It Took Decades for America to Become This Divided

Political polarization has become so familiar and entrenched that we barely think how it came about. The backstory is more than a half-century long, involving race, media and a diverging economy.

political buttons for the left and right.
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The outcome in Tuesday’s Senate runoffs in Georgia may end up being close, but voting among various subgroups won’t be. As was the case in November, there will be stark splits along racial, gender and geographic lines. College-educated residents of Atlanta and its major suburbs will vote in clear contrast to the results in rural areas.

By now, this is such a familiar scenario that it almost doesn’t seem worth commenting on. But these divides – and the way they add up to near-even splits in some states and at the national level – are the main driving forces of contemporary politics.

Throughout this century so far, America has been a “49 percent nation.” Both parties enjoy support that is tantalizingly close to a majority, but never congeals into stable control for long. The fact that victory always seems near at hand for the other side helps explain the vicious politics of our time. 

The two parties are engaged in a seemingly endless feud – the political equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys. “As there is no sort of long-term winner, the fighting gets fiercer,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University.

Politics today is clannish. It has always been negative, but for a full quarter-century, warnings that the other side was corrupt or dangerous or radical or a threat to American values have been constants. During the Georgia runoffs, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on ads that were less about ideas and more about attacking candidates. “Win Georgia, save America” was not just subtext but an open call to arms.

“Very simply, you will decide whether your children will grow up in a socialist country or whether they will grow up in a free country,” President Trump told a crowd in Valdosta, Ga., last month.

There’s no middle ground. Where once there were Republicans who supported abortion rights and gun control, as well as Democrats who took the opposite positions, now the parties have sorted themselves on seemingly every issue (including attitudes about Trump himself). There’s no real reason for a person who leans one way to believe the other party will have his or her interests and wishes at heart. “We have two ideologically distinct parties,” says Republican consultant Whit Ayres, “and the gulf between the two has grown wider over time.”

It's not just ideology that divides Americans. With the decline of trust in many institutions, politics has become a “mega-identity,” a way for people to find like-minded people who look like them and live like them and worship like them (or don’t) and have similar educational and economic opportunities.

Partisans are literally living apart from each other. During the 1976 presidential election, just over a quarter of the country lived in landslide counties, carried by one party or the other by 20 percentage points or more. In November, the number was 58.2 percent, according to Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. More than half the nation’s counties were carried by a landslide. 

The two parties dominate separate worlds enjoying separate fortunes. Joe Biden carried fewer counties than any presidential winner in history – 520, or less than one in six – but they represented 71 percent of the nation’s GDP, according to the Brookings Institution. “Biden-voting counties accounted for 83 percent of new firms started over the last decade, 73 percent of employment growth and 67 percent of the population growth,” says John Lettieri, president of the Economic Innovation Group, a research group focused partly on geographic inequality.

What EIG calls the “dynamism divide” might be enough to explain the polarity of politics today. But then there’s race. And the changing media landscape. And social media, which amplifies the loudest, crudest, most divisive voices. And the incentives of the parties themselves, which work against compromise and reward confrontation.

“Everything has become aligned: Your religion, food, entertainment, location, idea of what a good neighborhood looks like, clothes, notion of family, music, job and much more are all aligned with your politics,” Bishop says. “Or rather, your voting choice once every two years is aligned with all those other things.”

With the start of the new year and the prospect of a new presidential administration, it’s worth stepping back and asking a simple question with some complicated, intertwined answers: How did the country end up this way?

Party Alignment and Civil Rights

It’s almost hard to believe now, but at one time the parties were seen as being too much alike. Back in 1950, a committee of the American Political Science Association published a lengthy report calling for “a more responsible two-party system.” Its basic argument was that it was too hard to tell the parties apart. They should become more nationalized, more centralized and offer voters more of a clear choice on issues, the committee argued.

“They bemoaned the fact that the parties were too heterogenous and argued that what we really needed were European-style parties that were ideologically distinct,” says Ayres. “The subtext was so liberals in the Democratic Party could force the Southern Democrats to conform.”

For a century following the Civil War, the South voted strictly for Democrats. That started to shift during the civil rights era of the 1960s. When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson said, “We have lost the South for a generation.”

Actually, he didn’t say that. The famous quote is apocryphal but still points to a central political reality. That year, Barry Goldwater became the first Republican in decades to carry several Southern states, even as he got trounced nationwide. In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency in part due to his “Southern strategy,” appealing to Southern whites by criticizing affirmative action and other programs promoted by liberal Democrats. Johnson himself turned out to be the last Democratic presidential candidate able to carry a majority of white voters.

