Advantages and Disadvantages of America’s Ideological Polarization

Advantages and Disadvantages of America’s Ideological Polarization
By José Azel
If in English “ with ” and “pro” are opposites, is Congress the
opposite of progress? That old political joke came to mind while
reviewing the recently released Pew Research Center report on the
political polarization of the American public.
The report confirms what we all suspected: “Republicans and Democrats
are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is
deeper and more widespread — than at any time in the past two
decades.” This phenomenon deserves our critical reflection because the
polarization of US politics along ideological lines results in a
dysfunctional government where political differences are intractable
and nothing gets accomplished.
In a sense this is a continuation of the “factions” theme brought up
in 1787 by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in essays 9 and 10 of
the Federalist Papers.
Political differences can occur for reasons other than ideology, such
as seeking favors, following a charismatic leader, press influence,
and the like. Yet the new American divide appears to be ideological,
specifically about what constitutes the legitimate role of government
in our lives.
The aforementioned Pew report shows that the proportion of Americans
expressing consistently conservative or consistently progressive views
has doubled over the last two decades. In other words, ideologically
we have become much more rigid, and the ideological overlap between
the two parties has diminished.
Currently, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the
Democratic median, compared to 64 percent 20 years ago. And 94 percent
of Democrats are to the left of the Republican median, when it was 70
percent in 1994. Partisan animosity has increased in every party, and
voters with a highly negative view of the opposite party have more
than doubled.
Scholars argue over whether political polarization originates with the
elites, from the top down, or with the population, from the bottom up.
Take your pick, but the fact is that when polarization occurs,
political leaders take more differentiated positions. Is that good or
The word ideology has a bad reputation, and the word ideologue gained
a pejorative meaning when Napoleon Bonaparte used it to ridicule his
political opponents. However, an ideology is a coherent system of
ideas that is affirmed in our assumptions about reality. The
implications of political polarization are not necessarily clear, and
the polarization of US politics can include both beneficial and
detrimental consequences.
From the perspective of those of us who favor limited government,
legislative inactivity that impedes government growth is a good
result. If a damaging U.S. national debt of $151,000 per taxpayer
means government efficiency, then legislative gridlock would be
preferable. On the other hand, public division in international
affairs can undermine a nation’s tenacity, strengthen enemies, and
discourage allies.
Before we demonize the ideological polarization of U.S. politics,
let’s consider how it might increase the accountability of politicians
to voters. In a polarized environment, elected officials must take
distinctively defined and preferably exemplary positions. His campaign
promises remain more visible, and they will have less leeway for
niceties to avoid voter censure.
When it comes to issues that confront the nation, meeting
ideologically in the middle, as is often suggested, does not
necessarily lead to high-quality legislation.
According to some political scientists, another positive consequence
of polarization is that it results in politically informed voting.
That is, when voters have clearer options, they focus more on the
substantial differences in the candidates’ policies than on their
personal attributes, and political discourse is based more on
political ideas than on the candidate’s age, gender, or other
We all recognize that our politicians must govern effectively and
address the issues of the people, and that political polarization
increases the bottleneck in our legislative process, reducing the
volume of legislation enacted. However, governing effectively does not
require the enactment of large amounts of new legislation. Let us also
accept that not unnecessarily enacting new legislation is in itself a
legitimate and decisive legislative action.
* * * * *
José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a 13 year-old political exile in what
has been dubbed Operation Pedro Pan — the largest unaccompanied child
refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He is
currently dedicated to the in-depth analyses of Cuba’s economic,
social and political state, with a keen interest in post-Castro-Cuba
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