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Polling Matters
The Impact of Increased Political Polarization
Polling Matters

The Impact of Increased Political Polarization

As I write this, the House Intelligence Committee has voted to adopt the committee's Impeachment Inquiry Report along strict party lines. All 13 Democrats on the committee voted "Yes"; all nine Republican committee members voted "No." This party-line split is neither unusual nor unpredictable, but reflects the deep partisanship that is one of the defining aspects of our American society today.

I use the words "American society" rather than "American politics" here on purpose. We know that personal partisan identity affects one's views on a wide variety of policy issues, and, of course, partisanship is the defining determinant of people's views of their political leaders. But recent Gallup analyses show just how much our political identity today is a part of our views of a wide variety of other aspects of life, which often are not directly related to politics. Personal political identity affects views of the nation's healthcare system, how one views the economy, one's overall satisfaction with the way things are going in the nation, views of the safety of the nation's schools, worry about mass shootings, job satisfaction, views of the state of the environment and views of one's personal life situation, among others.

The impact of political partisanship appears to be increasing. As my colleague Jeff Jones has documented, the difference between Republicans' and Democrats' job approval ratings of President Donald Trump is the largest Gallup has ever measured for a president, eclipsing the already high polarization measured in approval of President Barack Obama.

Pew Research recently reported on Americans' views of the opposite political party, concluding that "the level of division and animosity -- including negative sentiments among partisans toward the members of the opposing party -- has only deepened."

An important review of academic research by journalist Thomas Edsall last year highlighted the degree to which the political polarization has increasingly taken on an emotionally negative tone. As Edsall notes: "Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty," and "The building strength of partisan antipathy -- 'negative partisanship' -- has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters."

There Are Some Benefits of Increased Political Polarization

Is this increasingly pervasive influence of party as a key and defining aspect of the way Americans look at the world around them good or bad? As is true with almost all such questions, the answer is complex.

There are some benefits to individuals and society from political polarization and conflict between opposing viewpoints. As we know, the Founding Fathers anticipated there would be conflict between factions in our society and set up the three branches of our federal government to deal with them. If handled correctly, optimal solutions are more likely to emerge when everything is subject to skeptical analysis. (Along these same lines, billionaire Ray Dalio defines this process of constant questioning as the search for "radical truth" and contends it is a secret to his business success.)

Plus, a strong emotional allegiance to one's political and ideological reference group can have significantly positive effects for individuals, who gain meaning and purpose in life from social solidarity with an in-group while railing against threatening enemies. Partisan "us versus them" perspectives are easier for many individuals to handle cognitively than are complex approaches to issues and situations that attempt to take into account multiple pluses and minuses.

And importantly, there are real economic benefits for businesses that can take advantage of and monetize the behaviors of emotionally driven partisans seeking reinforcement for their views. Among these beneficiaries: cable news networks, talk show hosts, book publishers, bloggers and podcast producers. And, of course, politicians gain support and maximize turnout when their constituents can be emotionally activated on the basis of perceived threats. As political consultants advise clients, negative campaigning is most often much more effective than efforts to remain positive.

Significant Costs of Political Polarization

But today's increase in partisanship in the U.S. also has significant harmful effects. Most importantly, polarization and partisan conflict lead to inaction, as "my way or the highway," ideologically rigid mentalities lower the probability of achieving the compromise that should be at the heart of legislative functioning. (We saw this "destroy the village in order to save it" mentality shut down the U.S. government in 2013.)

As I've reviewed previously, the American public as a whole rues this approach to politics, giving Congress and its ability to deal with domestic and international problems very low evaluations (even if the American public itself in some ways causes this political inaction by virtue of its own polarized attitudes).

We also have the sociological impact of polarization and increasing disapprobation of one's political opposites. Any functioning society needs to develop and maintain its social institutions -- the widely agreed-upon ways in which society handles the core functions necessary for survival.

But that agreement appears to be waning. Partisans on both sides increasingly see institutions in the U.S. not as beneficial and necessary, but as part of an effort by the other side to gain advantage and to perpetuate its power and philosophical positions. Liberals and Democrats today, for example, have lower trust in traditional family institutions, traditional religious institutions and the economic system. Republicans have lower trust in the scientific process, higher education, the mass media, and the role of the state (government).

These skeptical views of institutions and social structures skew us toward distrust, anger and internal infighting -- not actionable efforts to fix problems and address threats.

What Lies Ahead?

As noted, a healthy skepticism of the way things operate in society is often warranted. But our society must continue to function, and that functioning requires an underlying agreement in the legitimacy of societal institutions. This is particularly true today, when there are increasing external threats to our society and way of life from all sides, ranging from rogue states to terrorists to changes in weather and climate patterns to shifting world economies and massively unstable populations.

At some point, our society must balance the internal conflict resulting from differences in partisans' views of the world with a broader agreement on how we as a society adapt to external threats and achieve societal objectives. What will it take to do that? Presumably we need leaders who don't focus as much on taking advantage of, and stoking, partisan differences as they do looking at the larger picture. That's a difficult challenge, but one to which the American public may well be quite receptive. It's usually easier to criticize than to make efforts to agree on solutions. But we are going to need more emphasis on the latter in the years ahead, I think, if our society is to thrive and survive.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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