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A polarized America: How the partisan divide grew over decades, and why liberals and conservatives just can’t get along

By September 1, 2020September 8th, 2020No Comments

Evan McDonald //

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Anyone watching the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions over the past two weeks might conclude the two parties have only one thing in common: a mutual disdain for the other side.

Speakers at both conventions presented wildly different outlooks of the political landscape, but they offered the same core message. They argued that the opposing party represents an existential threat to the way of life in the United States of America, and a vote against that threat is the only way to stop it.

Election cycles put a spotlight on partisan divides, and polling numbers show President Donald Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure in the history of U.S. politics. But polls also indicate that polarization started to set in long before Trump’s ascendance. The animosity between Democrats and Republicans has been festering for decades, driven by a growing ideological divide between the parties and amplified by social media and cable TV news, experts say.

In 2020, a year defined by a global pandemic, a highly contentious election and nationwide protests over racial injustice, that divide has seemingly reached a crescendo.

“It goes beyond competition for power, and it goes beyond positions on public policy. It’s a really visceral dislike for one another,” said John C. Green, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “There’s always been some of that, but it’s become much more common.”

Experts say part of why people are so divided is because the two major parties have become more homogeneous, with citizens who identify as members of those parties sharing many of the same ideological values. They also tend to nominate candidates who are fervent in supporting the values that most appeal to the base rather than candidates who show a willingness to compromise.

But experts argue it goes deeper than that. Political messaging has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, even if we don’t recognize it. Researchers have found that someone who posts a photo of a hunting trip on social media is assumed to be a Republican, whereas someone who posts a picture of a farmer’s market is assumed to be Democrat.

Ideology is closely aligned with party affiliation

Over time, the Democratic and Republican parties have become more homogeneous. In a 2020 study, Brown University political economist Jesse Shapiro and Stanford University economists Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow found the U.S. is polarizing faster than other democracies around the world. One possible explanation is that the two major parties are have become more closely aligned with certain races, religions and political ideologies than they were in the past, the study says.

Those ideologies also tend to be concrete. It’s hard to change someone’s mind if they feel abortion should be outlawed, or if they believe racism is a severe problem in the U.S., experts say.

The electorate tends to nominate candidates who reflect those core ideologies. That has the effect of pushing the parties further apart, said Thomas Sutton, a political scientist, and director of the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University.

Political leaders, for their part, have seized on those cultural and ideological differences. Research has shown that negative advertising can motivate a candidate’s base, so Sutton said there’s an incentive to be polarizing.

“The idea that you’d ask people to stop being extreme so they can come together, compromise and listen to each other flies directly in the face of what’s proven to work to win an election,” Sutton said. “What’s proven to work is just the opposite.”

Others have seized on those cultural and ideological differences, too. Special-interest groups have fostered division to advance their agendas or make a profit, experts say.

More nefariously, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified at least 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. in 2018, many of which used race and anti-immigrant sentiments to sow division. And conspiracy theory groups like QAnon, which baselessly claims that a powerful cabal of pedophiles and cannibals are trying to take down Trump, have spread misinformation and even penetrated conservative politics.

Liberals live in cities, conservatives live in the country

Race, religion and ideology aren’t the only things strongly suggestive of a person’s politics. Experts say it’s also increasingly possible to determine how a person may vote based on where they live.

U.S. cities have long favored Democrats, but the gap is even more pronounced today. In 2018, 62 percent of urban voters identified as Democrats and 31 percent identified as Republicans. Back in 1997, only 55 percent of urban voters identified as Democrats compared to 37 percent as Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Voters used to be evenly split in rural counties, but they have become more conservative. Rural voters actually favored Democrats by a 45-44 margin in 1997. By 2018, 54 percent of urban voters identified as Republicans compared to 38 percent as Democrats, according to the same study.

“I think physical space is a really important part of this,” Green said. “People have increasingly chosen to live in homogeneous neighborhoods.”