The U.S.A. is splitting down the middle. On political, social and economic matters, people are flocking away from the centre – away from compromise and diplomacy – and towards the extremities of the political spectrum. In their wake, the political landscape has become a hotbed for tension and violence, and a vacuum for progress.
America’s political landscape has long been polarised, with Republicans and Democrats in a constant scrap for possession of the White House. Since 1852, they are the only two political parties to have won the popular vote. Yet despite their duopolisation of the Senate, neither party has held on to power for an extensive period of time, so the Presidency has switched hands in 17 of the last 41 elections.
This demonstrates that historically, American people have been open to changing their political allegiance, based on the evolving promises of the two parties. Such open-mindedness allowed the Republican Bush to take office in 2000, with a needed commitment to National Security, and for Democratic Obama to take it back in 2008 on the grounds that Bush’s security campaigns were not working and needed reform. Such open-mindedness allowed progress.
However, such open-mindedness is under threat. Political allegiance is becoming less dependent on what people believe is best for the country at a certain time, and increasingly rooted in self-identification with the ideals of one of two diverging parties. Political preferences risk becoming core to individuals’ identities, and thus dangerously unmalleable.
The Pew Research Institute has been tracking this issue since 1994. They regularly pose a set of 10 questions to samples of American people; the questions span political and economic issues, so responses capture the state of public opinion. Recently, the results have been bleak. ‘The average partisan gap has increased from 15 percentage points to 36 points.’, their latest report reads.
It is easier to understand the implications of this by focusing on one question: respondents were asked whether they agree that ‘Immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents.’ In 1994, partisans of both political parties said ‘yes’ just as often; now, double the proportion of democrats agree (84%) as do republicans (42%). Likewise, the partisan gap in acceptance of homosexuality, concerning the role of government and concerning racial equality have all grown over the last quarter-century. And where there is division, political headwinds blow stronger.
A different study by the Pew Research Institute highlights how this new adoption of politics taints day-to-day relationships. Political preference is now a serious consideration for single Americans seeking a partner. 71% of Democrats claim that they ‘probably or definitely’ would not consider dating a Trump voter, whilst 47% of Republicans say the same about Clinton voters.
Amidst this diaspora from the political centre, extremism in politics remains marginal. But the signs suggest it is growing. Consider the two D’s: disinvitation and deplatforming, both of which have gained notoriety on U.S. college campuses. Both involve revoking the right of a speaker to address an audience on-campus because of disagreements with their views. Disinvitation means un-inviting the speaker, because their presence would create harmful backlash, and deplatforming involves drowning out the speaker during their talk (e.g. by chanting or storming the stage).
In 2019, there were 39 attempts at deplatforming or disinvitation across U.S. campuses, which is 33% more than the same time a decade ago. Most targeted speakers are from the political right. One example was in Boston University, where students attempted to deplatform ex-journalist Ben Shapiro who was there to deliver a speech on slavery. They invoked his stances on gay marriage and abortion, as well as his comment in 2002 that ‘One American soldier is worth far more than an Afghan civilian’, as their motivations. A selection of students also launched a petition for the University to deny his entrance, saying that ‘Shapiro is a racist, far-right zealot whose aim is to incite hatred and bigotry on our campus and in the larger society.’, and on the evening of his talk, a small number heckled him.
Left-wing speakers are not exempt from deplatforming. Last year, students at Southern Georgia University surrounded the accommodation of Cuban activist Jennine Capó Crucet, after she criticised white privilege. A video then circulated of university students burning her book.
You can argue for or against the two D’s. You can claim that certain speakers, whose views are harmful, do not deserve a platform. You can also claim that everyone should be allowed to speak, and suppressing this quells the first amendment. Either way, hate speech and speech-stifling promote the same thing: a fear of being called out or silenced. 53% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans say that discussing politics with someone they disagree with is stressful or frustrating (an overall rise since 2016). In turn, this denies people the chance to challenge or develop their views, propagating polarity.
It is also concerning because political leaders have adopted this attitude. For example, in 2018 a cohort of Democrats refused to applaud Trump during his state of the union address. Trump fired back by calling them ‘un-American’ and ‘treasonous’; he undermined the opposition’s concerns rather than thinking to address them.
Despite the disagreement, there is one thing that Republicans and Democrats consistently agree on: political debate is deteriorating. Partisans of both parties are equally likely to say that political debates have become more negative (86% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats agree). A similar percentage also believe that debates have become less fact-based (76% of Republicans, 79% of Democrats) and that debates have become less focused on issues (60% of Republicans, 62% of Democrats). In other words, both parties are equally concerned about splitting from each other. That’s fortunate. To stitch America’s middle back together, hands on both sides will be needed.