Can Polarization Be a Good Thing?

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A final positive consequence of polarization is that it slows down the government.

Political polarization, it is said, is tearing this country apart. As politics creeps into everything, it can seem like America is increasingly becoming a battleground for liberals and conservatives, while a shrinking moderate majority suffers the collateral damage.

Witness the left-wing condemnation of Taylor Swift’s insufficiently anti-Trump stance or the right-wing’s sudden loathing for the NFL and it will seem childish. Consider that 45% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats now believe the other party is a danger to the country and it appears nothing short of malignant. Recall the recent politically motivated shooting of Republican legislators in June, and you will conclude it is downright terminal.

But in many ways, polarization is the unhappy consequence of the increased choice enjoyed by media consumers and voters — things that most would probably consider to be not only good, but essential to a healthy democracy. Like many unpopular-but-ubiquitous phenomena, polarization also serves many important functions. First, and probably most importantly, polarization helps simplify an otherwise complicated question: for whom should we vote?

Often, votes are cast from a position economists refer to as rational ignorance–that is, a situation in which the costs of educating oneself about the various candidates and issues in question outweigh the benefits. In other words, since a single vote has next to no impact in a high-turnout election, most voters will rationally avoid spending too much energy diving into the nuts and bolts of candidates’ proposals. Therefore, one can vote for the candidate of one party or the other and, even without familiarizing himself with every position held by that candidate, have a reasonably good idea of what the person he’s voting for believes. 

Voters, thus, know more or less what they’re getting themselves into when they head to the polls: want a bigger government? Vote Democrat. Lower taxes? Vote Republican. In a completely unpolarized political landscape, the barriers to informed voting would be even larger than they are now. Voters might get discouraged and abstain or vote based on something other than policy.

Speaking of voter engagement, political polarization is theorized to help with that, too. Recent research has shown that high levels of polarization, coupled with the presence of few political parties, encourage more people to vote. Findings from the Pew Center’s 2014  study of polarization in the American public further support this conclusion: individuals at the edges of the political spectrum are shown to be most likely to say they always vote. Animus toward the opposite party appears to be a major motivating factor for such voters.

This increased passion seems to extend beyond voting as well. Voters with consistent liberal or conservative views are about twice as likely as those with mixed views to engage in  various forms of political activism. As polarization has increased, so too has the percentage of voters saying they’ve spoken to others trying to persuade them to vote for one candidate or another, according to data collected by the  American National Election Studies. However strong one’s distaste for the current tone of civil discourse, its presence is better than the alternative.

A final positive consequence of polarization is that it slows down the government. If you are a partisan with an agenda and opportunity, you probably don’t think that’s such a great thing; a year ago, liberals were heaping opprobrium upon a Republican Congress for obstructionism; now the president is leveling the  same accusation against Democrats. But once your party’s out of power, you might be a little more sympathetic to the idea that governments should move with deliberation and humility rather than speed and zeal.

Of course there really are things that require governments to move quickly and with decisiveness, and when polarization impedes that process, that can be bad. But through opposition and gridlock, minority party members perform the valuable public service of making sure the governing party does not do too much too fast. The public only has so many meaningful opportunities for input, and having trillion-dollar commitments met with some resistance until voters get to weigh in again isn’t the worst thing in the world.

All this isn’t to say that political polarization is a fundamentally good thing. It is very often tiring, unproductive, and petulant. As a self-styled moderate and small-L libertarian, I can attest to my personal dissatisfaction with the candidates, policies, and discourse produced by our two-party system. There are things we can, and in my opinion maybe should, do to foster a political system less inclined to bipolarity. But in the short-term, we have the politics we have, and it’s worth realizing that polarization is not only a consequence of but also a conduit for many of the things that are good about our system of government.

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He holds a degree in sociology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and blogs at eddiethoughts.com.

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