The Impact of U.S. Political Polarization

The past decade has been a constant “back-and-forth” between Democrats and Republicans on almost every level of American government and society. Now, America is starting to feel the impacts.


Louis Velazquez / Unsplash

The capitol building: the heart of American politics, now a place of some of the most heated cross-party animosity in America.

As Biden’s first term draws to a close and the 2024 presidential election looms, an already divided America prepares for another round in a seemingly endless political tug of war. Now, as the aftermath of former President Donald J. Trump’s presidency is still being felt, both the Republican and Democratic parties scramble to find viable presidential contenders. With political tensions at a historical high, this election is set to be one of the most pivotal elections America has seen in a while – and it’s not because of the candidates, it’s because of the impact it will have on the American people. 

Over the past decade, America has undeniably been influenced by political division. Despite the accepted belief that government is improved by the existence of opposing parties, the last few years have displayed anything but that. Anti-cooperation between Republicans and Democrats has hindered governmental processes, and in extreme cases, it has even allowed the country to regress in its policy decisions, like overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing states to censor education

“[Political] polarization is so strong in the Congress now that it is much harder to get cross-party support for any bill or judicial confirmation than in the past,” said Bruce Cain, a Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. If the past few years of legislative standstills reveal anything, it’s that political divisions have prevented both sides from achieving their political goals. 

More importantly, if this estrangement continues, the effects could be disastrous. “We are on a collision course,” said Michael H. Pasek, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago. He studies intergroup relations through the lens of politics and other factors. “Rising tensions pose a grave threat to the health of American democracy and our ability to live up to egalitarian and inclusive ideals. If we can’t find a way to tamp down [political] tension while simultaneously advancing those general ideals, we very well could find ourselves in [a] time [of] heightened assaults on democracy and political violence.”

Americans have already begun to feel the impacts of their government’s division. This January marked the two year anniversary of the Capitol Insurrection, one of the most blatant threats to democracy in American history. At that moment, political polarization had reached such a level that people were compelled to overthrow their own government, and many of them believed they were being patriotic in doing so. Though this was the most extreme example, it boiled down to the same principle which could be seen in Congress, the Supreme Court, and even in the White House leading up to the insurrection: don’t let the other side win.

This sentiment neither started nor ended with the Capitol Insurrection. Although these tensions have resurfaced at an unprecedented level within the last eight years, Democrat and Republican animosity has existed for much longer than that. Since the parties were founded in the 19th century, their contrasting ideas have shaped how American government progressed and functions today. It was only until the 70’s that political polarization – where political parties focus less on cooperation and more on achieving their own ideological extremes – began to take hold. Since then, the divide has only increased and led to negative partisanship, a state where parties resent the opposing party more than they support their own. Now, results of decades of negative partisanship can be seen at almost every level of American life.

“Polarization has had many effects at different levels,” Mr. Cain agreed. “At the voter level, people used to react retrospectively to economic conditions, rewarding politicians for economic growth and price stability, and punishing them when economic conditions were bad. But now the partisan perceptual screening is so strong among Republican and Democratic party identifiers that the day after an election in which one party replaces the other, partisan perceptions of how good economic conditions are flip immediately even when economic conditions are unchanged.”

With political division – to one extent or another – having always existed throughout American history, it begs the question: why now? It seems as if America has all the reason to be politically united now. It just bounced back from a global pandemic, its economy has returned to a continual growth, and external threats like China threaten America’s spot as the predominant superpower. Both parties say they act in the best interest of America, but they just can’t agree on how to achieve that goal. The answer to why political polarization is manifesting itself to this extent now depends on a series of extenuating circumstances. Some believe it may not be about “the other side,” but about the concept of an “us” instead.

“As a social psychologist, I tend to focus on the psychological causes,” said Mr. Pasek. “One of those causes is humans’ tendency to divide ourselves into social groups… Unfortunately, when we form an ‘us’ we also form a ‘them’. And this ‘us’ vs ‘them’ psychology can cause a lot of intergroup bias and conflict.”

This innate draw to form groups based on ideologies translates into politics – especially since political parties have increasingly combined social ideas with their policy making. That’s why it’s no surprise that political division usually follows geographic lines, where people who live closely to one another and share the same beliefs also vote the same way. “This tension can get especially heated when there are underlying differences in values and perspectives which can pit the interests of some groups against the interests of others,” continued Mr. Pasek. “Notably, we often come to think that these differences — which do exist — are larger than they are in reality. This tendency to overestimate the size of our division is fueled by partisan media and that same ‘us’ vs ‘them’ psychology. And it can exacerbate division and fuel polarization by leading us to feel like those on the other side are even evil.”

Some, like Brian Finucane, Senior Adviser for the U.S. Program at the International Crisis Group have started to see a deterioration of America on the global stage. “The United States often fails to achieve its stated foreign policy aims when there is a mismatch between those stated objectives and the resources dedicated to meeting those goals, or when the stated objectives are simply unrealistic,” he said. “This has sometimes been the case with respect to the use of economic sanctions in attempts to coerce other states or even precipitate regime change (e.g. “maximum pressure” campaigns against Iran and Venezuela) or the use of military force in attempts to fundamentally remake other societies (e.g. the freedom agenda of the George W. Bush administration).”

In almost perfect correlation, as political polarization in the U.S. increased, its foreign policy effectiveness decreased. The U.S. has already seen many of the implications of this decline, like the invasion of Ukraine, which some believe was enabled by a weakened America, and a strengthened North Korea. Most recently, however, was the Chinese spy balloon, which was an unprecedented act of impunity by a foreign power on American soil. 

With its current path, America is likely to see more instances of domestic and foreign setbacks and will remain in a political standstill where progress is impeded by governmental division. Unlike how Trump reversed many of Obama’s policies, the American government must return to a state of cooperation – with healthy bipartisanship – where parties and administrations build off of one another. 

“There are so many places where Republicans and Democrats do share common beliefs and can effectively work together,” said Mr. Pasek. “[However,] we should not compromise today about whether America should be an inclusive democracy that guarantees equal rights for all. Unfortunately, today one of the largest dividing lines between Democrats and Republicans is attitudes about race. We also see big debates about hotbed moral issues like abortion, LGBT+ rights, and religious liberty. These are places where bipartisanship would be good to achieve in service of egalitarian values, but not at the expense of achieving them.”

Once bipartisanship is treated as a means of improving society, and not as a detriment to it, America can return to its historical state of improving and progressing. “The partisanship of the 19th century tailed off under the duress of World War 2 and the Great Depression,” explained Mr. Cain. Still, he believes a more united America is possible. “Maybe climate change and economic decline will knock some sense into us.”

“There are so many places where Republicans and Democrats do share common beliefs and can effectively work together,” said Mr. Pasek. “[However,] we should not compromise today about whether America should be an inclusive democracy that guarantees equal rights for all.”