“When Richard Nixon moved forward on a Southern strategy, the parties swapped regions and constituents,” says Brown, the George Washington University professor. “African Americans who had been Republican prior to that moved into the Democratic Party and, obviously, the white conservative Democrats moved into the Republican Party.”

Race has always divided Americans and has always been used to divide Americans. Low-income minorities and white members of the working class might have a lot in common economically but they occupy separate political territory. 

“Race has historically been a means to divide white working class people from other working class people of color in this country, despite the fact that we share very similar interests,” says Arisha Hatch, vice president of Color of Change, a civil rights group. “Oftentimes, it feels like people are less divided than our politics would suggest, and yet we don’t seem to be engaged in a real conversation on the things that we agree on.” 

In November, President Trump made inroads among Black, Hispanic and immigrant voters, particularly men. Nonetheless, members of racial and ethnic minorities overwhelmingly supported Biden.

“The Republican Party is not a very comfortable place for non-white Americans,” says Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank.

The Politics of Personal Attack

Republicans began to dominate presidential voting in the South, then started winning Senate seats, but didn’t capture a majority of Southern seats in the U.S. House until 1994. Not coincidentally, that was the year they were led to their first House majority in 40 years by a congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich emerged as a national figure by managing to bring down Jim Wright, a Democratic House speaker who had enriched himself through a shady book deal. Gingrich traded on the sense in the country after Vietnam and Watergate that government couldn’t be trusted, knocking Democrats for their role in forgotten scandals such as overdrafts at the House bank

Over the course of their long time in the wilderness, House Republicans had learned to go along to get along, essentially accepting their minority status in hopes of getting some crumbs for their districts from the Democratic majority. Gingrich upended all that. He not only attacked Democrats relentlessly, but recruited and trained a generation of candidates to do so, through a political action committee known as GOPAC. “The GOPAC tapes were designed to develop a vocabulary of positive words to use to describe Republican initiatives -- liberty, freedom, truth, opportunity -- while using 'bad' words to label the Democrats -- decay, corrupt, permissive and pathetic,” notes historian Steve Gillon.

Gingrich would last only four years as speaker, kicked to the curb after House Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterms largely due to their decision to impeach Democratic President Bill Clinton. The tone he set in Washington, however, has endured, the political volume set at 11 ever since. 

“There were the culture wars all throughout the ‘90s, and the Republicans realized they actually could win Congress if they fought on those grounds,” Brown says. “That began an era of competition that essentially has not ceased.”

The Pleasures of Hating

We can fast-forward from there. It’s enough to point out that the presidents since Clinton – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump – have all been despised by roughly half the country. Whatever their intent, they ruled as dividers, not uniters.

Much of that has to do with the changed media landscape. Part of Gingrich’s genius for politics was understanding that the truest media bias is always toward covering conflict. Making noise became a premium job skill for politicians. The mid-1990s saw not only a resurgent Republican Party but the birth of Fox News, along with Web browsers that opened up the Internet to mass appeal. National syndication of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh dates back to 1988. In the years since, Democrats have sought to match conservative media mastery, with mixed success. 

Nonetheless, people are now fully able to pick the news they want, along with the friends they choose to associate with. People receive positive reinforcement through likes, while those who might disagree with them choose to unfollow. “Information flow is all generated by who you select to be around,” says GOP consultant David Carney. “Very few people like controversy and they don’t want to be confronted with angry people on the left or right. That’s the biggest problem – you don’t have to hear anything you disagree with.”

What unites people on social media more than anything, Carney suggests, is joining together to hate those on the other side. Adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory are seen as representing the true face of conservatism by Democrats, while Republicans warn that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the progressive Democratic “Squad” in the House will be calling the shots during the Biden administration.

“Those are our choices now,” says Ayres. “Their tweets get picked up, each side uses the tweets on the other side, and that in turn feeds polarization.”

This environment goes a long way to explaining the toxic partisanship of our culture. But media and social media are ultimately just platforms. Why are they so filled with hate?

‘The Politics of Resentment’

Disdain for cities has always had a racial element. “Urban” became code for racial stereotypes by the late 20th century. But now cities are also resented in other terms.

As noted earlier, the economic fortunes of blue and red America have diverged over the past decade. Trump’s election in 2016 and his enduring appeal in less populace parts of the country have been partly an expression of discontent in less-successful places. Trump ran on a promise of restoring coal jobs and steel jobs and all the factory jobs he said were lost to foreign competition and unfair trade deals.

