Uncommon Ground: The Dangers of Asymmetric Polarisation
While being interviewed for the book, 'The Last Republicans,' George Bush Sr. revealed that in the 2016 presidential elections, he voted for Hillary Clinton. Let that sink in. A former Republican president voted for the Democratic candidate. Not only that, but he also referred to President Trump as a 'blowhard.' How is it that the Republican party has been radicalized to such an extent that a person who was the leader of the party just three decades ago now believes that the party no longer represents his ideology?
It seems apparent that both parties, not just the Republican one, have radicalized over the years. Vote View, a website maintained by the Department of Political Sciences of UCLA, plotted the party ideologies of all the major political parties in Congress based on their voting records dating back more than half a century.
In the graph above, +1 on the y-axis represents an extremely conservative ideology, whereas -1 represents an extremely liberal ideology. Both parties have strayed farther from the median congressional ideology in the last five decades. The graph denotes that the Republican party has not only radicalized to a greater magnitude but has also managed to do so in much less time. Experts term this disproportionate shift of ideologies as 'Asymmetric polarisation.'
Besides creating the graph, Vote View also ranks every representative and senator based on how liberal or conservative they are. In the House of Representatives, if we look at the members of the 115th Congress, among the five most conservative Democrats and the five most liberal Republicans, only five representatives were re-elected to the 116th congress, as opposed to the eight re-elected representatives from the five most liberal Democrats and the five most conservative Republicans. This shows that the more radical the representative is, the more likely they are re-elected. This difference is even more jarring in the Senate. Among the five most liberal Democrats and the five most conservative Republicans, nine were re-elected. Among the ten centrist senators? Only four won their re-election campaigns.
This trend can also be observed in the freshman class of representatives. Certain representatives have not only been more radical than their predecessors, but they also enjoyed easy victories in their general elections. For example, among the Republicans, we have Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the baseless, blatantly false conspiracy theories of Q-Anon, won with 74% of the vote; Among the Democrats, we have Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, both of whom have shown support for 'the Green New Deal' and 'Defund the Police,' who won with 78.9% and 84.2%, respectively.
However, the most detrimental evidence of asymmetric polarization is the rise in the frequency of use of the Filibuster. Under the Obama Administration, the Filibuster was invoked a disproportionally large number of times. It also clearly displays that when Republicans invoke filibusters, Democrats usually retaliate soon after. This ideology of an eye for an eye makes it even more enticing to blame both sides instead of focusing on the issue's root. The below graph is from the Brookings Institute.
Asymmetric polarization cannot be linked to just one particular cause. From the difference in the size of the two parties' ideological spectrum to the advent of social media platforms as echo chambers, there are countless theories to explain this disproportionate radicalization, one of which is the attitude of the party leaders towards its radicalized ends.
In the Democratic party, the party leaders have often criticized the progressives. President Obama recently commented that the progressives' snappy titles would hurt them in the future elections. Additionally, it becomes more apparent with President Biden's cabinet picks that progressives will get negligible representation at the chain of command's top rungs. From Anthony Blinken, who has repeatedly shown support for US' controversial interventionist policies, to Avril Haines, who played a crucial role in Obama Administration's drone strike program, the only pick progressives are near-unanimously looking forward to is Xavier Becerra, who has consistently supported 'Medicare for All.'
In sharp contrast to this, current Republican leaders often criticize those who are not as radicalized as them. Just last month, when Georgia's secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, refused to support Trump's bogus claims of election fraud, he not only received backlash from the thousands of Trumpists but also drew the ire of many party leaders, including Trump himself, who in his Georgia rally stated, "… you got to make sure your secretary of state knows what the hell he is doing…". However, it must also be noted that some former and present Republicans did come together to form The Lincoln Project, which aimed at preventing a second Trump presidency. It seems as though the lower radicalization in the Democratic party could be owed to party leaders denouncing it. In contrast, the higher rates in the Republican party could be owed to party leaders glorifying it.
With less than a month left for President-elect Biden to be sworn in, the Democratic party is at a crossroads about how they are to deal with Republicans, with two paths stretching in front of them. They could either follow the precedent they've already set and decide to fight fire (and fury) with fire. However, if the Democrats were to stoop down to the level of the Republicans, the already fragile American democracy would be left in shambles.
Chilean politicians also traversed this path in the late 1960s, which ended up in dictatorship under the Pinochet Regime. Democracy was only re-established when leaders of the two major parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, started conversing and compromising. They stopped treating the other as their enemy and instead as their counterpart. They recognised that the person across the aisle was just a person with a different set of beliefs, one united in the commitment to the greater good. American politicians must realize this if they desire the protection of the foundations of their democracy.
Although the idea of moving from an ideology based political system to an identity-based one seems like a perfect solution, when one considers the reality we live in, it starts to lose appeal. In the past couple of months itself, various Republican officials (including the President) made genuine efforts to disfranchise thousands of votes in a bid to overturn the election in their party's favour.
When they are backed into a corner, Democrats should follow the precedent set by previous leaders like Hillary Clinton. One of Clinton's most underrated talents is her ability to find common ground with her opponents and collaborate with them for the greater good. She has worked with the likes of Sen. Rick Santorum on children's exposure to graphic images, with Sen. Trent Lott on improving the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with then Senate Majority Leader, Bill First, as a partner on legislation concerning computerized medical records, and even with former Speaker Newt Gingrich on a health care initiative. President Biden is only renowned for his years of relationship-building in the Senate, and he is known for his ability to collaborate across the aisle.
Democratic politicians should follow this precedent. The Democratic representatives and senators as a whole represent a large spectrum of political ideology. Most centrist Democrats often agree more with moderate Republicans than they do with progressive Democrats. The centrists from both parties, like President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, Sen. Romney, and Sen. Collins, ought to start collaborating to curb the rise of radicalization.
However, this becomes difficult when the number of centrist senators and Republicans keep dwindling. As Rep. Ocasio-Cortez observed, many centrists lost during this election because of poor campaigning, an issue that can be easily overcome. Furthermore, it is likely that in the next four years, due to the Trump Administration's end and the beginning of the Biden Administration, centrist ideology becomes more popular among the voters.
This year brought to attention something that most experts have been deeply concerned over for a long time. American democracy is a fragile mechanism that relies on both parties acting with good faith, mutual tolerance, and respecting institutions. It is of imminent importance to deal with asymmetric polarisation, and the first step to that is acknowledging that there is a problem, to begin with. However, any real journalism on the topic leads to claims of bias and partisanship. The actions of the Democratic party in handling this, or lack thereof, will either result in a complete breakdown of the Democratic mechanisms or the United States restoring its prestige of being one of the most robust democracies.
To conclude, here's a quote from one of the final speeches from late Sen. McCain, "Let's leave who shot first to the Historians… What have we to lose by trying to find the solutions [to problems that Americans are struggling with today, by working with those on the other side of the aisle]?"
Credit: Vote View
Credit: Brookings Institute
Illustrated by Amisha Thakre