The Scourge of Political Polarization

By Sophia Markley and Meiling Laurence

As Americans, we should all be worried about the state of our nation. Political polarization, or the growing separation of political attitudes into ideological extremes, is dividing Americans and obstructing legislative progress. In order to move forwards as a society, we need to come together to compromise on issues.

Rising Political Polarization in Congress

Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines today than at any point in the last two decades, though political polarization has not always been this stark. Political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, using their widely accepted metric DW-NOMINATE, determined that political parties in Congress were relatively unpolarized from the 1930s to the 1970s.*

However, their graph shows that in recent decades, the two parties have pulled apart and ideological overlap between the parties has decreased. From the mid-1970s to today, centrists, liberal Republicans, and conservative Democrats have disappeared almost entirely.

Both Democrats and Republicans are largely unwilling to cross party lines and compromise on legislation, even as our nation faces a score of pressing issues—a gun violence epidemic, a broken healthcare system, imminent global warming, a racial justice crisis, and now the coronavirus -- that necessitate bold, concerted legislative responses. Most Americans across the ideological spectrum, frustrated by government inaction, believe that leaders should compromise to reach solutions.

Despite this, Congress has continually failed to deliver substantive results. Congress’ months-long deadlock on coronavirus stimulus exemplifies this perfectly. In May, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which would have provided another round of stimulus checks to millions of eligible Americans and extended unemployment benefits, but was never brought up for a vote in the Senate. It was not until December 21 that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, a government funding and coronavirus stimulus bill, was signed into law by both the House and Senate. For months, legislators failed to deliver swift results for the constituents whom they were elected to serve.

Social Interactions Politicized

The issue of political polarization is not limited to members of Congress. Increasingly, ordinary people have used politics as a litmus test for friendships. It is not uncommon to ask others during mundane conversations whether they are a Democrat or Republican, or if they support Trump or Biden. Their answer to this essential question dictates the course of the conversation, which often goes downhill fast when people learn that their fellow interlocutors’ political views don’t align with their own.

As people’s everyday conversations about politics become more tense and difficult, half of adults in the U.S. state that talking about politics with people they disagree with politically is “stressful and frustrating.” This is caused in part by the demand for a higher standard of conduct from an opposing party’s supporters and politicians from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as social media’s polarizing effects. Through the use of filter bubbles, which are specific algorithms that determine the content seen by individuals, social media sites like Twitter and Instagram only show people content that reinforces their preexisting political beliefs and triggers their own personal confirmation biases.

Given the contentious nature of today’s politics, Americans have become less comfortable discussing it with one another. Just 17% of the American public says they would be very comfortable talking about politics with someone they don’t know well; another 35% say they would feel somewhat comfortable. As politics has become more and more polarized, an increasing number of Americans have chosen to opt out of discussing politics because they feel that their ideas and opinions will rock the boat and that individuals with opposing ideas will not be convinced to change their views. Our unwillingness to talk about politics will ultimately hamper progress. It will be impossible to achieve positive change if we cannot come together to address our problems head-on.

What you can do

Political polarization is poisoning America and we must put an end to it. Though spending too much time online can make this simple truth seem counterintuitive, our fellow Americans are not adversaries and we have to stop viewing them as such. We must be willing to engage in meaningful conversations with people we disagree with, even if they hold views that clash with our sense of morality. We must remember that engaging in earnest dialogue is not a compromise of morals. “Compromise does not mean cowardice,” wrote John F. Kennedy in his book, Profiles in Courage. Sometimes, we must compromise in order to take constructive action and make positive changes.

Sophia Markley is a high school sophomore from Powell, Ohio and Youth Upholding Democracy’s Editor in Chief. Meiling Laurence is a high school junior from Long Island, New York. She is an editor and Chief Operating Officer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.