Unpacking political polarization



Polarization is a term that’s thrown around among political pundits as one reason for the decline of American democracy — often without an explanation of what it really means. We’re even guilty of it on this show.

Boris Shor
Boris Shor

To set the record straight, we talk with Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the University of Houston and an expert on political polarization. Boris breaks down what polarization means, and how it looks different in the legislature and in public opinion. This is an important distinction that is often lost in the efforts to frame the narrative in a tweet or a soundbite.

He also argues that polarization is not always an negative, especially at the state level, and that it might not be time to blow up the entire party system just yet. While we hear a lot about polarization in the media and from politicians (who themselves are polarized), the rest of the country might be more in the middle than you think.

This conversation was recorded at the 2018 State Politics and Policy Conference, which was hosted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and brought more than 100 political science scholars to Penn State.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Have you seen politics become more polarized where you live?
  • Do you think one side has become more polarized than the other?
  • Do you think this is a dangerous trend in politics?
  • Have you either questioned or changed your party identification recently due to increased polarization?
  • What do you think is responsible for the increase in political polarization in American politics?
  • Do you think this problem will get worse in the years to come?

Interview Highlights

[4:00] What is political polarization?

Boris: Primarily, it is an ideological separation between two sides. This can also mean that the division within a particular party is decreasing. This means that the party is becoming more homogenous in terms of ideology. The internal division of ideology within parties goes away as polarization becomes more severe.

[5:50] Do we see this pulling apart happening within the political parties?

Boris: We are seeing this happen in the legislature. IT has been happening for a while now. It is less clear if this is happening in public opinion. In the area of public opinion, we are seeing people be more set in their parties. For example, those who may have been republicans but shift over to the Democratic Party are now much more likely to remain in the Republican Party.

[7:00] What does this polarization mean for democracy?

Boris: We’re concerned specifically because of how many veto points there are within our system. At many points, opposition can shut down certain initiatives. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances of government shutting down become greater. This is usually from a small group. One example is the freedom caucus within the republican side of Congress. This is a very small portion of the body, but one that can shut down legislation. Things operate a little differently at the state level where they are fewer such veto points. Also, we have fewer super majority requirements at the state level. Another important aspect of state politics is that you often have single party dominated states. For example, California is dominated by democrats. Therefore, if you’re a democrat, you like polarization in California because that means you can pass more progressive policies easily.

[10:30] Officials in California changed their primary process. What this an attempt to curtail polarization?

Boris: Yes, it was. Those leading the effort, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, were concerned about not having a political home given that they were moderates. The idea was to get away from the party controlled primary process which usually gives us very partisan candidates in the general election. Under the new system everyone runs together. We studied this system to see if it really had a moderating effect. A problem we’re seeing is lower voter turnout in the primaries. In order for this new system to work, you need higher turnout. We’re also seeing the problem of lockouts where the party splits their vote between multiple candidates and end up without a candidate getting to the state of the general election. Our study shows that this process worked for democrats in California but not the republicans. However, where it has been successful in increasing competition.

[13:50] How does this new type of system work in a more polarized public?

Boris: We know that polarization is significant at the primary stage of elections. We know that there are usually Marco movements in political opinion within the public. For example, we’ll have a long run of leadership of one party or the other, but then people will simply want a change and go with the other side. Overall, I think public opinion is more moderate that that of elites in politics.

[16:00] What effect does gerrymandering have on polarization?

Boris: It probably has less of an impact on polarization than people would expect. A good example of this is the US Senate. These state boundaries have been set for a long time. However, we still see these elected officials being more and more partisan. The point of gerrymandering is to create districts where your party firmly controls. This should actually lead to the majority party in a certain district having to moderate itself a little since they’re trying to appeal to a larger portion of the electorate. So I don’t think polarization is the chief concern as it relates to gerrymandering.

[18:00] How can states ensure that those in office truly represent those who live there?

Boris: Part of the problem is that we don’t know all of the relevant factors impacting political polarization. While we might not be able to impact the causes, we may be able to limit the effects, such as gridlock often caused by polarization. One way to do this would be eliminating the supermajority requirements in legislatures. However, this then leads to a debate about federalism and the idea of elections having consequences in that the majority who won gets to pass the policies they were elected to implement.

[20:00] What factors lead to “party switchers” which is someone moving from one party to another?

Boris: Party switching can be dangerous because you simply make a lot of enemies. What I think it points to is the importance of ideology. The increase in this phenomenon is a result of the parties becoming more and more polarized. Now we see moderates who simply don’t fit within what the respective parties have become.

[23:00] Following the 2016 election, some have proposed simply blowing up the traditional party structure. What do you think about that?

Boris: There is a reason we have two parties. This is due to the structure of our electoral system. What I’m more interested in is internal changes within the parties along ideological lines. For example, within the Republican Party, we’re still waiting to see if its going to become the party of Trump. There is reason to think this won’t happen given how trump candidates have faired in state elections. Switching over to democrats, here we are seeing the party becoming more polarized with prospective 2020 candidates now all supporting Medicare for all or single payer healthcare.


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