We Should Cheer Political Polarization. Here is Why.

The rise of Donald Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders) has led to a renewed wave of punditry decrying the polarization of both government and the electorate itself. Dave Wasserman’s recent piece at FiveThirtyEight is the latest, most influential version of the genre, but the conventional wisdom is usually the same: polarized politics is bad, the most extreme partisans determine elections through the primary system, special interest money in politics scares politicians into taking the party line, and voters themselves have culturally and geographically sorted themselves such that they only live around those who agree with them. Partisan analysis also suggests that one side or the other has gone off the rails and lost touch with reality, while tech-centered analysis points out that online communications technology has allowed national, universal political messaging to overtake local variations that might have tempered polarization.

All of these things are true, but they are merely symptoms of a problem that is not actually a disease but healthy for the nation as a whole. The biggest reason for our current polarization lies in history of slavery, the Civil Rights movement and the post-1960s realignment, combined with America’s peculiar, first-past-the-post two-party system.

We cannot even begin to discuss polarization without acknowledging that America is nearly unique among developed democracies in not having a multi-party parliamentary system. Our winner-take-all elections ensure that self-interested voters will sort themselves into one of two major political parties, because to split the vote among two factions of a similar ideology simply hands the victory off to a less appealing ideological choice (remember Ralph Nader?) In other developed democracies with parliamentary systems there is a safety valve for acknowledging political viewpoints outside the mainstream through multiple viable choices that actually reflect voter sentiment. The lack of such a safety valve in U.S. politics means that our two parties are inflexible, subject to rampant corporate corruption, and frustrating for those who feel that their viewpoints aren’t adequately reflected. It also means that on rare occasions outside-the-mainstream factions like Trumpists can take over one of the parties, leaving more moderate ideological adherents without a viable home.

But that’s only a part of the problem. After all, the system seemed to work fine until very recently, right?

Well, not exactly. And only if you were white and male.

The history of the United States until 1860 was one of increasing polarization, mostly over the issue of slavery. Andrew Jackson’s gerrymandering and winner-take-all politics accelerated the trend, but the system was remarkably unstable. It required Great Compromise after Great Compromise, the Federalist Party rose and fell, then the Whigs, and the country’s divided politics ended up manifesting in a brutal, bloody civil war lasting four years–largely along party lines, with the Democrats on the wrong side of history. It’s hard to get more divided and polarized than that. Then decades of reconstruction, bitterly contested still along party lines, followed.

So the supposedly halcyon period of bipartisan compromise only truly lasted under 100 years from somewhere around the 1890s until the Tip-n-Ronnie days of the mid-1980s, and died officially with the Gingrich Revolution in 1994. How was it possible?

It worked because the country was a state of suspended animation and cross-purpose politics that only worked as long as we ignored Jim Crow and women’s rights. The Republican Party located in the urban northeast and the libertarian west was fiscally conservative but socially liberal. The Southern, rural and agrarian Democratic Party was populist, fiscally liberal but socially conservative. The Progressive Movement from which modern progressivism takes its name was forward-thinking in many ways, but it was also deeply religiously conservative, the anti-evolution side of the Scopes monkey trial and the origins of the disastrous policy of Prohibition that still resonates in our failed drug war today.

Cross-partisan trades were easy in this context. Republican policies helped the rich at the expense of the poor, but its cosmopolitan attitudes generally served disadvantaged communities. Democratic New Deal-style policies benefited the poor, but its reliance on a racist, socially conservative voting base ensured that disadvantaged communities would remain so. Thus, a series of policy trades was possible across party lines: recognizing that each side could do things the other one needed, horse trading on domestic budgets and international priorities was possible, and both rich whites and poor whites could be reasonably taken care of as long as everyone ignored the needs of women and minorities. The budgetary linking of farm aid and food stamps was a perfect example of this sort of governance: Democrats liked helping the poor and farms but didn’t like that the aid went to minorities; Republicans hated the idea of using government money to benefit anyone, but understood that farmers and disadvantaged communities required some assistance.

The Civil Rights movement and the late-1960s realignment changed all that. It took about twenty years and the culmination of Nixonian Southern Strategy politics to fully manifest itself, but the conversion of the Democratic Party to a fully fiscally and socially liberal party left Republicans to pick up the bigoted, socially conservative vote. Gradually, socially reasonable middle-class northeastern and western Republicans became Democrats, while racist conservative Southern whites flipped to the Republican Party (the transition took much longer downballot than it did at the top of the ticket, but it was inevitable nonetheless.)

Now the two parties have nothing left with which to agree with one another. They have nothing worth trading to one another.

The Republican Party is that of dominant groups (rich donors, white people, and men) while the Democratic Party is a coalition of the disadvantaged (poor and middle class, minorities and women,) The only misalignment comes from the much-discussed disconnect among poor white men who are disadvantaged economically but want to retain their racial and gender privileges. In the past they have ignored their economic disadvantage, preferring to focus on their social grievances. But lately economic inequality has grown to such lengths that they have stopped buying into Mitt Romney-style supply-side ideology, even as their social resentments have risen to a fever pitch. Hence, Donald Trump. On the left there are rich liberals who do put their social and philosophical interests ahead of their raw economic interests–but even then a stable society in which the poor and the middle class do not rise into open revolt is in their direct interest as well.

In short, a older white upper-middle-class male suburban Trump voter has almost no aligning interests with a young urban, struggling black female Sanders voter, outside of perhaps a focus on a less-corporate-friendly trade policy. There is almost no reason for these two voters to agree on anything. Of course it’s true that single-payer healthcare and other universal policies will benefit that Trump voter as well, but good luck getting him to see that if it comes at the cost of higher taxes.

By extension, the representatives those two people elect will cater to the interests of their constituents–as well they should! The only reason they wouldn’t is if corporate special interests warp and corrupt the political system such that they serve a corporate-friendly socially liberal and fiscally conservative “center” beloved of Thomas Friedman and Michael Bloomberg, but few actual voters.

The solution to this “problem” isn’t to futilely take power out of the hands of interested voters through awful “reforms” like top-two primaries and such. The answer is to fix what’s actually broken, which is America’s lingering racism and sexism, as well as its outdated first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting system. Social conservatism has to die on the vine to allow for reasonable disagreement and interest-trading over budgetary issues. More importantly, we need a parliamentary system that allows outlets for both the populist left and the populist right to make itself heard, thereby reducing the power of corrupting corporate interests in the center-left and the center-right, and allowing multi-lateral policy trades in a series of shifting alliances.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.