- Posted September 1, 2012 by
Polarized Politics: Not All Bad
As the 2012 election moves stealthily closer I urge all to take this time for self-examination and ask yourself in which political aisle you see yourself standing. Better yet, once you have positioned yourself do you see yourself ever crossing the aisle?
The overwhelming coverage of the debt ceiling fiasco cemented a truth about Washington today in voters’ minds. That truth is that our political parties are facing a cavernous divide in which partisan ideological polarization runs rampant throughout the vestibules of our Capitol.
Political polarization is subject to much discussion in the media and often viewers come away with a negative view of government. The Republican Party provides us a divergent and eclectic bunch that will test the electorate in its ability to sift through numerous policy approaches, put aside personal attachments and ultimately weigh their conclusions against Obama’s performance so far. Throughout this process voters will notice the polarization present between the parties and the candidates. Is this finding really such a bad thing?
Polarization in a party system has important effects. A highly polarized system presumably produces clearer party choices, stimulates participation, affects representation, and has more intense partisan competition. Thus, the ideological gap between winners and losers is greater and the policy implications of government control are more substantial. Conversely, a centrist party system should reflect greater consensus within the electoral process—at least in left–right terms—and less interparty conflict and less political responsiveness.
If parties offer limited choices to voters, then it is not likely that the voter blocs will differ sharply across parties. Diverse party choice should generally strengthen the polarization of voters. If parties are distinctive in their issue positions, then issues can have greater weight. When parties offer distinct ideological choices, then it is more likely that social class groups could identify and support a party that was more representative of their positions. In other words, when issues are polarized the voters can ascertain a greater difference in policy. This ascertainment results in clear choices for voters.
Another commonly cited affect of the polarization of party systems is turnout in elections. With few choices, voters have limited opportunities to find a party that represents their views and thus may choose to abstain from voting. However, as the number of choices increases, voters should more easily find a party they agree with, which justifies the effort to cast a ballot. Polarized elections have the ability to draw more voters. When voters sense high polarization on issues the stakes become higher and drive increased voter interest and turnout. The stakes are higher because the divide between what each party will do if elected is gaping. Thus the nature of the choices available to voters is strongly related to the level of turnout in elections.
Polarization will continue to persist in our political system especially with the presence of more controversial cleavages. My hope is that you take away a greater appreciation for what polarization is capable of in our political process. It has both positive and negative effects, depending on which angle you analyze it. The 2012 election provides us the periodic opportunity to vote and decide what role polarization will play in our government.