The 2016 Election Cycle and the Polarization of Our Politics

By Nathan

It is impossible to divorce discussions about American politics from discussions about the presidency — particularly during our country’s sweeping election cycle, which is just about to enter the primary voting phase.

The president has increasingly become a polarizing figure in American politics in recent years, and the current campaign season has only continued this trend. Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump are about as far to the extremes of their political ideologies as possible, and all three candidates, Sanders and Trump especially, are gearing up for a late postseason run. This sudden rise of the fringe candidate has prompted many national debates about the strength of our political institution, and the future of our democracy.

donald trump
Donald Trump has emerged as an unlikely frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Looking at this phenomenon of successful extremist candidates, we must consider the root causes: what does this election show us about American society and politics? This question came up quite frequently for me this semester, and the answer is not cut nor dry — brilliant minds could, and do, disagree.

What is clear, however, is that American politics are currently as divisive as they’ve ever been. On July 12th, 2014, Pew Research Center (a yuuuuge data analytics site, which we are very proud of) published a study on political polarization in the United States. The paper examines what percentage of the American population has been either uniformly liberal or uniformly conservative from 1994 to 2014.

The findings were exactly what you might expect, given that candidates like Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are currently doing very well in the polls, despite being at the ideological extremes of their respective parties. Here’s the data from 1994, displaying a marker for the average liberal and average conservative:

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 7.46.27 PM
Screenshot of a graph from the Pew Research Center study on American political polarization, displaying data on party ideologies in 1994.

And, here’s the data from 2014:

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 7.46.50 PM
Screenshot of a graph from the same study, displaying the same data set from 2014.

Clearly, a shift has taken place, and we must push ourselves to consider why. Political divisiveness is, ultimately, not good for any country, but is particularly harmful for a country as prone to gridlock as the United States. Disagreement is good and healthy when people are able to find a common solution. When they are unable to do so, however, disagreement becomes unproductive, and I think many people, including myself, would argue that this is where the U.S. finds itself today.

The polarized political climate in the U.S. and the fact that party-outsider candidates like Trump and Sanders are leading several polls betrays a deep distrust from the American people in our political system. People don’t believe that the government can get stuff done. They’ve lost faith in Congress’ ability to work with each other and with the president. They no longer embrace the idea of compromise because it’s just not happening. Consequently, people are moving towards the extremes of their respective parties, which is resulting in a deep-seated wariness of people from the opposition.

Oftentimes, it can be difficult for us to remove ourselves from the recent past and examine it from a historical perspective, because we do not know what is coming in the future — the events of the past eight to ten years haven’t fully played out yet. However, whenever we examine political events from other time periods, an integral part of our analysis must be historical context. So, when discussing this phenomenon of extreme polarization in conjunction with the 2016 election cycle, we must try to discuss the “historical context” to the best of our ability.

In 2008, the American economy tanked. The stock market crashed, the housing market went belly-up, and millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes. As with any event that impacts such a large chunk of the population, this abrupt recession was a watershed moment for President Bush, who was just leaving office, and President Obama, who was only months away from inauguration.

recession cartoon
Political cartoon about the 2008 recession. Many are still upset that the people who allowed the economy collapse are still running the banks that are still deemed “too big to fail.”

In response to the biggest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. government passed an $832 billion stimulus package, to save banks that were deemed “too big to fail.” The goal of the stimulus was to play the role of defibrillator to the American economy’s heart; to give it a jolt before it rolled over and died. The success of the stimulus is still heavily debated; this editorial from the New York Times argues that it was successful, but many would disagree.

Ultimately, many working-class American citizens felt as though the government’s response to this situation was insufficient. The people who ran those big banks kept their jobs, despite being the same people who drove the economy into the ground in the first place. From that point forward, we began to see a failure of trust in the “establishment.” The Occupy Wall Street/99% movements strike my memory quite vividly when I think of this loss of faith — I remember riding the bus home from my middle school in downtown Portland, hearing the nearing shouts of the 99% marchers several blocks away, and watching rows and rows of SWAT teams and police officers roll by the bus in an effort to maintain order.