While Obama was the first person from a big city to be elected president in nearly a century, Trump railed against cities throughout his presidency, describing them variously as dirty, disgusting and rat-infested, finally labeling several of them formally as “anarchist jurisdictions.” 

“In our rural areas, what I have learned is that there are many people who feel that neither party represents them, and many have a strong resentment toward the cities and urban elites,” University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine Cramer said after Trump’s election. “They feel as though they are not getting their fair share of power… They are not getting their fair share of taxpayer dollars — the money goes to the cities -- and also they are not getting their fair share of respect.”

Remember when Obama described residents of small towns as “bitter” at a San Francisco fundraiser? “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” he said.

This feeds what Cramer calls “the politics of resentment.” Many rural and small-town Americans believe that coastal and urban elites look down upon them and certainly don’t share the wealth. Where once farmers felt displaced and perhaps no longer important, now the same is true of people in communities that once benefited from manufacturing. “You see the cities prospering,” Wilkinson says, “and it seems they took something from you.”

One of the themes of the post-election complaint among Trump and his supporters has been that Biden’s margin, earned in a fraction of counties, somehow isn’t legitimate. Last month, Eric Trump tweeted out an image that suggested Trump enjoyed wider support due to the number of counties he carried, along with the size of his rallies.

Meanwhile, city dwellers are frustrated that rural voters enjoy disproportionate power in both the Senate and the Electoral College. In response to complaints about Biden’s small share of counties, Democratic commentators have noted that the population of Los Angeles County alone is more than 41 states. In all, Biden won 91 of the nation’s 100 largest counties.

The Politics of Place

It’s not new for cities to vote Democratic, but why was Biden’s metropolitan advantage so overwhelming?

The economic divergence between metros and rural America continued throughout Trump’s presidency, at least prior to the pandemic. Maybe now technology really will allow Americans (or at least office workers) to work from anywhere, but over the past decade they’ve clustered heavily in tech centers. “The pull of cities is so strong because of the concentration of the economy in cities,” says Wilkinson, the Niskanen Center vice president.

But overall migration has slowed considerably in recent years. Not everyone is packing up to seek their fortune in places like Seattle and Austin. 

People who are willing to pick up stakes have a greater openness to experience, Wilkinson says, meaning they’re intrinsically more willing to pursue higher education. They also tend to be less ethnocentric. “You get all the white liberals moving to the city for reasons of personality and education,” he says.

Educational attainment has emerged as one of the key divides in American politics. Trump dominated white male voters without college degrees, according to exit polls, while Biden took 55 percent of the vote among college educated voters in total. 

“I certainly worry about the idea that you have such a significant chunk of the country that feels disconnected from the national growth story,” says the Economic Innovation Group’s Lettieri.

Where Does This Leave Us?

The two parties at this point represent people of separate and distinct ideologies, economic and educational backgrounds, cultural and religious values, attitudes toward science and higher education, and ideas about gender, race and identity. Given all this, maybe it’s not surprising that American politics have become polarized and toxic.

Then there’s the political structure itself. America’s plurality voting system means there’s no real chance for a competitive third-party to emerge, no matter how many voters feel politically homeless as the two parties appear to grow more extreme. In any election, the worst outcome is not that the candidate you favor might lose, but that the one you hate could win. 

Politicians play up such fears, known as negative partisanship. Only one side can win. The fact that the other side might well plot a quick comeback and win power in the next election only accelerates this dynamic. 

Trump became the first one-term president since 1992, but neither party has been able to win a third presidential term since 1988. Control of the House, so long solidly Democratic, now shifts fairly regularly – three times since 2006, with Republicans looking to have a very good chance of erasing the Democrats’ slim majority in 2022. Most people, meanwhile, vote along strict party lines, with the small share of persuadable voters in each election essentially determining the outcome.

This gives national politicians little incentive to cooperate with the other side. Compromise is seen as consorting with the enemy. Better to block the current majority as best you can, while waiting for power to return your way. Polarization has become almost the default mode.

The story is entirely different at the state level, where majorities are mostly dug in. In 2020, only one legislative chamber changed hands, the lowest number in decades. But that, too, is part of the story of competition between red and blue America.

Americans are separated by race, place and platform. Lines are drawn between them by politicians and people’s media diets, with partisans convinced that the other side is the enemy.

More than a century ago, Henry Adams defined politics as "the systematic organization of hatreds." That's no less true today.

“There are no cross-cutting issues, places or policies,” Bill Bishop says. “So there is always conflict. And the ‘other’ is always clearly identifiable.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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