The Modern Roots of Polarization

Like many of you, the Spirited Reasoner has spent a good amount of time reflecting on the causes of our nation’s fixation on partisan politics.

The disease is certainly not a new one. During the 1850s, polarization in the United States became so extreme that a Civil War was fought, resulting in millions of casualties and decades of reconstruction. Some would argue that we are still fighting that war, especially those issues that are rooted in slavery and racism.

Why, then, has our national political scene become so much more polarized in 2019 than it was, say, in 1957, when a Republican president (Eisenhower) sent troops to ensure the enrollment of African American students at a public institution in Little Rock, Arkansas? His decision was made in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education, a Supreme Court case decided in 1954.

Later, in 1960, Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, ran against a Northerner, John F. Kennedy, at a time when Democrats routinely captured the “Solid South.” If there was a major difference between the two candidates on issues of race, that difference would be hard to articulate.

Some would argue that the apparent absence of polarization during the 1950s and early 60s was illusory, and ended when Nixon adopted a Southern strategy, one that eventually led to the flipping of the former Confederate states from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. In other words, it took a few election cycles for this transformation to occur, during which time the partisanship was somewhat less apparent.

But that argument still fails to answer the question of timing. Why so much polarization nearly 70 years after Eisenhower’s term?

The Spirited Reasoner believes the answer may lie in the advent of technology, especially the use of modern statistical programming. Such technology given the party in power in each state a powerful tool to engage in a level of gerrymandering unheard of until recent times. Allow me to illustrate.

Let’s imagine a small state with exactly three

Congressional districts. Let’s assume, for purposes of this illustration, that each district is comprised of 1/3 liberals, 1/3 conservatives, and 1/3 swing voters. Because of these demographic facts, the voters in each district tend to elect modern candidates. Conservative candidates can’t be too conservative, or they risk alienating all the liberals and most of the swing voters. Liberal candidates can’t be too liberal for the same (i. e., mirror image) reason. So candidates tend to stay just close enough to the middle to keep their base conservatives (or liberals) while also winning over a majority of the swing voters.

Until we engage in computer-enhanced gerrymandering.

If the state legislature is conservative, then it may decide—using the latest statistical tools—to draw the new Congressional districts so that almost all the liberals wind up a single district, while the remaining two districts have a strong majority of conservatives. That way, the state will be certain of having two fiercely conservative representatives in Congress and only one liberal. (The opposite would happen if the state legislature is liberal and chooses to gerrymander in the same way.)

Now watch what happens: The winning candidates in all three districts are no longer moderate, since they no longer need the swing votes to get elected. The one representative in the concentrated liberal district will tend to be extremely liberal, in order to satisfy his or her overwhelmingly liberal constituency. The representatives of the two conservative districts will tend to be more conservative than they were before, because now they only need their conservative majorities and a few right-leaning swing voters to get elected.

Moral:  Cure gerrymandering and we go a long way toward the reduction of our nation’s current problem with polarization.