By David Campbell, John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Political Science and
Director, Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy
It has become commonplace, even clichéd, to speak of Americans as politically polarized. But this is not quite right—at least if, by polarized, we mean that Americans are in two warring political camps separated by a gaping ideological chasm. The American public is not polarized; American political leaders are.
Over the last generation, ideologically moderate members of Congress have become an endangered species. Yet most voters themselves continue to hew to the moderate middle. The result is an optical illusion: voters appear polarized because they are forced to choose between candidates who are sharply divided ideologically. The perception of polarization is only accentuated by the overheated rhetoric found on cable news, where politics is treated as a blood sport.
There is an entire industry of political scientists studying why our elected officials are so polarized; predictably, many different explanations have been offered. I find it striking that the dominant trend in today’s politics—polarization—comes in the wake of a previous meta-trend, a decline in the nation’s civic engagement. Throughout the 1990s, social scientists compiled copious evidence to document the drop-off in the sort of public-spirited community activities that have long characterized our “nation of joiners.” With civic involvement waning, the shrill voices of political extremists come to dominate public conversation.
Having sharply divided political parties is not necessarily a problem for democratic governance. In fact, it is easier to hold politicians accountable for their policies when political parties are cohesive, and offer clear choices to voters.
The problem is when politicians make the mistake of falling for the optical illusion they created, and assume that voters are as polarized as they are. They then spend too much time on symbolic politics, which fires up their party’s base, rather than finding solutions to substantive problems— which is what most voters want. And what we all need.