In the modern U.S., it’s no secret that our political parties have slowly been adopting more extreme stances. A recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that polarization among U.S. political parties is at an all-time high, and that has grave consequences for our ability to determine concrete solutions to our problems as a nation.
According to Pew, the average partisan gap among political parties has nearly doubled over the course of 25 years, spiking from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 percentage points in 2012. Demographic divisions such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and class have not changed, but both major political parties--Republicans and Democrats--have become more ideologically homogenous--and divided.
But polarization and extremism don’t do favors for any party. Take Mitt Romney’s recent failed attempt at snagging the presidency. Matt Rhoades, campaign advisor to Romney, recently revealed that his camp regrets taking such a hard-right stance on immigration. Romney had promised to veto the DREAM Act, which would permit children of immigrants a chance to gain citizenship. He also supported creating an environment in which undocumented immigrants would “self-deport.” These moves cost Romney the Latino vote.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out that political extremism is fueled by many different factors, including increasingly polarized media outlets, changes in Congressional rules, redistricting efforts, and other structural shifts.
Here’s the rub: political extremism does nothing but curtail constructive intellectual debate. When politicians or individuals adopt one extreme, hard stance on an issue, it becomes next to impossible for them to set aside their predetermined ideas, take off the blinders, and approach an issue from a new perspective. This is damning to the political process, and disastrous when it comes to effecting real change where it’s needed in our country.
And the weird part is that it’s not necessary. A politician could easily take a less extreme view and also say she represents people with the more extreme view. She could advocate that the extreme view needs to be respected as well, even accommodated. Or she could advocate for the extreme view, but without the extreme rhetoric and name-calling that often accompanies it. She could even express that it’s not a mainstream view so she’s willing to compromise, but it’s time people in general respect the viewpoints behind it and include it in the discussion.
Our ideologies as individuals and civilians are constantly shifting. Basic Sociology tells us our cultural attitudes and norms shift over time. A concrete example of this is increasing mainstream acceptance of LGBT rights like marriage equality, which has spiked in public support in recent years. Another basic example is acceptance of women in the workforce--an attitude that is largely new to the 20th and 21st centuries.
If we want to combat extremism, we need to recognize and accept the fact that our political stances can be ever-shifting as we acquire new information and insight on key issues. Both politicians and individuals need to vow to take the blinders off, listen to all sides, commit to garnering in-depth knowledge about issues before they push their stance in the public sphere, and speak respectfully. If Americans can eliminate harmful extremist practices and rigid partisan attitudes, it could foster a needed turning point in our culture and bring a new productivity to our politics.
Do you think American politics can benefit from a diminished focus on politically extreme views? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in a comment below.