How Americans Were Driven to Extremes – By Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue Foreign Affairs September 25, 2019


In the United States, Polarization Runs Particularly Deep

U.S. President William Clinton, a Democrat, next to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, two Republicans, April 1995
Stringer / Reuters

Every day brings more evidence of the United States’ profound political polarization. Partisan intransigence, vitriol, and divisiveness now contaminate most government institutions. What is more, these sentiments have steadily infiltrated every nook and cranny of American life. The 2020 presidential campaign will only further intensify the country’s partisan tribalism. And despite the lofty praise that news media and civil society heap on politicians who work across party lines, the divisive trend continues with no end in sight.

The more than 35 books published on this subject in the past decade have shed much light on partisan dynamics. Yet almost without exception, they examine U.S. polarization as an isolated phenomenon, separate from the experiences of other countries. In our research and advocacy work, we have taken a different tack.

Collaborating with scholars from around the world, we have examined the striking rise of severe polarization in numerous other democracies, including Bangladesh, Colombia, Poland, and Turkey. In each case we took a close look at the roots of polarization and then traced its trajectory over time, analyzing the main drivers as well as the negative consequences and attempted remedies.

Although polarization in the United States shares some basic features with political divisions elsewhere, we found that it stood out in many crucial respects. American polarization has deep roots that have taken decades to grow and strengthen. The United States may look much like many other angry, divided countries, but its brand of polarization raises specific concerns about the future and functioning of its democracy.

WHO KILLED CONSENSUS?

In most highly polarized states, the fundamental divisions arose first among elite political actors. They then spread throughout society when politicians made calculated efforts to solidify or expand their bases. U.S. polarization has altogether different sources. Partisan sentiment bubbled up from the belly of American society, not the head.

The cultural transformations that swept the United States in the 1960s and 1970s first set the trend in motion. During this period, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement, and the sexual revolution all upended established traditions and hierarchies. Two contending visions of America emerged from the maelstrom: a progressive vision that embraced far-reaching sociopolitical change and a conservative vision that sought to block or limit it. Politicians and political parties were slow to use the emerging rift to their advantage. Instead, social activists, evangelists, and public intellectuals drove the rise of polarization within American society.

Only later did polarization worm its way into the formal political realm. As the progressive and conservative social movements gained force and coherence, their ideologues vied for influence within the Democratic and Republican parties, seeking to transform what had for several decades been two catchall, ideologically heterogeneous parties into more defined, programmatic organizations.

Partisan sentiment bubbled up from the belly of American society, not the head.

In most other seriously polarized countries, charismatic leaders were the main contributors to the schism. Not so in the United States. Until recently, there was no American equivalent to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In fact, most U.S. presidents in the past four decades have tried to appeal at least somewhat to the center—whether it was Richard Nixon pursuing a raft of relatively moderate socioeconomic policies, Bill Clinton adopting a strategy of “triangulation” after 1994, or George W. Bush trying to advance some elements of “compassionate conservatism.”

Donald Trump is a startling exception in this regard. He is the first U.S. president within living memory to wield polarization as a core political strategy, deliberately seeking to intensify partisan emotions around the most divisive issues facing the country. But his administration is as much a symptom as it is a cause of polarization. In this, Trump is unlike his counterparts in Ankara or Caracas.

To the extent that polarization in the United States comes from the bottom rather than the top, political elites cannot easily reverse or moderate it, even if they genuinely wish to do so. Countries that manage to ease polarization are typically ones where a sharply divisive figure has left the scene and his or her successors are able to walk back the corrosive partisanship. In Ecuador, for instance, President Lenín Moreno has moved away from the antidemocratic tactics of his predecessor, even though the two men come from the same party. In the United States, by contrast, partisanship has continually deepened over the last five decades, regardless of who has occupied the White House. The lesson is clear: Trump’s eventual departure may temper America’s polarization fever, but it will not cure the malady.

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