‘A Perfect Storm for the Ambitious, Extreme Ideologue’

Economic conditions are improving at a much faster rate in the United States than they are in Europe, but partisan polarization is worsening here at a more intense pace than elsewhere. What gives?

While no issue divides America today as slavery did in the 1850s, or as the struggle between agricultural and industrial interests did at the turn of the last century, voters are now split into warring camps at remarkable levels of hostility.

Is there something unique to the United States that exacerbates partisan animosity, even in good times, perhaps especially in good times? Is this yet another dark side to American exceptionalism?

A forthcoming paper by Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “Fractionalized and Polarized Party Systems in Western Democracies,” and a paper from 2021, “Cross-Country Trends in Affective Polarization,” by the economists Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow, of Stanford, and Jesse M. Shapiro of Harvard, forcefully raise the question: What’s going on in this country?

Norris shows in her paper how the gulf between the Democratic and Republican parties on social and economic issues is extreme compared with other Western democracies.

The United States, Norris writes, is

While Norris focuses on “ideological polarization” — differences between the parties on issues — the cross-country trends paper concentrates on what has come to be called “affective polarization.”

Five political scientists — Shanto Iyengar, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra and Sean J. Westwood — have constructed a definition of affective polarization:

In their examination of affective polarization in advanced democracies, Boxell, Gentzkow and Shapiro tracked patterns in 12 countries over the 40 years from 1980 to 2020 and found that

In 1978, they write, “the average (American) partisan rated in-party members 27.4 points higher than out-party members”; by 2020, the difference had doubled, to 56.3 points.

The authors stress that they are measuring the rate of increase in the levels of polarization, as opposed to comparing absolute levels of polarization in different countries.

In the case of affective polarization, the authors collected “data on trends in economic, media, demographic and political factors that may be related to” partisan animosity and found that “trends in measures of inequality, openness to trade, the share getting news online, and the fraction foreign-born are either negatively or weakly associated with trends in affective polarization.”

Conversely, “trends in the number of 24-hour news channels, the nonwhite share, partisan sorting, and elite polarization are positively associated with trends in affective polarization. The association is strongest for the nonwhite share and elite polarization.”

I asked Gentzkow to elaborate, and he made a series of points in an email:

First, “the likelihood that someone in the other party looks like you, thinks like you, shares your values, has similar views on some issues to you has gone steadily down.”

Second, “racial and native/immigrant divisions matter a lot.” Not only is the nonwhite share of the population a significant factor, but in the United States the parties are “becoming more sorted by race — e.g., fewer Black Republicans or fewer conservative white Democrats in the South.”

Third, “we have good evidence that the rise of partisan cable TV in the U.S. has played a non-trivial role in increasing polarization. (This is in contrast to social media, which I think the evidence suggests played a more limited role.)”

Fourth, “maybe most important for recent years, I think the role of leaders is large.” A good example, Gentzkow continued, “is Covid: I doubt things like masks and vaccines would have become so polarized politically if politicians had not found it to their advantage to make them so.”

Sean Westwood, who teaches at Dartmouth, succinctly described the contemporary contradictions in American politics in an email:

Two factors Westwood cited are the self-interest of politicians and the intensity of partisan loyalty superseding other considerations: “Politicians, instead of focusing on the large list of issues where there is broad agreement in the American public, endlessly re-litigate social divides like gay rights and abortion to mobilize a base they fear will stay home if they focus on the mundane details of pragmatic governance.”

At the same time, Westwood said, “even when partisan Americans disagree with the candidate from their party on a large number of issues, most are unwilling to entertain crossing the aisle to vote for a candidate from the other party.”

This subservience to party, in Westwood’s view, is driven by “activists on both sides of the aisle who have reframed political conflict as a battle over moral truth and not a conflict over issue positions. If you disagree with the other party’s stance on an issue, you are not just wrong, but amoral.”

