Extremism in American Politics: Part II

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In the U.S., partisan extremism has been on the rise since 1980 and has been growing more severe in recent decades. In order to investigate political extremism we must examine some of its causes. While many factors contribute to political extremism, I believe schadenfreude, party dominance, or lack thereof, and ideological polarization are the most prevalent. In part two of a three part editorial series, I will be delving into party dominance and how it has increased partisan extremism.  

While at first it may seem paradoxical, when no party dominates the political landscape extremism increases. During the two most extreme periods of U.S. politics, the Gilded Age and 1980-present, there has been no period of extended party dominance. Without this dominance, political parties have no need to compromise.

There has been a party shift nearly every election cycle for the last three decades. Because of this, it is more advantageous to the minority party to spend the four to eight years in which they do not have power campaigning against the party that does. After all, why should they show friendly relations toward the opposing party when they can instead use the division as a means to garner votes and make the American people more eager to oust the dominant party in hopes that the minority party will be more effective?

The issue with this strategy is no party will be effective with its power if there is not a long-term dominant party. Instead of working to make progress to prove worthiness to potential voters, the minority party campaigns.

The minority party is not just constantly campaigning. They are also actively seeking to block any efforts the majority party makes to create progress. Because both of the two major parties use this blockade and campaign strategy when they are not in power, it is an arduous task to make meaningful changes during any given administration.

The lack of party dominance and ineffectiveness that accompanies it are not exclusive to the executive branch. Since the 1980s Congress has been (gradually) polarizing until congressional representatives hardly vote across party lines, if at all.

Absence of cross-party voting in the legislative branch results in a party being able to pass substantive legislation if they hold the majority in Congress. Even if they do manage to enact policy, the victory will be fleeting as the opposing party can undo the legislation once they win power. This constant building and destruction of partisan legislation makes most change temporary.

To a person who grew up in the decades since the 1980s, the frequent shifts in party dominance seems normal. When I was young I thought that parties in power were required to switch if the current administration did not win re-election. Of course this is not reality, but one can see how a child can easily make that assumption. Switching power between the two parties is not a requirement but rather an attempt by voters to have a working administration. Instead, all that the voters receive is the same competition, legislation blocking and general ineffectiveness from a different party.

This back-and-forth is a relatively new concept in American politics. Except for the Gilded Age when parties were intensely competitive, the U.S. has always had a party that dominates for multiple decades.

Although uncompetitiveness may seem oppositional to progress, it is exactly how political progress thrives. During eras with one party reigning, the other must bargain with the majority in order to ensure minority demands are heard. Similarly, the majority party must cater to the minority to ensure votes for majority policies. This forced compromise catalyzes a working relationship between the parties and results in an increase in bipartisan legislation.

The give and take that occurs during uncompetitive political eras promotes cooperation between parties. Conversely, the non-stop competition and campaigning occurring during competitive eras encourages party polarization and increases political extremism.

Photo Courtesy of The Wisdom Daily.

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