international analysis and commentary

The great divergence: America’s continuing political polarization


With the House of Representatives certain to remain in Republicans’ hands for at least another two years, all eyes in these 2014 midterm elections are on the race for the Senate, now controlled by the Democrats but up for grabs on November 4th. At the time of writing, polls and predictions indicate that the Grand Old Party (GOP) is poised to win a majority here as well. This would not only spell new troubles for the administration of President Barack Obama, who would have to contend with stronger than ever opposition in both houses of Congress, but also further solidify the trend toward more political polarization in Washington.

“American politics is more polarized now that it has been in a very long time” says Justin H. Phillips, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. “And with more conservatives flocking to the Grand Old Party, and the GOP thus becoming more conservative, and vice-versa for the Democrats, this is a process that feeds on itself”.

Several factors are driving this ideological wedge between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, across the United States, from large-scale demographic changes, stemming from immigration flows, to income inequality to how campaigns are financed in the post-Citizens United era (the period since the US Supreme Court allowed private individuals and corporations to spend unlimited funds supporting their favorite candidates). The country’s political map, and how voters are conveniently organizing themselves in a blue- and a red-America, features prominently. In practice, what’s been happening, which had not been the case before in the US, is that a person’s ideology, party affiliation and place of residence are becoming one and the same. This has been giving shape to an identity-based political system comprising two main groupings – the conservative, exurban and rural Republicans and the liberal, urban Democrats – that are internally more homogenous than ever, but growing further apart from one another.

“American voters have now sorted themselves into political parties on the basis of ideology,” says Phillips, who is also a faculty fellow at Columbia’s Applied Statistics Center and Institute for Social and Economic Research. “If you went back a few decades, you would find a reasonable number of conservatives that identified as Democrats and of liberals that identified as Republicans. This is increasingly less true”.

The paths of the two parties began diverging in the mid-1960s, at the time that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. By siding with the African-American minority, the Democrats lost the support of Southern voters, who had historically turned out for them even though they had always had conservative leanings. This trend then intensified during the culture wars of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. “The debate over issues such as women’s rights, abortion rights, and then gay rights pushed more and more conservatives into the Republican fold and more and more liberals toward the Democratic Party,” says Phillips. Today, according to landmark poll by the Pew Research Center from June, “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median (middle) Democrat, compared with 64% twenty years ago. And 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, up from 70% in 1994.”

If ideology and party affiliation in the US are now fully overlapping, so are lifestyle choices. The same Pew study found, for example, that 76% of people who are “consistently liberal”, but only 20% of those who are “consistently conservative”, valued communities that had racial and ethnic diversity, while 57% of conservatives, but only 17% of liberals, would rather reside where people shared their religious faith. Additionally, 73% of liberals said they wanted to live near art museums and theaters, but only 23% of conservatives expressed a similar desire. These different preferences, cutting so clearly along ideological and party lines, mean that Republicans and Democrats increasingly aspire to live among their own and far from each other. Overall, Pew calculates that half of “consistently conservative” and 35% of “consistently liberal” respondents want to live in a place where a majority of people shares their political views. This is far less true, only 22%, of less politically engaged Americans.  

Obviously, these ideal places where conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats can cluster already exist. “The urban-rural divide is at the root of this division,” says Phillips. “Even in so-called ‘blue states’, the blue areas are urban and red areas are rural.” In fact, conservative respondents to the Pew poll said that they longed for communities where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away,” while 77% of liberals respondents said they wanted to live where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.”

So now we have a situation where conservatives are almost exclusively Republican and increasingly concentrated in rural and exurban America while nearly all liberals are Democrats who live in the country’s major cities. This tendency of voters to self-segregate geographically reduces the ideological diversity of any one area or Congressional district, even entire states (considering that there are predominantly rural states like South Dakota and predominantly urban states like California). In fact, among local governments, the norm is not gridlock but one-party rule. According to Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia, in 36 states the same party controls both the governorship and the two houses of the legislature. This naturally shrinks the possibility of organizing truly contested races and having more moderate politicians ascending to the national stage. Republican-controlled gerrymandering in 2010 (the process by which, with each new census every ten years, Congressional districts are redesigned) has exacerbated things further, by artificially creating an even greater number of safe districts for more extreme candidates to run in. But this phenomenon is not only the product of electoral maneuvering. As we have seen, it is well-rooted in reality and extends far beyond the House of Representatives.

In fact, this year it is playing out in the battle for the control of the Senate. “In this election cycle, the Democratic senators that are in danger of losing their seats come from red states,” says Phillips. “This means that moderate Democrats might be replaced by fairly conservative Republicans.” According to an analysis by the Washington Post, there are six Senate seats that, in the upcoming vote, are particularly likely to switch from one party to the other: those in Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska. These seats, all currently held by Democrats, are in largely rural states that, at least in presidential elections, have been increasingly turning out for Republicans – the last time any of them voted for a Democratic candidate being 1996.

According to Phillips, sometime in the not-so-distant future we will be reaching a peak of political polarization in this country, at which point moderation might come back into fashion. Especially if cultural/social issues, which have so profoundly contributed to shaping today’s division between red- and a blue-America, fade out of the spotlight and the equation between a voter’s ideology, party affiliation and place of residence loosens a bit. For the time being, however, Phillips, the Columbia University Professor, says it is “hard to imagine the stalemate in Washington going away.” In short, things are bound to get worse before they get better.