Polarization and Intransigence

Building off of an earlier post about the causes of the current US government crisis, here are some more thoughts about how we got here, and specifically why negotiation is less possible than in the past.

Let’s get theoretical for a moment: imagine that we can place political ideology on a grid (one-, two-, or three-dimensions, it doesn’t matter). The extent of polarization in a two-party system is the distance d between Party A and Party B. Generally, it will be more difficult for parties separated by a greater d to achieve compromise, because the center point between the two parties is very far from their ideal ideological point.

This is a crude theoretical framework, of course: parties would be better represented by an ideal policy point for each party adherent (each voter), combined to create a blob that shows both policy position and density of adherents at each policy position. (This means, if political ideology can be described with a two-dimensional plot, the number of party members at each policy point will turn a two-dimensional blob into a three-dimensional blob, with the largest number of adherents producing the highest “peak.”)

However we design this “map” of American political opinions, an analysis of the change in the distance between the centers of the Democratic and Republican blobs over the past 30-50 years would almost certainly show an increase. The “average Democrat” and the “average Republican” (if we pretend that those exist for a moment) are further apart on policy than they used to be.

The result of this is both clear and concerning: it is much harder for Democrats and Republicans to compromise. Here’s an analogy: you are planning a week-long vacation with a friend. You want to visit Vermont, she wants to visit the Adirondacks. You can compromise by spending a few days in Lake Placid and a few days in Burlington. But what if you want to go to Germany and your friend wants to go to South Africa? It will be much harder to come up with a route that satisfies both of you and doesn’t cost a prohibitive amount. In the same way, if two parties are much further apart on policy, then it will be very difficult–if not impossible–for the sides to find an acceptable compromise.

In this sense, many commentators and armchair pundits (I’m looking at you, random angry people interviewed on the street) have their causation all wrong. The problem in Washington is not that policymakers can’t negotiate. It is that the policy distance between them is greater, so that they cannot develop compromises that they and their constituents will find acceptable. Polarization makes compromise much harder, and after some point the policy distance is too great for any compromise at all.

This problem becomes even more damaging when political actions are “all-or-nothing”–that is, when any change is unacceptable. For example, many Democrats would find any cuts to Social Security or Medicare entirely unacceptable, and many Republicans would find any tax increases entirely unacceptable. The mere action is intolerable (usually because it sets a precedent or impinges upon an inviolable right or principle), regardless of scale.

When voters’ policy points are so far apart, another factor also comes into play, which I will refer to as “otherizing.” Quite simply, because those people whose opinions are over there have such different opinions, there must be something different (and probably bad) about them. Democrats become liberals and liberals become communists. Republicans become conservatives and conservatives become fascists. This means that negotiating with the “other” is increasingly dangerous politics for policymakers, as they may be seen as basically supporting the enemy. Another result is that any proposal from the other side is necessarily viewed with concern and suspicion.

We have seen some of these results in the past few years, and there will surely be more in the near future. In general, the process is clear in theory and supported by the evidence of recent American politics: polarization makes compromise and even negotiation much more difficult. I will explore some of the causes for this polarization in the coming weeks.


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