A Tale of Two Nations

Polarization in America transcends politics

By Brandon Colligan

Congressional gridlock, the election of Donald Trump, increased distrust of our institutions. All are telling of the greater divide of American society that has been increasingly evident for over two decades. Polarization towards social, political, and economic issues have increased over time, and have only now come to the forefront of discussion. Distrust in American institutions has been in sharp decline, which does little to soothe the systemic distrust amongst the American public. This is not just a matter of sensationalization by the media either. Political opinions have become starkly divided on practically every issue from media usage to attitudes towards race and crime. These seemingly opposite Americas are not just resulting in greater political divide around election season, but creating stark contrasts of the physical reality of the U.S. This limits possible policy solutions to address substantive issues facing the country. While some of these issues are ideologically driven, others are lacking in actual, statistical inequities facing communities. This provides little policy consensus at a time when voters are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of results by their policymakers.

When the country is increasingly polarized by its politics, economics divisions, which are occurring at a rapid pace, are being exacerbated. This economic divide results in dramatically different education rates, community investment dollars, overall health and standard of living. While these divides are evident in the most equal of societies, these inequalities in the U.S are becoming increasingly evident in the physical identity of the country itself.

Changing Opinions, Changing Realities

Drastic change in political attitudes are in part reflective of the greater tribalism of like minded communities. People with the same political views are becoming more likely to live together and increasingly less likely to live in a community of any political diversity. In the 2016 election, more than 61% of voters cast ballots in counties that overwhelming supported Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Less than 10% of total counties were decided by single digits, a stark contrast from the over 30% of competitive counties in the 1992 election.

This is characteristic of more than differing political attitudes, however. Economic disparities have become a key factor of the shifting political behavior in the United States. Of the 3056 counties that voted in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton gained the support of all (but relatively few) high economic output counties. Meanwhile, Donald Trump gained the support of thousands of low output counties. Twenty years earlier, this share of GDP by county had a margin of less than 10 points between candidates. In the 2016 election, this divide was closer to 30 points.

Overall economic growth and the struggle of middle class communities are also becoming incredibly divided. On one hand, you have a portion of the electorate overwhelmingly generating much of the nation’s economic growth, along with much of its development and private sector innovation. On the other, you have many communities in decline. Not all counties that voted conservative are poor or lacking in investment (many of which are some of the wealthiest in the nation). Yet those counties with the highest level of economic decline in the nation overwhelming supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election. While there have always been contrasting differences in American politics due to demographic inequities (such as the rural vs. urban divide), economic inequality is increasingly crafting red and blue counties during election season.

These stark differences in economic growth and political opinions run parallel, and ultimately question: are our politics creating these economic shifts or are economics creating political change? Whichever it is, this gap has widened significantly over the past four election cycles, and doesn’t look like it will close any time soon. This is not exactly uplifting news for those looking for greater political discourse, or any kind of substantive policy consensus. While partisanship continues to be multifaceted, economics seem to be an increasingly relevant factor driving our civil discourse. If the United States is to create political consensus in the country, it must also find ways to bridge the economic inequities that fuel it.

Differing Outcomes

Recent approaches to core issues — particularly immigration, law enforcement, and drug policy — reflect this polarization and policy outcomes. President Donald Trump has a starkly different approach to these issues in comparison to his predecessor, and often favors those who voted him into office. In contrast, President Barack Obama took a reformist approach, particularly in regards to crime and law enforcement policy. These reforms were aimed at ending inequities in diverse communities but also to his most avid supporters. President Trump plays to his base as well, basing his policies off what will most benefit legal citizens and white voters, particularly from suburban communities. The President can ultimately pass policy in a bubble because his party has control of Congress. He was also elected by a relatively small but loyal coalition, giving him little incentive to adhere to other policy demands. While Trump lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, he can ultimately look to appeal his core supporters while having no reason to moderate his policies.

Consequences

President Trump and his administration aren’t that different from the rest of the political environment in the United States. Districts are becoming less competitive and more ideologically consistent, promoting extremes over discourse. Deep red and blue districts not only cultivate an environment that rewards those who are the least participatory with the other side, but create a compounding attitude toward a zero-sum ideology for the national agenda. As electoral districts become increasingly partisan, elected officials have little incentive to support more moderate proposals, and have a greater incentive to appeal to the more extreme wings of their party. So while President Trump’s positions may not reflect the attitudes of the majority of Americans, they are certainly reflective of the greater polarization occurring within U.S politics.

Absence of intellectually diverse dialogue is foremost hindering our ability to create political consensus. The current divide within our politics has created a seemingly inevitable compounding effect. As partisan coalitions piggy-back off of more extreme positions to rally their base support, there is increasingly little room for alternative opinions. If we are to create consensus on the massive inequities occurring in this country, economic or otherwise, we must bridge the ideological divide in our communities. Many are quick to point fingers at the failure of the other side. Yet, we in many ways only have ourselves to blame for walling ourselves off from those who live and think differently than we do.