One of the greatest threats to the American system of government is growing polarization between our two major political parties. This polarization has recently led to severe consequences such as the longest government shutdown in American history and the most politically divisive impeachment process ever seen by the country. Many blame Trump for the divisive nature of American politics over the last few years, but he and his combative approach to politics are symptoms of polarization, not the original cause. However, Trump certainly does a lot to accelerate and exacerbate the growing partisan divide. Regardless of how the trend of polarization started, it could lead to a complete breakdown in American government if it continues.
The Two-Party System
Since its birth, the two-party system has been a defining characteristic of American government. The system has worked effectively in the past because the two parties have been communicating closely enough on issues that they are able to work together. According to former Senator Jeff Flake, “The two-party system works. But it only works when both parties talk to each other” . Historically, losing presidential candidates have been gracious in defeat because they know that the winning candidate will strive to represent all Americans regardless of party . Now however, every election is framed as a fight for the survival of American democracy, with both sides claiming that a victory by the other party will spell destruction for America.
The Effects of Polarization
Polarization causes contention in more places than just government buildings. In 2016, there was a marked decrease in the total hours that Americans spent at Thanksgiving dinner due to the tense climate following Trump’s election . Rather than engage in meaningful conversations with those of different political persuasions, too many Americans choose instead to encase themselves in online echo chambers and only emerge to attack the other party. These divisive behaviors echo the examples that political leaders set for the American public. Members of Congress literally cross the physical aisles in the House and Senate in order to avoid interaction with each other . Increasingly, it feels that Republican and Democratic leaders are living in completely different worlds . When Democrats and Republicans stop talking and working together completely, it will spell disaster for a system of government predicated on cooperation and communication between the two parties. Indeed, Congress’ failures to pass important bipartisan legislation has kept its approval rating below 30 percent for the last decade . Americans are losing faith in their system of government as partisanship cripples effective governance.
Trump’s Polarizing Effect
Trump is not the original cause of polarization in the U.S. Rather, he rode a wave of partisan resentment that had been building for decades. Since he took office, he has continued to focus on what divides Americans rather than what unites them. When Bill Clinton delivered remarks after being acquitted of impeachment charges in the Senate, he offered a message of remorse and expressed a desire to move past a bitterly partisan moment in American politics. In contrast, Trump gloated over his aquittal, praised his partisan defenders in Congress, and called those who had impeached him “evil” . Like many presidents, Trump ran on a platform aimed at reversing many of the policies of his predecessor. However, Trump has gone beyond that to systematically dismantle—or attempt to dismantle—every policy passed under the Obama administration. The current Democratic presidential candidates have also signaled that upon beating Trump, they would work to reverse every policy of his administration. This growing pattern of political whiplash inhibits permanent legislation and only results in policies and laws that will last as long as a president is in office. That is no way to govern.
How to Reverse Polarization
Despite the very real trend of growing political polarization, the good news is that we are still far from the point of no return. To start the process of mending the wounds in our country, Americans from every level of society, from Senators to farmers, will have to make concerted efforts to understand where the other party is coming from. Because Trump has stoked the divisions in our country more than any other president in modern history, America will not be able to bridge its divisions until he is out of office. Several Democratic candidates including Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigiege have expressed a desire to work with Republicans and focus on uniting the country. Other candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have stoked the flames of partisanship and do not appear able or desirous to unite Americans of both parties.
However, even if the next president after Trump works with both parties, meaningful change will not happen unless individual Americans choose to look past their differences and work together. We can start by exposing ourselves to diverse news sources, carefully considering the posts we make on social media, and engaging with members of other parties to understand their perspectives. This process does not require that everyone give up their strong opinions and beliefs or become a moderate. Rather, it requires that everyone bring their diverse opinions to the table of discourse and policy-making with a willingness to talk and work together with civility. As we do so, we will discover that there is actually more that unites us as Americans than divides us. Only then will we be able to mend the partisan divides in our country and truly live up to the ideals and values that make our country so great.