September 27th, 2019
Political polarization further divides America
SAT. | 12-05-20 | OPINION
In recent years, American politics have become more confrontational and polarized than nearly anything we’ve ever encountered outside of war. An increasingly apparent attitude of “us vs. them” has divided our country to the point that political arguments digressing into physical violence is not uncommon. Moderate politics have essentially been pushed to the back burners as radical movements on both ends of the political spectrum have sprung up across the country. This obviously begs several questions. How did this happen? What will the future of American politics look like? Have we gone too far? And even those only begin to scratch the surface.
Graphic by William Becker
As with many political issues, one of the key points in understanding political polarization is discerning how it started in the first place. Frankly, I think it comes down to generational trends and differences. It’s a commonly held belief that every generation is slightly more progressive than the last. The older members of society pass their wisdom down to the next generation, who often adapt them towards more liberal aspects. This expected progressiveness combined with the advent of the internet age has allowed for the constant exchange of ideas among the youngest and most progressive generations. However, this has also allowed for the exchange of ideas among extremist groups, who up until recently had been heavily fractured due to their widespread but disconnected existence. The introduction of central online platforms has allowed for the unification of these groups to an extent unprecedented in modern times, thus contributing to rampant political polarization.
This increasing trend of younger generations and online connectivity has also had a marked effect on party relations. As a sizable portion of younger citizens have settled in the Democratic Party, there has been an increasingly large Democratic presence on the internet and social media, especially on social platforms such as Instagram and TikTok which appeal to younger generations. For example, Democratic U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently played the massively popular online game Among Us along with a party of popular gaming streamers. The event, which gathered nearly half a million viewers as it was streamed on the gaming platform Twitch, was a successful attempt at connecting younger generations with the Democratic Party through the digital world.
In comparison, the Republican Party’s appeal to older, more conservative generations has resulted in its social media presence falling behind in terms of connection to younger generations. Now there is certainly no lack of it, as plenty of younger citizens have remained in the Republican Party and serve as their liaison with the digital world. The fact of the matter is that the older, larger portion of Republicans (who have mostly remained on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter) struggle to make personal connections online and generate appeal for their party. Hence, the split in our two-party system continues to widen as both parties struggle to remain connected in a rapidly changing modern world.
One of the more difficult aspects of our polarization issue is that neither party is specifically at fault. Because both ends of the spectrum are currently trending away from each other, compromise is difficult to accomplish but badly needed. The Democratic and Republican parties have very separate agendas and ideologies, and neither party easily accepts alternatives. Bipartisanship on most proposals is quite uncommon in state and national legislatures, and proceedings can drag on for weeks or months with little compromise occurring. According to an analysis performed by Quorum, “the Senate in recent years has passed the lowest percentage of House bills in the past quarter century.” We have essentially gone from a country where political parties were opponents working towards a common goal to a country where our political parties practically act as regimes, biding their time in a bid for the next presidency. We have strayed away from their original purpose of simply providing a common platform for those with similar political goals. George Washington himself was opposed to the existence of political parties, stating in his 1796 Farewell Address that "However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion." He foresaw their inevitable creation, and feared that they would divide the American people. In literary terms, I think we call that “foreshadowing.”
On top of the issues already at hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically worsened this polarization. Whereas the Democrats advocate for stricter national restrictions and mask mandates, the Republican platform encourages Americans to make their own decisions, which falls along their ideology of individuality and individual rights. These differing responses carried into the tense 2020 presidential election, in which Democratic President-elect Joe Biden frequently encouraged Americans to be strictly health-conscious while Republican incumbent Donald Trump attempted to downplay the severity of the pandemic in order to ease the American public’s fear. These hugely different responses have generated growing animosity between the parties which continues to worsen.
When considering the issue of political polarization in the U.S., it is clear that a resolution will not be easy to attain. Compromise requires agreement between both parties, something which is hard to accomplish right now in our hostile political environment. So what can be done to ease these partisan divides and attempt to reunify the American public? To start, social media needs to be taken back to its roots. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram need to be utilized for civil discourse and discussion, not direct verbal warfare as is common nowadays. The common group-thinking attitude of “us vs. them” that has plagued national politics is only strengthened by this abuse. Another way in which this issue could be dealt with is organizing digital communication training for older politicians. Many struggle to navigate digital platforms, resulting in a disconnect between their traditional world and the technological world of younger generations. Though that does not nearly encompass all the polarization issues that require resolution, it is certainly a start.
In an increasingly digital world, technology and social media are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, these online platforms allow for an unprecedented level of communication between individuals and groups over long distances. On the other hand, their widespread use has resulted in increasing disconnects between younger generations who embrace it and older generations who struggle to adapt. This, in turn, has resulted in polarization of the younger Democratic Party and the older, more conservative Republican Party. This issue exists on a national scale with a plethora of factors, and resolution will not be easy to attain. With the White House in a time of transition and the legislative and judicial branches thoroughly contested, only time will tell what the future of American politics may bring.