Political polarization: good or bad?

In the course of studying social and political polarization, I have been thinking about the perceptions of political polarization over the past few decades. In the 1970s, there was much worrying about the decline of political parties, and a general concern that voters were deciding based on slick advertising and personality-based campaigns rather than on firmer grounds such as party affiliation. Since 2000, many political scientists, sociologists, and commentators have been disturbed by increasing political polarization (the differences between so-called red and blue America, and so forth), and a general concern that Democrats and Republicans can’t communicate with each other. Now in modern times, this could be worth revisiting, especially considering campaigns can now be swayed via the use of much more technologically advanced marketing. For example, if a politician wished to get their word out on a certain subject matter, they might wish to look at software options that can send bulk SMS for political campaign advertising. The landscape of politics has greatly changed alongside the digital transformation of the world.

The funny thing is, the commentators were concerned about declining party ID in the 1970s and increased party alignment in the 2000s. Shouldn’t one of these have made them happy? Well, there are a lot of ways of looking at this, but one perspective is that most of the scholars and commentators have been Democrats. In the 1970s, most voters were Democrats, but the Republicans were doing pretty well in Presidential elections. It would be natural for a scholar to think: if only voters were sensible and followed their party ID, all would go well. . . . Contrariwise, in the 2000s, the voters are split between the parties, with more identified as conservative than as liberal–but they agree with the Democrats on many specific issues, especially economic issues. Thus, it’s natural for a commentator to feel that if only the voters were following issues, rather than the liberal/conservative label, all would go well. . . .

Not that I’m saying there should be no cause for concern. As far as I can tell from books I’ve read, parties in the 1960s and earlier had a large local component, and voting by party involved a long chain of personal connections. Whereas voting by ideology now, whether liberal or conservative, is often more abstract and media-driven. So I think that it’s possible to argue that parties then were beneficial in a way that ideologies now are not. All the same, it’s interesting to see how these trends are perceived.

1 thought on “Political polarization: good or bad?

  1. i enjoy your thoughts. the media is seemingly constrained to approach issues through polarization. in my way of thinking, there are pragmatic reasons for this not even partially related to platform or policy. my fear is the tendency to vote on issues based solely on party affiliation, something americans have always been fond of. although i can't corroborate this claim with statistical analysis, it just feels to me like we as a nation are sliding to the extremes. who was it that said "dichotomizing pathologizes?"

    America: the beautiful and bellicose monster just yearning to give Aristotle the bird.

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