Haven’t we always been this polarized?

By Isabelle Barrett

“16 years ago, people complained about how the parties were too similar.” – Dr Julia Azari


There is no way that can be true. Haven’t American politics always been polarized? Hasn’t there always been some sort of blood feud-like struggle between the two major parties? Was there ever a time when the partisan divide didn’t define our political climate?

I’ve always assumed that the political climate was a brutal battle between two major participants that had radically different views from one another. Hearing Dr. Julia Azari speak about her experience in the 2000 DNC was fascinating, to say the least. As she continued to other subject matter, I was still stuck on that particular statement. I knew that things were polarized now, but how polarized are they in comparison to the past?

And most importantly, when did this happen?

Immediately following her speech, I asked her that question. What were defining moments, in her opinion, that contributed towards the current polarized era? She recommended a book: The Disappearing Center by Alan I. Abramowitz.

I looked into what she said would provide further light upon the second George W. Bush term and what the Iraq War did to internally divide our country in a post-9/11 America.

Well, this book is definitely on my reading list because just the summary has absolutely caught my attention. Abramowitz notes that “very few voters were ambivalent” about President Bush in 2004. Obama increased the polarization even as he pledged to “bridge the partisan divide.” Now, we have the president-elect Trump who is debatably the single most polarizing figure in American politics to ever be seen. In fact, both major party candidates seemed to be either deeply loved or deeply hated, and many would argue that both were the latter.

The American National Election Studies organization (ANES) saw a spike in the 2004 exit polls from the Bush-Kerry presidential election, as the third chapter mentions. The ideologies of conservative vs. liberal became much more pronounced as people were willing to share that as a contributing factor to their vote. From what I can see, how the media handled the Iraq War was a huge contributing factor. Different television stations would have different (and quite clearly partisan) facts about the same issue.  Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? One station would say absolutely yes and the other would say not at all. There was an unhealthy loop regarding surrounding yourself with the same dialogue over and over again to reinforce your beliefs. Not to mention, if there is someone reiterating pieces of information from one show, how do you approach them gracefully? Because telling someone “you’re wrong” as soon as you start talking with them immediately puts them on the defense. Not to mention, it makes them feel stupid, so they’ll choose to believe one way or the other, disregarding accuracy, for the sake of maintaining some sense of their pride.

So, what happened to the center? In my opinion, the center lost its voice at the same time that people stopped listening. There are no exciting ways to chronicle the adventures of someone in the middle of the road. I know that I would much rather read about the crazy doings of someone far to one side and yelling across. The kind of voice the center has is simply unexciting. Plus, it isn’t a very lucrative calling.

According to Jonathan Rauch, it started after the country became sick of the “manipulative middlemen,” people who worked between the established parties and brokered compromise through backroom dealings. Unfortunately, these middlemen had a kind of self-organization that disappeared once they started to disappear. Meanwhile, “chaos becomes the new normal.”

Ryan Liza looks at it from the perspective that as party power relied upon larger amounts of money, there wasn’t an opportunity to ever truly compromise as a special interest group could pull their funding. Reasonably justified, yet ethically questionable and ultimately unhelpful.

So, what has happened to the center? No matter the reasoning, the majority can agree that we miss it. The days of tedious compromise are gone, and maybe it will stay that way. If so, where will that lead our country? Many have argued that this level of polarization will eventually lead to chaos; yet, we all know that without some sense of party unity, we would most likely be lost and in a different kind of chaos. In any light, partisanship is important for any democracy, especially ours. Hopefully we can balance it somewhere in the center, while finding our own center.

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