What if the US were more progressive?
The political and social polarization in the USA is becoming more and more apparent. Facts, evidence and arguments become less important. What are the causes? How has this development changed the two big parties?
Prof. Dr. Andrea Roemele
Andrea Römmele is Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School. Her research interests are in comparative political communication, political parties and public affairs.
Donald Trump and his presidency are not causing the political and social polarization in the United States, but they have compounded the already polarized climate. (& copy picture-alliance, Jürgen Schwenkenbecher)
Much has been reported about Donald Trump in recent years and it has often been emphasized that a second term in office could result in the USA and its European partner countries drifting further apart. The US has not only changed foreign policy under Donald Trump. His presidency also deepened the division between the parties and within US society. In political science, this phenomenon is referred to as political and social polarization: The population and the political system can be divided into two clearly separated and ideologically hardly overlapping camps. The American society with its de facto two-party system, the extremely different realities of life and cultures - for example between rural regions and the metropolises - as well as strong lines of conflict along classic social categories such as religion, ethnicity, gender or education, also has a stronger tendency to polarize than that, for example Multi-party system in the Federal Republic of Germany. These political and social differences are intensified by the increasing polarization of the media world and the associated spread of disinformation and misinformation in social media, news and political communication (Benkler et al., 2018).
During Donald Trump's term in office, these conflicts, often called 'partisan conflicts', worsened noticeably for many Americans. Trump is not the first president to divide American society into supporters and opponents. But he is a president who bases his term of office on the principle of division. While the Republican President George W. Bush was still trying to implement parts of the Democratic Agenda within his Republican program, the Democratic President Barack Obama tried at least rhetorically to come up with a united front. In the end, Bush and Obama also benefited from the strong polarization. In the USA, the number of swing voters is falling. The great opposition between the two camps helps to mobilize its own supporters. The approval ratings for US presidents have never been as stable as for Obama and Trump. Many experts see this as evidence that their actual policy for evaluating their performance is playing an increasingly diminishing role.
In the 2016 election, there were clear differences between the electorate of Trump and Clinton. In contrast to the Clintons voters, the Trumps were older, "more rural, whiter, more manly" and more religious. It is increasingly identities and not just political attitudes or policy preferences that unite the supporters of a party and at the same time separate them from their political opponents. This reinforces a political and social "wagon-castle mentality", especially among the Republicans (Adorf, 2020: 120). Many less and less come into contact with people whose political attitudes differ from their own. There is no common basis for discussion because the understanding diverges too widely. Facts as a basis for discussion play an ever smaller role and many debates are highly emotionalized and conducted with escalative rhetoric.
The Republican Party and Donald TrumpThe Republican Party, also often called the "Grand Old Party" (GOP), looks back on a long history like the US-American democracy. Traditionally, the basic values are liberal to libertarian and put the freedom and personal responsibility of the individual before state principles and interventions in Markets, from which their constants are derived Policy-Follow demands that aim to deregulate markets, cut taxes, and curb the powers and budget of the federal central government in Washington. In particular, the increasing influence of Tea partyMovement, a libertarian, right-wing populist current within the party, as well as increasing Christian fundamentalism in the clearly republican voting states in the rural South and Midwest such as Texas or Kansas, result in a stricter US American conservatism as the new guiding ideology. This has significantly widened the ideological gap in the direction of the Democrats.
If you look back on Trump's 2016 campaign, it differed significantly in terms of the setting of topics and the sharpness of the language from previous campaigns by Republican presidential candidates. The most perceived and most polarizing topic was immigration. The majority of the decision-makers and Trump's opponents within the Republican Party were actually not interested in an election campaign critical of migration, but wanted to advance the party's core issues: economic policy promoting growth, tax cuts and deregulation. They also wanted to prevent losing voters with a Latin American background, who were part of the Republican core electorate until the end of the 2000s. Trump, on the other hand, is and is aggressively opposing this course. In addition, he relied on economic isolation and broke with the support of free trade, which was actually firmly anchored in the republican DNA.
Trump manages to address very different target groups within the Republican electorate. He still poses as a political outsider. A president who does not come from the middle of the US political elite, but instead declares war on the political establishment as a lateral entrant. He is playing with the fact that he is the one who would ensure that the elites lose their supremacy and that the "average American" receives more attention again. His motto "America first" provides the reason to end international treaties and agreements, to take an offensive against previous partners and allies and to break with the interventionist orientation of republican foreign and defense policy. At the same time, Trump is acting in the classic Republican manner in many policy areas, for example in tax or social policy. So he has the different currents in his party with a higher military budget, tax cuts and last but not least the dispatch of conservative judges to the Supreme Court also provided various substantive reasons for continuing to support him.