I asked Steven Hahn, a historian at N.Y.U. whose forthcoming book, “Illiberal America,” will be published next year, for his views on our current predicament. He emailed in response:

But “especially important,” Hahn continued, “has been the organization and mobilization of the Christian right, certainly since the late 1970s, but especially since the 1990s. They have been demonizing the state and the public sector more generally and have helped turn the Republicans into a Christian (and effectively white) nationalist party.”

I asked Ariel Malka, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, a similar set of questions about polarization, and he, too, replied by email.

“The two major parties,” he said, “have diverged from one another ideologically at both the elite level and among partisans in the general population over the last five decades.” He argued that “it’s most useful to talk about this in terms of the institutional incentives that arise in our political system and how these intersect with cultural and demographic changes in society and the geographic distribution of partisans.”

First, Malka wrote,

Then, he continued,

Why do these forces differ in their impact in this country compared with other Western democracies?


Those I queried repeatedly cited the role of the two-party winner-take-all system in exacerbating polarization in this country.

Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford, emailed me on this issue:

Iyengar cited two other “big differences between the U.S. and the other industrialized democracies”:

In addition, Iyengar continued, “A second major difference concerns the length of political campaigns.” American elections “are not only prolonged, they also generate a much louder message and the message is overwhelmingly negative.”

Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia, maintained in an email that the continuing issue of inclusion of marginalized groups — racial, ethnic and sexual — plays a key role in American polarization:

Foner shares the view that the two-party system fosters polarization, noting that “it may even be that the political system produces polarization, even though on many issues Americans may not be as divided as appears on the surface.”

Some scholars view polarization as part of a larger problem.

Jefferson Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history this year for his book “Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power,” emailed me his view that “the problem is not just polarization. In most social and political indicators of advanced industrial nations, the United States is an outlier in terms of inequality and the attendant negative social and political outcomes.”

Polarization, Cowie wrote, “might be the easiest to explain (no parliamentary system, post-civil rights era sorting of liberals and conservatives, etc.) but the overall problems posed by inequality, and how far beyond every other nation the United States is, are deep.”

Yphtach Lelkes, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out by email that “it’s fairly clear that the current era of polarization in the United States started after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and political parties became far more homogeneous. The Republicans became conservative; the Democrats liberals.”

In general, Lelkes wrote, “I am skeptical of any monocausal explanation, and these things probably interact in complex ways. For instance, aspects of the political system in the United States, the legal system, e.g., campaign finance, and the media system, which rewards extremity and sensationalism, create a perfect storm for the ambitious, extreme ideologue.”

In addition, he continued, in the United States, “while partisanship is very strong, parties are very weak. Models show that when parties are strong, and leaders can impose discipline on their members, the parties will converge on the median voter (who is far more moderate than the median politician).”

Lelkes wrote that he is “also skeptical of the argument that it’s this issue or that issue. Voters’ positions on policies tend to follow their party’s positions on issues. Politicians manufacture culture wars for political gain.”

While scholars have mixed views on the role of inequality as an explanation for high levels of partisan polarization in this country, the United States stands far apart from most other democracies on measures of the gap between rich and poor.

Take the case of inequality calculated by the Gini index of 0 to 1, with 0 no inequality at all and 1 the most extreme inequality possible.

According to the most recent data comparing the level of inequality among the 38 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Gini index for the United States, at 0.375, was higher than it was for 33 other countries, exceeded only by Costa Rica, Mexico, Turkey and Bulgaria.

A very similar pattern emerges in the case of the O.E.C.D.’s most recent data on deaths by assault. The violent death rate in United States is substantially higher, 7.4 for every 100,000 residents, than it is for 34 countries other countries, exceeded only by Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica.

At one level, then, the question is: Are the negatives — hostility, violence, inequality, government dysfunction and polarization — inevitable companions to American dynamism, economic growth, innovation and the availability of ever-expanding services and goods that improve the quality of life?

Whatever the answer to that question, it masks a larger issue. How much damage will affective polarization and ideological conflict wreak on the fragile democratic underpinnings that have sustained the nation through a civil war, the Great Depression and many lesser recessions, two world wars, presidential assassinations and centuries of racial upheaval?

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