How Political Polarization is Enforced

Increased polarization, where the public is splitting into all far-left Democrats and far-right Republicans (which I will refer to as “radical” or “extreme” for lack of a more neutral word), is probably the most consistent and important trend in politics in recent history. I have argued that it is one of the three factors necessary to almost completely explain modern politics.

There are surely complex political science explanations for why this is happening, ones that I am certainly not qualified to describe. Instead, I want to focus on logical interactions, certain political phenomena that are difficult to avoid or see around, that facilitate polarization. It is not necessarily that these are even harmful phenomena, but solely that they naturally enforce political partisanship and more radical ideology. None of these are completely new, and so none of them can fully explain why polarization has increased drastically. But they are worth exploring nonetheless.

1. “Sure, *you* are moderate, but most others with your ideology are more extreme”

This tends to go beyond any one individual conversation. It seems to me that any moderation of the opposite party, whether of a politician, journalist, or a real-life friend, is immediately assumed to be an outlier. This makes it difficult to imagine the other party as anything but malicious, ignorant people who cannot be trusted. And many may even act like malicious, ignorant people who cannot be trusted! But when you think of the whole group this way, and ignore any instance of their moderation, they have no reason to try to moderate and appeal to people like you. Which is my next point…

2. “I could moderate, but the other side would view me as extreme either way! So why bother?”

“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. Look, if it’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.” — Pete Buttigieg, 07/30/19

This certainly sounds like an interesting and logical point if you’re a Democrat. But consider the consequences. If everyone assumed that the other side thought the worst about them, no matter what — which may even be true! — then no one has any reason to appeal to the other side. Buttigieg’s quote, in particular, is missing one important idea. This idea is that the goal in politics is not to get the other side to stop calling you extremist. Rather, it is for voters to stop believing them. If you continue to advocate radical policies, people have no reason to doubt the other side’s claims of extremism. If you, on the other hand, moderate your views, centrist voters might begin to view the other side as crying wolf, and vote for you instead.

But beyond winning elections, moderation is a good way to have constructive discussions with the opposite political side. Yet it is often discarded, even frowned upon, because people do not believe the other side cares.

3. Shifting the Debate

This phenomenon most often applies to political rhetoric, where it is called shifting the Overton Window. The idea is that there is a certain range on the political spectrum (from left to right) of “acceptable” political opinions, called the Overton Window. Politicians tend to argue for the policies on the two ends of this range, while centrist voters tend to position themselves in the middle. However, this Overton Window can be shifted by advocating for more radical positions that then become “acceptable”. The new “centrist” position, and perhaps even the acceptable positions for the opposite political side, are thus shifted in your direction. Here is a graphic illustrating the shift of the Overton Window, using the 1800s debate over slavery as a noncontroversial example.

In this example, the Abolitionist really wants slavery to be banned. But radical positions may also be advocated for the sole purpose of shifting the Overton Window, with the advocate not actually favoring the policy. More moderately, someone may like the idea of a radical policy and advocate it primarily to shift the Overton Window. However, the advocate might not take time to fully think this idea through because they do not really intend for it to be adopted.

What makes the Overton Window shifting particularly effective in polarization, especially for people of significant political influence, is that other people do not know that they are just trying to shift the Window. It makes people of the opposite political ideology think the advocates’ side is crazy and evil for advocating such radical policies. And people of the same ideology start to take these policies seriously, believing that it is not only beneficial but actually necessary. This might be what happened with Trump’s border wall, which had lukewarm support among Trump supporters at first (likely because it was believed to be a Window-shifting idea rather than a real policy) but then became more popular as he continued to forcefully advocate it.

This same Window-shifting phenomenon that applies to political rhetoric applies to policy too, though I believe more rarely. Politicians sometimes pass policy that is more radical than they believe in, simply because they know the other side will end up undoing some of it. This is a dangerous game, but it could definitely work on the federal level, for example, where the Supreme Court often overturns passed laws (as it almost did with Obamacare). And when there’s political influence to gain, politicians are inevitably going to experiment.

4. Politicians never have limited roles

But the United States, voting like this can be extremely difficult, and sticking with the party that (even slightly) more closely aligns with your view is constantly encouraged. Granted, I am not sure that moderate voters are well enough informed to realize the exact consequences of their vote — so in practice, this may not be a very big issue —but it is certainly a theoretical factor discouraging moderation.

a. The wide scope of politicians

This problem of politicians having too wide a scope is somewhat specific to the American political system; it can be partially addressed by having a system that encourages third parties (so that voters can select politicians that better address their intricate views) or one that has more referenda and direct democracy (so that voters can more explicitly control policy issues). But this post is not meant to propose solutions. So let’s move on.

b. The entrenchment of political power.

There are many much smaller examples of how politicians can help their parties maintain political power. A moderate Democratic governor in a red state may be able to help rebuild his state party — upgrading fundraising capabilities and appointing less moderate Democrats who could one day run for office themselves. Or the moderate himself could run for national office, using his electoral success to one day win national office that voters certainly did not want him to hold when he was first elected. All of this is to say to voters: pick a side and stick with it.

Being a moderate in the US is hard. It is just much easier to stay in your own political bubble, picking the media sources that best suit you and talking politics solely to people that you agree with. Politicians (especially Republican ones) often have incentives to polarize the country. And even if you can get past these, there are these unavoidable, extremely powerful phenomena discouraging moderation.

Now, moderation may not even be a desirable quality at all! But the US has traditionally functioned based on compromise and the power of moderates. If they continue to disappear, we are headed for political turbulent times.

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