Trump's success has also made many of his former critics, at least in public, ardent supporters. Within the party, it is above all deserved voices like those of the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney who openly speak out against Trump and criticize his management of the corona crisis and handling of the anti-racism protests. While this criticism has so far been expressed mainly by former party leaders, active elected officials of the party are at least publicly united behind the president. The concentrated media power of Trump and his partly defamatory statements have so far nipped any internal party discourse in the bud. And it seems that as long as Trump remains popular with Republican voters, he can continue to count on his party's support.
Democrats: Wing Fights After ObamaEspecially in polarized party systems with majority voting rights, the common opposition can weld the supporters together, even if the differences within the party are large. A look at the Democratic Party shows, however, that this endeavor is by no means easy. The successes in the midterm elections in 2018, which brought the Democrats back a majority in the House of Representatives, made it clear that the party can still effectively mobilize its electorate. The internal conflicts that emerged after Barack Obama's term in office have not yet disappeared.
Obama was able to garner high popularity ratings during his tenure, but his party emerged significantly weakened from the 2016 elections. The Democrats had lost seats in the House and Senate. In addition, twelve Republicans prevailed as governors in formerly democratically ruled states. In the course of the primary elections and the lost presidential election in 2016, an intra-party conflict emerged that has not yet been resolved: If the Democrats become the party of a well-educated, progressive, young electorate, will they offer a radical alternative to the existing system, or more attempts are made to win back those voters who consider themselves to be more conservative and no longer feel at home in the Democratic Party?
After Obama's presidency dominated the image of the Democrats for a long time, these conflicts re-emerged in the 2016 primaries. Especially the support of the Senator from Vermont, who sees himself as a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, was disappointed with the Democratic Party. For them, Hillary Clinton embodied the party establishment and they blamed her for the defeat and thus also for the Trump presidency. The democratic supporters of Sanders expressed their displeasure with the president's policies, particularly at demonstrations and in movements such as the women's rights demonstrations of the Women’s March. The division was openly revealed within the elected Democratic decision-makers and the party could not find a common line. Finding this line is often even more difficult, especially in the Democratic Party, which represents an extremely heterogeneous electorate, than it is for the Republicans and the core electorate they represent.
This constellation was shown again in the 2018 congressional elections. In public, the progressive forces within the party made themselves heard very loudly with demands for minimum wages, stricter gun laws and more rights for migrants. With these they were able to prevail at least in the House of Representatives and in some gubernatorial elections. But it was precisely the more conservative Democratic candidates who were able to win particularly competitive mandates, for example in Wisconsin and Michigan. The newly won majority in the House of Representatives gave the Democrats the opportunity to sharpen their profile. This did not succeed, however, because while the progressive forces took measures to protect the climate, as well as that Impeachment-Procedures were forced, the conservative forces feared more of the loss of votes.
The conflict continued in the 2020 Democratic primary. As in the 2016 primaries against Hillary Clinton, it was again Bernie Sanders who appeared as an outsider and for a long time appeared as the toughest competitor against the moderate favorite Joe Biden. As in the last election, it is now difficult for the party to mobilize the disappointed supporters of Sanders for its own candidate. The longing for the clearest possible alternative to Donald Trump is so great that it will be difficult for some to vote for the moderate Joe Biden just to prevent Trump from having another term in office.
Conclusion & outlook: increasing polarizationDonald Trump and his presidency are not causing the political and social polarization in the United States, but they have compounded the already polarized climate. Instead of promoting political integration, there is currently a climate in which political opponents neither trust nor respect one another. A communication mode based on content and objectivity no longer seems possible at all.
This has also changed the two big parties themselves. While the Republicans gather behind Trump, the Democrats distance themselves from him as much as possible. One example of this is the outcome of the impeachment proceedings against the president. The decisive factor for the course of the proceedings was not whether the president was actually guilty of anything, but only whether he was politically supported or not. Facts, evidence and arguments are becoming less and less important for the political discourse in the USA. Fewer and fewer laws are passed in Congress with the votes of both parties and one is often more willing to accept the political standstill than to move to the other side. Because of this blockade between the political camps, Obama has also increasingly ruled with decrees, which Trump has used much more frequently in his presidency to date. Despite majority voting and traditionally a high degree of polarization, the US political system, like any democracy, remains oriented towards compromise, negotiation and settlement. The question will be how the trenches can be at least made smaller in the future. When decision-makers are no longer capable of negotiating and compromising and voters no longer determine their representatives based on performance, but rather based on ideological "team membership", fundamental democratic principles will be overridden and, in the medium to long term, the traditional democratic institutions of the USA will be overridden affected.
- Adorf, Philipp. "The Republicans and Trump - Pretty Best Friends?" In Donald Trump and US politics, edited by Florian Böller, Christoph M. Haas, Steffen Hagemann, David Sirakov, and Sarah Wagner, 119–36. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5771/9783748903512-119.
- Benkler, Yochai, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. Oxford University Press, 2018.
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