis
November 8, 2016 1:59PM (UTC)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American America’s satire show of record, "Saturday Night Live," bid farewell to the 2016 campaign with a sketch that featured the actors who have played Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) and Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) feeling so soiled by the negativity of the campaign that they needed a cathartic hug fest in the microcosm of the U.S. body politic that is Times Square. Moving on from the rancor of this election season is something the nation as a whole will not be able to do so easily. This is because of the scope and nature of the partisan polarization that shapes the current moment in American politics.

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In fact, the divisiveness and anxiety associated with the recent campaign is very much a product of this hyper-polarization. To understand this, it is important to recognize that ours is not necessarily a polarization characterized by cavernous ideological gaps or a pronounced bimodal issue position distribution. Recent scholarship on American politics tells us that we are a nation largely sorted into two teams, a people less and less able to understand or empathize with the other side. In "Affect, Not Ideology," Shanto Iyengar, Guarav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes show that recent decades have seen a dramatic growth in the difference between how Americans feel about their own party and the other party. And, as Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster emphasize, the real change has been in how negatively we feel about the other side.

My own research repeatedly shows that partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious, attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways. This linkage of party and “self” changes the way we judge the parties and incorporate and receive new information. I and others have measured profound, nearly blinding, application of motivated reasoning on the part of voters when evaluating the actions of politicians and partisans from the two sides. Stephen Goggin and I show the pronounced boosting that occurs when voters are asked to rate a typical candidate from both parties on positive and negative traits. John Henderson and I find that selectivity produces a pervasive impulse to skip campaign ads from the other party. Relatedly, Leonie Huddy, Lilliana Mason and Lene Aarøe show that partisan identity fundamentally shapes levels of engagement in campaign activity.

Bringing all of this together in "Why Washington Won’t Work," Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph paint a picture of a nation overwhelmed by dislike and distrust of the other side and, consequently, a political process incapable of compromise and mired in gridlock. It is easy to see how this sort of distrust and dysfunction manifests itself in assumptions about the motivations (malice, greed, bigotry, moral bankruptcy, or most charitably, naiveté) of those on the other partisan team. Those on the other side no longer just disagree about the issues, they are bad people with dangerous ideas. This paves the way for efforts to delegitimize electoral outcomes and the leaders they produce by way of conspiracy theories and claims of fraud and rigging. Perhaps most dangerously, it also can be used to justify nearly any effort to thwart the opposition.

This hyper-polarization did not begin with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It has been building for years. For hints of this transition, we can look to the colors of our electoral map in presidential elections over the years. For most of the last century, much of the map would swing wildly between red and blue from election to election. A Republican landslide would turn most states red. A strong year for Democrats would be nearly all blue. In 1984, for instance, Walter Mondale, a perfectly credible Democratic nominee, won only two places: his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Four years later, Michael Dukakis did only slightly better. In the 1990s, though, the current map began to take shape. And, heading into Tuesday’s election there are 40 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have voted for the same party in every election since 2000. This sort of partisan electoral stability at the state level is historically anomalous and it reflects a, perhaps unprecedented, level of polarization in the electorate. This is the climate in which Hillary Clinton will have to govern.

But one particular feature of this polarization is especially important to understand heading into the next four years. In "Asymmetric Politics," Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins show us that there are important qualitative differences between the two parties. The Democratic Party is best described as a collection of group interests and the Republican Party is unified by ideology. This finding may be either the cause of or the product of a phenomenon my research has shown in study after study. Over and over, Republican voters behave in more partisan ways than do their Democratic counterparts. They identify more strongly with their party. They show more bias in interpreting new information. They engage in more boosting of their party (and derogation of the other). And, they are more likely to select out of receiving messages from the other side.

I call this phenomenon of asymmetric polarization the Intensity Gap. This is a gap I believe has played an important role in President Obama’s administration and will likely be even more important heading into a Clinton Administration. The heightened partisan intensity among Republicans both frees and constrains Republican leaders. It can mean that they suffer a penalty among their base for appearing to compromise with Democrats, and that the consequences of obstruction minimal. This all foretells ongoing gridlock and division.

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So, while Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon may be able to scrub off the patina of unease and loathing that characterized Campaign 2016, the effects of this campaign and the hyper-polarization that produced it are likely to linger into the foreseeable future.


Alexander George Theodoridis

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