Extremism in American Politics: Part III

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In the U.S., partisan extremism has been on the rise since 1980. 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 the final installment of a three-part editorial series, I will be delving into ideological polarization and how it has increased partisan extremism.

In a democracy, party factionalization should be expected. In fact, James Madison acknowledged this in the 10th essay of the Federalist Papers when he said, “A zeal for different opinions [has], in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

However, just because the founding fathers acknowledged the tendency of humans to faction does not mean they condoned it. Patrick Henry warned the American people of the dangers of factions when he said, “United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.”

While party factionalization is inevitable in a democratic form of government, ideological polarization is something that we should be wary of just as the founding fathers were. The American public has not heeded their warnings.

Party factionalization is beneficial to a democracy because it promotes a diversity of thought and discussion. Differing ideas can be heard, so one group of people does not hold all the power. In short, party factionalization helps prevent tyranny.

However, it is when political factions polarize based on differing ideologies that the efficiency of a democratic system is damaged. Ideological polarization is born out of differences in key ideological beliefs that catalyze a stark rift between the opposing sides. In the political realm, ideological polarization is one of the main reasons that parties have drastically decreased their cooperation since the 1980s.

Ideological polarization creates a lack of compassion between people of opposing parties. It is not uncommon for one to refuse socialize with a person of opposing beliefs. Quite frankly, this notion is unfounded and idiotic. By refusing to socialize with people of opposing beliefs, we actively deepen animosity. A refusal to communicate perpetuates harsh misunderstandings and deepens the ideological divide.

The lack of compassion between parties increases snap judgements about people of opposing views. A Republican might assume that Democrats are lazy and want everything done for them. A Democrat might assume Republicans do not want to help people in unfavorable economic situations. In reality the Democrat might believe the government should take responsibility for individuals in need but still enjoy the benefits of private corporations. The Republican might truly care about those in need but believe that private corporations are the most effective way to give aid.

The point is, we do not know and should not assume why a person is in his chosen political party. The fact that he is in a party that one does not agree with in its entirity does not mean the individual is despicable. It is vital, especially in this age of heightened tension and gridlock between parties, to understand that differences in views do not have to result in staunch divisions.

Another dangerous aspect of ideological polarization is ignorant party allegiance. While it is not detrimental for a person to align with a political party, it is when the party’s beliefs supersede his own that party allegiance becomes blind. For instance, one might belong to party X or Y only because his family is in the same party or because he is not educated on the party’s policies. These ignorant bases for political decisions are dangerous when a person mindlessly casts votes for certain candidates, who may not actually share the same beliefs as him but are rather led by party affiliation.

Blind party allegiance is also evident when a person changes his beliefs, which are ideally firmly founded, when party national conventions do. If a person aligns with a party’s complete agenda, ignoring nuanced views he personally holds, does he really have beliefs at all? Other than the belief in a party’s superiority, it can be assumed that he does not. And, to quote the musical “Hamilton,” “If you stand for nothing… what will you fall for?”

Ideological polarization can lead politicians and the public to refuse to work together. In Congress, the lack of compassion and understanding between parties is one of numerous reasons that cross-party voting has decreased as ideological polarization has increased.

In the public, the lack of compassion and understanding between parties can mean ending friendships, cutting family ties and creating enemies due to allegiances to factions that are polarizing more and more as time goes on.

Ideological polarization affects people of all ages and can control the relationships we have with each other in both the political and private realms. It is important that we aid in the decreasing polarization. Choose to find middle-ground with people who have different views than you. Choose to not pledge allegiance to belligerent political parties. Choose to support bipartisan legislation because it promotes compromise. By actively choosing to do these things, we can begin to decrease the ideological polarization that has accelerated political extremism in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of bbnpov.com.

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