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Modern America: The Rise of Political Polarisation

Modern America: The Rise of Political Polarisation


When Anthony Bennett travelled to the United States in 1980 during the Presidential campaign he asked a leading Republican what the difference between the Republican and Democrats were, to which the Congressman replied “That’s simple, we have the Republican party who are like your Conservative party and the Democrats, who are like your Conservative party". What he meant by this coy remark was that the Parties had so much overlap in their social and economic beliefs that they were essentially the same. At the time they were mockingly referred to as “Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum”. This view was backed up by several academics such as David S Broder who affirmed this view in his book ‘The Parties Over’ and even as recently as 1997 when Mark Shields stated that they were ‘the same party split on the issue of abortion’. Over the last twenty-five years however the situation has clearly changed.

Ideologically the parties are now more diverse than ever. A Pew Research Centre Poll published in 2016 showed that over 90% of Americans now believe that the two parties are distinctly different. The Rise of Trump has only furthered this political diversion.

The Republicans are now socially conservative being pro-life, anti-immigration and pro-gun control. While the Democrats are the complete opposite. The Republicans are economically liberal believing in de-regulation and low taxation with most believing in the use of ‘Trickle-down economics’ first made popular by Reagan. The Democrats meanwhile are economically conservative believing in higher taxation to reinvest and re-distribute wealth to the poorer communities in America.  Funnily enough, though considered a wildcard, Trump does seem to adhere to these same political beliefs and overall has towed the GOP’s party line.

One major difference that can explain this change is that back in the 50s and 60s, the party leadership was incredibly powerful. So powerful that they often received nicknames such as bosses, backroom tyrants and kingmakers (due to their influence over selecting the party’s presidential candidate). Richard Daley was a prime example of one of these “kingmakers” and demonstrating the situation within the parties during this period. He was the democrat mayor of Chicago who controlled the city with an iron fist denying city funding to anyone who went against him, he also had a huge influence over the unions and press as well as the running of all schools in the city; this style of leadership was known as ‘machine politics’.

He demonstrated the massive amount of political sway he had accrued when he effectively won the election for Kennedy. Kennedy then went on to win Illinois which narrowly won him the presidency against Nixon.

However during the late 60s and 70s following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal there was a shift in power that took power away from the party leadership that sat in the party’s national committees and gave it instead to the party membership. The most obvious example of this being Trumps ability to win the Republican ticket against the wishes of the party leader’s who preferred more traditional candidates such as Jeb Bush and later Ted Cruz. The party leadership lost control in three areas: organisation, the electorate and in Washington.

Primaries replaced caucuses as the main way in which states selected their pick for presidential candidate. This meant that wildcard candidates who were popular with the membership but not with the party leadership, like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and more recently Trump in 2016 were now able to stand and even win. This had the knock-on effect of candidates beginning to raise their own money. Acts such as the 1974 FECA act put restraints on how much money candidates could receive and as a result candidate opted to campaign and fundraise themselves meaning that when they got to Congress they owed the party nothing and could act far more independently.

 Around this time as a direct result of new media outlets such as television the party bosses within cities began to lose control ending machine politics. A famous example of this was in 1968 when a fight broke out at the Democrat National Convention over the two candidates, all of this was caught on TV camera and Daley (who was still Mayor at the time) was powerless to censure it as he had done with the newspapers as it was being broadcast live.

Linking back to Benett’s original quote, during the 1980s political scientists and professors such as Key noticed that Congress had become very individualistic. This gave rise to the idea of a “100 party system” with each state having their own distinct and clear version of both parties. There were far more examples of individuals in Congress “reaching across the Aisle” with representatives from the same geographic area often forming political alliances over bills that affected their areas. There was also a high amount of split ticket voting in the 1980s, showing volatility in the electorate as they recognised that voting for an individual mattered more than voting for a party.

A united government no longer meant that the President was guaranteed support. Reagan for example was supported by some Democrats and criticized by some Republicans (oh how times have changed). He also however pointed out that this was not necessarily a bad thing as parties are theoretically unconstitutional as the Founding Fathers had intended for there to be no parties- Thomas Adams famously warned those in Congress to “beware of factions”. Given the current circumstances Adams appears to be correct.

The most clear starting point for the modern split in ideology and increased internal unity was the 1994 Republican “Contract with America”. In this the GOP outlined several conservative policies that every candidate would support. This differed from the standard format whereby different candidates would stand on their own individual platform based primarily on local issues, creating a clear geographic split in terms of ideology between party candidates across the country. Showing that the ‘Contract with America’ not only created a clearly defined image and party identity for the Republicans but it also unified the party across the entire country.

The Democrats furthered this division in the 2005 Mid-Terms with the “Six for 06” which had a largely similar effect on the Democrat party. The creation of this distinct identity has led to not only increased partisanship, but partisanship to such an extent that it is now referred to as “hyper-partisanship”. Research by Five Thirty Eight suggests that in the House, the most liberal Republican is still more conservative than the most Conservative democrats and vice versa.

This change in values and ideology has resulted in an exceptional geographic switch with the southern conservative Democrats such as the Texan ‘Dixe-crats’ switching loyalty to the Republicans. The South used to be the Democrat’s heartland but now the deep south dogmatically votes for GOP candidates at every election. Meanwhile the North Eastern States that used to vote for the Republicans such Massachusetts or New Jersey have all consistently voted democrat since 1992.

So the question is then, what now? Can the US ever hope to break the gridlock? Well ever an optimist, I would say yes. The two parties do still share fundamental values: a belief in capitalism, patriotism and freedom of speech, to name a few. They are also both practically identical in terms of structure with their being 50 state level party bodies and a national committee overseeing them. They also both lack manifestos and instead rely on state-based and national platforms that change regularly depending on the issue of the day. While there is a clear ideological discontent between progressive Democrats and Tea Party Republicans there is some overlap such as with Blue Dog Democrats and Main Street Republicans who can still vote together on some issues while New Democrats and Libertarian Republicans can also agree on particular issues such as their liberal stance on drugs. So in the current climate of name-calling and figure pointing, things may seem bleak but there are some signs that in the long run, the two parties can come together for the good of America.

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