Arguably the prototype example of what a democracy looks like, the American democracy provides the electorate and the press with every right, including basic human rights, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and the superiority of law. The aforementioned features should set the field for a flawless democracy and liberty on paper. However, research and surveys show that American politics have become more polarized since the 1960s, and the ideological cleavage between liberals and conservatives is now more resounding than ever. What initiated this turn of events? How should it be analyzed, and how should it be tackled?
The diminishing trend of national unity
The ever-growing trend of polarization unequivocally shapes and is shaped by American domestic and foreign policy. Thus it is crucial to study the roots of the problem. History shows that the two decades following the Second World War witnessed an unusual period of national unity and mutual political agreement between Democrats and Republicans. Researchers suggest that this period of extraordinary political consensus and the quasi-trivialization of political ideologies can be attributed to the mental and economic devastations brought about by WWII. Accordingly, voter turnout reached a record of 62.8%. This percentage would gradually decrease until the 2000 presidential elections, except for the 1992 elections, which resulted in Bill Clinton being elected president.
How did it get this bad?
In December 2019, Obama warned Democratic representatives that they should not go too far left in their policy proposals. He pointed out that they should avoid zooming out of reality, stating, “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.” While in recent times, most would argue that Donald Trump’s era was the starter of extremist inclinations, however, recent history suggests that Barack Obama’s era was the start of polarization in the late 2000s. Obama being the first black president in the history of the US was alone revolutionizing. Obama’s groundbreaking revolutionary policy proposals elicited severe reactions from the conservatives and the Republican Party, resulting in heavy resistance against the policy proposals of his administration. His primary focus on social justice caused so much resistance that his undeterrable attitude led to countless filibusters and stagnation. The stagnation and the constant disagreement in the Senate and the House of Representatives thereafter indicate that it was Obama’s very determined attitude that conflicted with the growing divide. Thus, the reaction of the Republican Party was as strong as that of Obama’s, if not stronger.
Following Obama’s presidential reign, Donald Trump took the stage with flair and strong rhetoric. The introduction of far right-wing policies under his reign triggered a hefty resistance by liberal fronts. As a result, American politics entered an unconventional age of extreme polarization. The 2020 presidential elections saw an electoral turnout percentage of 62%, the highest since the elections of 1960. However, the 1960 and 2020 elections differ in one crucial aspect: while the reason for the turnout percentage in 1960 was the political homogeneity that emerged after WWII, the cause of high turnout in 2020 was political resistance and the polarity beginning to happen. Republicans fear the loss of all-American values that constitute the pillars of American democracy. In contrast, Democrats fear the social and political consequences of nationalism and ultra-conservatism.
The culture of individualism
The individualism of Western culture allows westerners to prioritize their freedom and their own lives. Although not needing the approval and continuous support of others to survive is one of the advantages of this lifestyle, this lifestyle causes an identity crisis and loneliness problems in daily life – overly individualistic people struggle to belong to a group. Thus, they modify and twitch their beliefs to fit into a community. Such behavior naturally can trigger homogenization inside a community, deep social cleavages, and a priori conditioning. The most dangerous feature of American political polarization is the enormously increasing culture of antipathy between liberal and conservative fronts. The very principle of toleration of American democracy is decaying day by day. People tend to group for fear of losing their worth. This grouping grows day by day and is constantly fueled by traditional and social media.
The Media: the solution or aggravator?
The media is the most persuasive authority that can quickly solve this problem. The very nature of American democracy bestows a massive role on the media in policing politicians and promoting the freedom of speech. However, the media itself is also heavily polarized in all aspects of social and political life. This trend creates a loophole where the media incites polarization by openly providing funding for presidential candidates, excluding opposite views in their prime news agendas, and abandoning the principle of impartiality. Such behavior of the media, in turn, ignites more polarization in the electorate due to a psychological phenomenon called an “echo chamber.” This term refers to a situation where an individual is exposed exclusively to repetitive views of his support and gets insulated from other political perspectives. Echo chambers cause individuals to tune in to information that confirms their existing political views and thus result in confirmation bias. As a result, individuals unwittingly become more polarized and prone to extremist views. They tend to opt only for news sources that coincide with their ideology, which completes the loophole mentioned above. Primary news sources that heavily influence the political agenda include FOX News on the right and CNN on the left as prime examples.
What might be next?
What might be the scariest scenario of political polarization regarding everything mentioned before? One could point out that so long as this polarization grows, the U.S. will lose its political integrity day by day, and people will start questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. A prime example of this is the separatist movements in America as an indicator of this situation. States like California and Texas are home to active discussions about the possibility of referendums that would pave the way for each state to become an independent country. The idea that the opposing political beliefs in these two states hinder the economic and social development of the state are the issues that separatist movements base for independence. The separatist movement in California became more vocal, especially after the election of Trump. What separates the independence movements in the U.S. from other independence movements around the world are their causes and goals. While conventional independence movements are usually caused by ethnic goals like liberation and re-nationalization of a particular group of people or area, American secessionist movements are caused by the incompatibility of Democratic and Republican agendas. Liberal fronts in California aptly name the movement “Calexit,” while Republican fronts in Texas call it “Texit,” with both names being inspired by the “Brexit.” It seems highly unlikely that either of these states would secede from the federal government. However, recent events in Ukraine show that political turmoil can quickly reach its climax and get out of control at an unexpected time, with undesirable consequences for each belligerent.
As a result, it has become clear that traditional media outlets have not been and won’t be able to capture an impartial and analytical perspective on polarization. Moreover, they even deepen it. Showing no desire to solve the problem, mainstream media even exacerbates the social cleavage between liberal and conservative groups by having partisan goals instead of being impartial. Thus, it is crucial to question the integrity and the underlying zeal and motivation under news pieces. While reading a news source that confirms one’s beliefs may feel comfortable and heard, it may conceal reality. As a solution, media bias companies are crucial to tackling the exacerbation of polarization. Biasly provides deep analytics, aggregated news, and media bias education products to discover which media sources are motivated by ideological aims. By using Biasly, individuals can distinguish between news sources with different ideologies and get a more overarching perspective on domestic American politics and American foreign policy.