American politicians have become polarized in their views on policy issues over the past forty years. While the American public has become polarized in their attitudes toward the parties, this polarization does not necessarily reflect disagreement about issues or about what our government should do.
Political polarization is often blamed for our government’s failure to take action to address national problems. However, this term is often used in vague and misleading ways. It is well-established that polarization among elected officials, such as members of Congress, is far greater today than it was during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet there is less evidence that the American people are polarized or that issue disagreements among the public have increased during this same time period. To the extent that the American public is polarized, this polarization has more to do with which politicians we vote than with what we want from those politicians.
Any time we hear a claim about why we are polarized, or what the results of polarization are, we should ask two questions: who is it that is said to be polarized, and what is it that we are polarized about? Any claim about polarization is a claim that two things have happened: that there is substantial disagreement between two groups, such as political parties, and substantial consensus within them. The term is often used to describe ideological disagreements – that is, conflict between liberals and conservatives – but the substance of these disagreements can vary over time and they do not need to have anything at all to do with ideology. Parties can be polarized even when the definition of what is conservative or liberal changes.