US Political Polarization: Republicans and Democrats

Partisanship has always existed in the United States. Though, there have been periods of decline and resurgence. But since the 1970s America has seen an increase in “party unity” votes in Congress. From 2009 to 2012 party unity votes was around 70%, a clear indication of polarization in Washington.[1] The ideological differences that exist within Congress is also indicative of the attitude of the general public. A majority of people are willing to call themselves Democrats or Republicans. “Party identification, like other attitudes, affects beliefs as well as opinions.”[2] Party affiliation is a significant tool to predict tendencies of voters, those that associate themselves with the Republican Party tend to vote Republican and those associated with the Democratic Party tend to vote Democrat. Presidential performance ratings are indication of polarization amongst the parties. Republicans tend to give a higher approval rating for Republicans and lower rating for Democrats, and the opposite is true for Democrats.[3] Elections and politics in America have become more polarized than ever before. The foundation that created a more polarized America can be found in the changes in the media, campaign financing, and the way candidates are elected.

The history of news media is one of an evolution of technology, practices, and regulatory environments that transformed the views of America. Years ago, the choices for Americans to get their news were limited to a few TV networks and local newspapers. The government instituted regulations over the broadcast news, such as the equal time provision-which required stations to provide equal access to candidates for office. The long standing FCC policy called the fairness doctrine perhaps was the most impactful in broadcast news. The policy created a condition in which news outlets were not targeting distinct core beliefs. Instead, the policy “required that stations devote a share of airtime to public affairs programming, and that they do so in a manner that is balanced and equitable.” [4] So essentially, people received the similar information at the same time. In the past the national news was delivered by few weekly papers but technological advances brought a great potential market of viewers. The introduction of cable and internet made mass communication easier and cheaper. In 2010, nearly every household in America had access to either: radio, television, and at least one mobile device.[5] Americans enjoy a greater variety of view points, and this abundance of new implies political polarization can occur. Consumers of new media rely on news source they find as reliable and tend to avoid information that contradicts their prior beliefs. Fox news a conservative news outlet has a high believability percentage among Republicans (77% in 2012) and a low believability percentage among Democrats (37% in 2012).[6] Liberal media outlets have a similar ratings, high believability among Democrats and low believability among Republicans. It is safe to assume those with conservative beliefs are more likely to tune into a conservative media outlet and those with liberal views are more likely to tune into a liberal media outlet. These media outlets provide a common narrative on current events, a narrative that is suited for their audience. The audiences in turn are being told what they want to hear. And with the capabilities of the internet, the media outlets are able to target specific audiences and tailor information to reinforce what they already believe. This abundance of new outlets and targeting by the media contributes to political polarization.

Modern campaigns for federal office are generally very expensive. Assembling campaign teams, raising funds, hiring consultants and technical specialists are all activities that cost money. There is no way for most candidates to organize and run a competitive campaign without the flow of money. Currently, money spent on major federal campaigns comes from private sources.[7] Money coming in from private sources raises a couple of problems in elections. Money is distributed unequally, so it threatens democratic equality, meaning, someone with more money could have more influence on the outcome. This also raises the concern that elected officials are more willing to serve their contributors than their constituents. This is entirely possible and could lead to elected officials taking more extreme positions on issues in order to please their contributors. For its part the federal government has stepped in to regulate the flow of campaign financing, creating the FEC to enforce law and to collect and publish detailed information on campaign contributions. A 2010 Supreme Court decision banned all limits on independent spending led to the creation of SuperPACs. SuperPacs are essentially independent committees pushing their own agenda to support a candidate or attack a candidate. Unfortunately, candidates have no control over the SuperPACs and how they spend their money. Nearly $1.3 billion was spent independently on federal campaigns by parties and PACs in 2012.[8] The money generated by the SuperPACS is mostly spent to purchase television adverstising. In 2012, over 3 million political ads aired from January 1 through Election Day.[9] There was a substantial increase in volume and cost of political ads from 2008 to 2012 and a substantial increase in attack ads from 51% of ads aired in 2008 were attack ads to 61% in 2012.[10] At the same time, nonparty independent expenditures in congressional elections grew from $120 million in 2008 to $500 million in 2012.[11] Perhaps there is a correlation between attack ads and raising campaign funds. A campaigns ability to demonize an opponent, which provokes fear and anger among his constituents, is enough to motivate the candidate’s base to donate and turn out to vote.

Polarization in Congress is not new. The extent of Congressional polarization depends on many factors, one being Primary Elections. Elections in Primaries differ than those in a general election. In Primary elections candidates tend to shift their positions either to the left or right end of the spectrum. Once they secured their party’s nomination, they shift their position to a more moderate position to attract independent voters. Candidates follow this method of campaigning because Primary constituents are more extreme than those in a general election.[12] Elections in the America preserves American democracy. Allowing citizens to pick their representatives and replace those that under performed. “The threat of replacement provides elected officials with a powerful incentive to listen to their constituents.”[13] Some voters may punish representatives that make an unpopular vote on issues by replacing him with another representative. This competition in primaries help create polarization within Congress.[14] When faced with competition in the primary election candidates tend to take extreme positions. Republicans candidates that face no competition/opponent had an average primary position .77 and those that encountered an opponent had an average primary position of .85[15], a position further from the center. This is because primary voters care more about a candidate’s positions than the general election voting base. The 2010 Tea Party phenomenon is an example of extreme and engaged primary constituents. The Tea Party movement knocked mainstream conservatives out of the picture, which in turn, hurt the Republican Party in the general election because of their extreme positions. The extremism and activism that exists in primary elections contributes to the political polarization in America.

The ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals is real. Polarization is not only present in the branches of government but also among the people. The political system that has been created has contributed greatly to the growth of polarization. The foundations can be traced back to the media’s influence over the public, financing of campaigns and the manner in which the public selects representatives.