Is Polarization a Myth?
By Justin DePlato
The news, or should we say the unhinged opinion writers of American politics, are constantly peddling an idea that the American public is more polarized now than ever. Seemingly, I suggest this argument of polarization comes from a frustration with modern American politics rather than solid empirics.
Where is the polarization in the American political culture? Is it in the electorate, is it in government, and is it in the news? Or is it everywhere? And what bar is used to measure polarization today? In other words, what period of time in American political culture was the polarization measurably less?
Was it the 1960s, when three leaders were assassinated and America saw major civil unrest in the form of protests and riots? Was it in the 1970s during the worst political scandal in American history that brought down President Nixon? Was it in the 1980s, when the press and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill consistently mocked President Reagan’s competency and abilities to stay awake in White House meetings? Was it in the 1990s, when the zealous Republicans impeached President Clinton? Was it in the 2000s, when the Democrats accused President George W. Bush of “war crimes” and called him a “dictator”? Or is it now, as the Democrats and the press harangue President Trump for everything and anything he does?
A casual view of American politics would suggest the country is always divided. The question then turns to measuring just how divided the nation is at any given time. I suggest to measure polarization we look at the electorate and determine if the electorate is in fact stronger Republican and stronger Democrat now than at times in the past. Luckily, Gallup polls partisanship over time using a seven-point party identification scale (strong to weak to independent and so on).
Gallup recently published a study on party identification and found that 48% of Americans identify as independent — the highest finding in two generations. Likewise, these voters say they are moderate in nature and find the system to be intolerant and hyperpartisan. Guess what? Most Americans are not polarized. So, who is, and why?
A recent study of the American press evinced that a whopping 93% of American journalists identify as strong democrats. Likewise, a recent Gallup poll of American academics evinced a whopping 90% of college professors identify as strong Democrats. The elites in the press and in academia are hyperpartisan and are polarizing, but they do not represent the vast majority of Americans.
Further, I suggest the polarization argument was pushed on the American public for a far more sinister reason. In suggesting the electorate is polarized, the American political leaders can argue polarization is the cause for government’s failure to solve major political problems. These major political problems are (not listed in any particular order): immigration, wage deflation, education debt, impending debt crisis, insolvency of Medicare, insolvency of Social Security, automation of jobs, and a lack of “quality” jobs.
Current political leaders have no idea on how to solve any of those issues listed. Rather, they pettifog the issues and arguments for and against, use political tactics to divide voters against each other in order to run hyperpartisan campaigns, effectively easing the political leaders’ chances of getting reelected, while doing nothing about the said issues and just occupying space in Washington, DC. Take, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders. First elected to Congress in 1988. I challenge anyone to name one piece of legislation he successful championed while a House member or a senator. Yet people keep reelecting him. Why? Why does he deserve anyone’s vote? The answer: He is tactfully dividing voters against each other and distracting them away from his lack of record and results.
He is not alone. Speaker Ryan is very good at this tactic as well. Since becoming speaker, the once-deemed “policy wonk” has failed to accomplish any of his so-called brilliant ideas to balance the federal budget and to cut federal spending. And at the height of power, he is now retiring to spend time with his family. How noble of him. While the country’s impending debt bomb gets bigger, Speaker Ryan will be spending more time with his kids. Gee, thanks.
Further, think about the election of Donald Trump. He is not a social conservative — he is a protectionist — and he was a registered Democrat most of his life. Yet he is the Republican president. How? How in a time of hyperpolarization, if it is true, could a candidate who is clearly a purple blend of issue confusion in relation to party purity get elected? The answer: Moderates, who are a majority of Americans, elected him president of the United States because they are not polarized partisan warriors. Rather, they are good, decent people who actually want to see problems solved.
In the end, I have no doubt that the political elites manufactured the polarization argument, fed it to the sycophants in the so-called independent press (which they then realized that polarization stories are good for ratings) and away they went pitching a false narrative and promoting a myth. Yes, the elites in DC are polarized — we will see that hateful ilk as they attack Justice brett Kavanaugh. Yes, the press is polarized — we can all watch its hateful ways on TV every night. But, my dear friends, in the Republic, the American people at large are not polarized. That is merely a myth used by the elites to divide and conquer.
Dr. Justin DePlato is an assistant professor of political science at Robert Morris University. His expertise is the American Presidency, Constitutionalism and the American Founders. His latest book is “American Democracy: Founders, Presidents and Enlightened Philosophers.” His other books include, “American Presidential Power and the War on Terror: Does the Constitution Matter?” and “The Cavalier Presidency: Executive Power and Prerogative in Times of Crisis.”