Image of a 99% rally following the 2008 recession.

I didn’t know it then, but that movement and those protests were emblematic of a much larger issue in America; the aforementioned anti-establishment attitude that would give rise to outsider candidates like Sanders, the longest serving independent Congressman in U.S. history, and Trump, a marauding misogynistic menace with absolutely no political experience. Even though most of the jobs lost during the recession have since been recovered, the ripples of distrust caused by the economic collapse and the government’s consequent response have not yet died down.

Despite how disparate their political ideologies are, Sanders and Trump both draw supporters because they are not a part of the establishment that many believe has failed the American people. This rhetoric is very clear when watching both men speak — Sanders has difficulty going five minutes without harping on the wage gap or the failures of the establishment, and Trump’s anti-government rhetoric is easy for him to roll out, having never been a member of the government himself.

Senate Democrats Hold Briefing On GOP Attack On Social Security
Photo of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

What’s the solution? This is a hard question, and hope for an answer is not currently on the horizon. However, I think it is clear that, on an ideological level, we must all — liberals and conservatives alike — embrace the middle-of-the-road, compromising spirit that made possible the creation of this nation amongst people who did not always agree.

This point is one that I think is particularly important to understand. People have a tendency to think that compromise means convincing people to agree with them. However, compromise actually means that both parties involved have to give something up in order to reach an agreement, and it is this nuance learned in most second grade classrooms that seems to escape many Americans citizens and their elected representatives. For example, I confess myself a flaming liberal; on some issues, I feel as though Bernie Sanders himself is not quite far enough to the left. As such, it is easy for me to decry candidates like Trump as hopeless idiots, content to watch the world burn, and for me to look down upon those who support Trump as misguided or ignorant.

I forget, however, that many reasonable Republicans might be voting for one of those extreme right-wing candidates, because they feel the same about Sanders as I feel about Trump. As this country’s political scene has become increasingly polarized, middle-of-the-road candidates have had a harder and harder time winning; in this election already, we’ve seen candidates like Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton throw themselves towards the extreme ends of their parties’ ideology in attempts to with the support of a broader swath of voters. Backing a middle-of-the-road candidate is something of a futile effort in today’s day and age; as we see in the graphs above, there are enough people at both extremes of the political spectrum to rule out a candidate that splits the total voting population right down the middle.

This election, as with the 99% movement of my middle school years, is only a symptom of a spreading national mentality. It will be interesting to watch if and how Democrats and Republicans alike continue to move towards their respective extremes. It will also be interesting to see if this increasing polarization gives way to the rise of a serious third, or perhaps even fourth, party option, catering to the discontented folks in the middle; the people who still believe in compromise.

Whatever comes of this situation, however, one thing is clear; the trust between the establishment government and the people it serves has been fractured, and something must be done to repair that connection. This is a nation built on constructive disagreement and collaborative debate, and we will need to return to that place of level-headedness if we are to maintain our status as a functioning democracy.

I can only be sure of one thing about the future of this country as it climbs out of this political hole: it’s gonna be yuuuuuge.

All works cited are hyperlinked above. A complete, formatted list of citations can be found here.


One comment

  1. This is a really well-written exploration of the current state of the American voter base. I think there’s a lot of truth in the quote “Backing a middle-of-the-road candidate is something of a futile effort in today’s day and age; … there are enough people at both extremes of the political spectrum to rule out a candidate that splits the total voting population right down the middle.” When the news came out that Michael Bloomberg was considering running for president, my first thought was “I don’t think he could ever win,” but maybe he can. Bloomberg has been a member of both parties, but Sanders is also the nation’s longest-serving independent senator, and his campaign is looking more and more powerful by the day. I wonder if you think a third or fourth party is the true solution to this, or if there’s a way to fix our current two-party system — maybe by strengthening the independent base?


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