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Americans' Political Divisions Not Necessarily Bad

By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer

Americans' Political Divisions Not Necessarily Bad, Experts Say

Although Americans feel politically divided today, this polarization is not necessarily a bad thing, political experts say.

Today, the division among Americans is often depicted in the colors red and blue. During the contested 2000 election between George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore, Americans spent weeks looking at maps depicting in red the states that voted Republican and in blue the states that voted Democrat. Since then, defining political views as "red" (Republican) or "blue" (Democratic) is a regular occurrence.

American history has shown that there are periods of polarization and periods of consensus in the political landscape. This current era of polarization is seen by many as beginning in the years following the end of the Cold War.

"There's no question that the partisan polarity between the Democrats and Republicans these days ... runs deeper, certainly, than it did a generation ago," said Pietro Nivola, director of the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Nivola, who is the editor of the book Red and Blue Nation?, spoke at a November 28 forum in Washington hosted by the League of Women Voters.

"Not everything about political polarization is a bad thing," Nivola said.

Polls show that Republicans and Democrats care about different social issues and have different perceptions of what the United States' priorities should be. For example, Nivola said, there are striking differences when it comes to foreign policy. Republicans' top priorities are keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of rogue states and destroying al-Qaeda. Democrats' top goals include withdrawing from Iraq and improving multilateral relations with allies, he said.

A number of factors influence today's divide. One is that the characteristics of parties' supporters have changed in recent decades. At one time, the Democratic Party base was in the South, and Southerners tended to hold conservative views similar to many in the Republican Party. Today, those Southerners predominately support Republicans. Additionally, religious voters have moved more into the Republican camp, making the party more conservative and the Democrats more liberal, Nivola said.

An increase in the number of "safe seats" in Congress, seats typically held by the same political party from one election to the next, has furthered this polarization, according to Nivola. Because a congressman knows his district will support his party, he has no incentive to work with his opponents, Nivola said.

The media also has had an impact. The rise of Internet blogs, talk radio and cable news has created outlets that cater to certain political viewpoints, allowing Americans to choose to watch sources they find agreeable, Nivola said.

There are many problems with having such a polarized electorate, but there are some advantages as well, according to William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Passion, conflict and a measure of divisiveness are to be expected and, within limits, are not to be deplored," he said.

A divided government may have difficulties solving long-term domestic policy problems because it is difficult to reach compromises, Galston said. Polarization also "makes sustainable foreign policy much harder to put into place," he said, and when parties disagree, it is difficult to send a clear international message.

When one party controls the executive and another controls the legislature, it can be difficult to fill judicial vacancies because one branch must nominate a judge while the other must approve the nomination. On the other hand, if one party controls both branches in an era of polarization, congressional oversight of the executive is limited, affecting the accountability of government, Galston said.

Additionally, "high degrees of polarization are not good for public trust and confidence," he said. "That does not mean ... that the public is driven out of the political arena -- in fact you can see high levels of political participation coinciding with very high levels of political mistrust." This is likely one of the reasons why voter turnout has been higher in recent elections.

Having distinct alternatives is one of several advantages of having a divided electorate, Galston said. "When there is greater polarization between the parties, the electorate is offered clearer choices."

In a period of polarization, Americans realize that if they vote for a Republican, they are going to get a different type of foreign policy and a different focus on social issues than if they vote for a Democrat, Galston said. They may doubt what the differences will be when the candidates are more alike.

"Because the choices are clearer, politics are more intelligible to average citizens," he said, citing studies conducted over the past 10 years that show that Americans are improving their understanding of politics.

During a time of political consensus, those who do not share the majority's views may not be heard. When these eras end, there is an opportunity for new political views to be represented, Galston said.

Nivola and Galston suggested some potential ways of decreasing polarization. These include setting term limits for judges so there are less contentious battles over lifetime appointments, using election run-off voting so candidates have to appeal to a wider base to gain a majority of votes rather than a plurality and establishing bipartisan commissions to oversee redistricting to reduce the number of safe congressional seats.


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