Reject increasing political polarization in American society
Within days of President Barack Obama’s statement calling climate change “terrifying,” a Sept. 12 Public News Service article reported that America’s two main political parties have “never been farther apart” in their stances on climate change, according to an Aug. 25 study out of Oklahoma State University.
Despite both being equally pro-environment in 1970 and believing in the existence of global warming, Democrats and Republicans have since drastically polarized; in 2016, 90 percent of Democrats believe in climate change while only 30 percent of Republicans do, the study found.
This sort of political polarization is not limited only to the issue of climate change. In fact, a June 12, 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 10,000 adults found that Democrats and Republicans have become more polarized on issues across the board. Ideological overlap has plummeted so much that the study reports, “Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”
This shift has made political compromise even more difficult. Take a look at Congress’s track record, for example. In the last few years, Congress has been the least productive in recent history, according to a Sept. 23, 2014 Pew Research Center piece. One particular graphic in the article shows that, when one looks at the laws enacted by each Congress through Sept. 22 of the final year of its two-year term, the 113th Congress from 2012 to 2014 enacted the fewest substantive laws in a decade. The nine previous Congresses featured in the graphic fluctuated slightly from term to term, but overall, the data showed a negative trend. It’s important to note that, as the 114th Congress had not begun, the piece included no data for it. Even without data from the most recent Congress, however, the work of Congresses over the past 10 years shows a clear decline in productivity — not to mention the infamous government shutdown of 2013.
At least in part, increasing political polarization can explain this trend: As liberal voters slide more left and conservative voters slide more right, politicians seeking the electorate’s support must become more extreme in order to win elections. As politicians become more extreme, compromise between the opposing sides becomes harder to achieve — so Congress accomplishes less.
A recent example of such congressional dysfunction involves an issue on which everyone should be able to unite: the Zika virus. At surface level, one would not expect Congress to politicize a problem as universal as a disease that can affect a person of any creed or political leaning — but they did. According to a Sept. 6 New York Times article, while working on a bill proposing an additional $1.1 billion in funding to fight the mosquito-borne virus, Republicans added restrictions on the list of providers that could receive funding, excluding Planned Parenthood in particular.
The risk of contracting Zika, a virus that can also be sexually transmitted, can be reduced by using condoms, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, so funding for such preventative measures is crucial to slowing the spread of the disease.
Republicans have largely refused to extend this funding to Planned Parenthood, and Democrats, in turn, have largely refused to move forward without the inclusion of Planned Parenthood. Funding is now depleting without any guarantee of relief. According to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden of the CDC and the same Sept. 6 New York Times article, the CDC has already spent approximately 87 percent of the $222 million allocated to combat the Zika virus.
After a monthslong gridlock, legislators have begun to consider compromise, but in the meantime, people in the U.S. and its territories have reported almost 19,000 cases of Zika, and public health officials are growing desperate for more funding, according to a Sept. 9 Wall Street Journal article. The inability of American politicians to compromise thus far on an issue as clear-cut as a spreading disease is alarming but not unusual. As political polarization increases, legislative productivity crashes.
Another way to see this in action is through the frequency of filibusters in the Senate, a clear indicator of congressional division. Then-columnist Ezra Klein remarked in his May 15, 2012 Washington Post opinion piece that “the filibuster is [now] a constant where it used to be a rarity,” even though filibusters became easier to stop in 1975. In her own Washington Post opinion piece exactly two years later, George Washington University professor of political science Sarah Binder supported Klein’s statement, asserting that the Senate is “increasingly bound up in parliamentary knots.”
While heightened political polarization alone may not be the sole cause of these increases in filibusters and congressional discord, it is, at the very least, a contributing factor. After all, according to the same June 12, 2014 Pew Research Center piece, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans, respectively, viewed the other political party as a threat to the nation in 2014.
In today’s political climate, with such a volatile election cycle, those numbers would likely surge, but in any case, such animosity does not breed a conducive working relationship in America’s electorate or in its governing bodies. Disagreement is healthy; automatic demonization of differing opinions is not.
All people — especially those with diverse populations of constituents to represent — inevitably disagree, but Americans have now taken disagreement too far. Failure to compromise on issues like climate change and the Zika virus — issues that indiscriminately affect everyone — and vilification of the other side reflect a level of political polarization that does not bode well for America. The longer
Self-government must involve discourse — and even disagreement — in order to best serve a population of conflicting interests, but discourse and disagreement must eventually end through compromise. If they do not, nothing will ever be accomplished.
With reasonable conversation, rational parties can transcend differences for the welfare of the larger population. This practice has likely existed in some form for all of human history, but it has played a particularly important role in United States history, starting with the compromises of the Constitutional Convention in the 18th century. Without such compromises of the past, the U.S. may never have existed, and without such compromises in the future, the U.S. certainly will not remain an effective government.