In his farewell address, President George Washington outlined the dangers of forming political parties and the destruction of political polarization the nation would have. Despite being aligned with the Federalists of his time, Washington remained moderate, having a cabinet that represented most spectrums in American politics. Unfortunately, immediately following the absence of Washington, the polarization of politics in America began. The Revolution of 1800 in which the Democratic-Republican Party captured the White House ultimately led to the demolition of the Federalist Party. The following decades would lead to a political fight between the Democratic-Republicans and Whigs arguing over foreign policy in the growing nation. While the post-Civil War Era saw a prolonged era of relative political stabilization with the Republican Party holding strong dominance from the 1860s to the 1930s, American politics slowly ran down the path of mutual destruction.
The modern Democrats and Republicans throughout the late 20th Century would disagree on virtually everything and the final decade of the 20th Century, marked by the Clinton Administration, would see a time of political unrest with the 104th Congress symbolizing the American government’s instability. Even with the short-lived Republican dominance with the Regan, H.W. and Bush Administrations, there was never a prolonged period of complete dominance for either party with parties interchanging after almost every president (with the exception of the Roosevelt-Truman, Kennedy-Johnson, and Reagan-Bush administration shifts). In “America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight,” Morris P. Fiorina offers an explanation as to why American politics have become so unstable.
Fiorina first suggests an increasing divide in the ideologies of the “political class, including convention delegates, donors and campaign activists.” With such divide in the political establishments, the viewpoints of the politicians that the American people see on national television have become significantly polarized; this accounts for the substantive influence that has led to the polarization that the common people have gone through. Fewer moderates now enter public office, leading many congressional districts during elections to lack a moderate candidate that people can vote for. With this, election results have only gotten more polarized.
A secondary explanation has been that the American electorate no longer has a home party. Fiorina states that “the distributions of partisanship and ideology have not changed shape for a generation.” However, what has changed is the sorting of political views. In the past, many Americans aligned with parties that often diverged from their own political views; since the advancements of social media and the press, Americans tend to vote for the wrong party, leading many to choose one party and stay with it. This polarizes individuals as many end up walking deeper into the core of each ideology, a plausible explanation for the rise of far left and right groups.
The 2012 Election serves as an example of diverging politics according to Fiorina. Since “the American people do not give mandates” but instead turn to hiring “parties provisionally and grant them a probationary period to prove their worth,” many politicians find themselves establishing themselves on Capitol Hill or the White House only to have their pass revoked due to their poor history. Despite Bush starting his first year rather strong in terms of approval with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing military response, the end of his term in 2008 saw a shift towards progressivism with the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 completely tarnishing the face of the Republicans.
On the other hand, in “Polarized or Sorted? Just What’s Wrong With Our Politics, Anyways?” Alan I. Abramowitz provides a response to Fiorina’s explanations for the divergences in American politics. Instead of pointing to the differentiations in political groups, Abramowitz instead points to the rise in minority groups within the voting base. The article presents that “between 1992 and 2012, the nonwhite share of the presidential electorate more than doubled, from 13 percent to 28 percent,” leading to a “growing racial divide between the Democratic and Republican electoral coalitions.” This change has been bolstered by a change in societal norms: “the decline of the traditional family, the growing economic independence of women, and the rise of the women’s and gay rights movements” has led to an era of new ideologies. With different political beliefs on the table, parties have been quick to respond to them by adjusting their stances on many viewpoints in order to win a bigger electoral coalition. This has ultimately led to a strong polarization as the far wings of both spectrums have increased greatly: “white evangelical Christains now make up one of the largest and most loyal components of the Republican electoral coalition while secular voters overwhelmingly support Democrats.”
Additionally, instead of pointing to a sorting of voters to account for the changes in how people vote, Abramowitz points to the distribution of the voters on the ideology scale as also becoming more polarized. Unlike Fiorina who chose to blame the political class itself for being very polarized, Abramowitz points to the individual voters as a source of such drift. The article presents that “The distance between the average Democratic voter and the average Republican voter on the 7-point ideology scale more than doubled, from .9 units in 1972 to 2.2 units in 2008 with the average Republican voters going from a mean score of 4.7 in 1972 to a mean score of 5.4 in 2008 and the average Democratic voter going from a mean score of 3.7 in 1972 to a mean score of 3.2 in 2008.” This is complementary to the initial point that Abramowitz pointed out as the demographics have changed, making it only sensible that the viewpoints of the American people would also change. A shifted demographics in America with the rise of immigration in the late 20th century would also make plausible sense.
Viewing these political and demographic changes from a historical lens, the dangers of such shifts are evidently seen. Even during the landslide election victories by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, there has never been such polarization in how the American people view the two political parties. The only instance in which something similar has ever occurred in American history are the decades leading up to the Civil War. The established parties saw great upheavals with the Democratic-Republicans, the Whigs, and the Know-Nothings losing their stances with the topic of abolishment becoming the most prevalent topic. At the center of the historical connection is the fact that the Republican and Democratic parties have both lost their initial identities. From the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Donald Trump, the Republican party has gotten increasingly conservative while originating from white supremacy in the South to eventually Barack Obama, the Democratic Party has become one of the most progressive parties in the history of America.
Polarization has occurred on numerous instances throughout political history, whether it be strictly American or international. However, given the rapid rates in which parties have become shifted to the far wings of their set spectrums, it is highly likely that in the recent future there will be a meltdown of ideologies, party alignments, and political culture. While it’s clear that America will get back on its feet even with polarization, chaos seems to be inevitable.