For Better or Worse: Polarization in American Politics

Courtesy of Brown University

By Saurabh Kumar

In recent years, the partisan divide in the United States has grown at an alarming rate. And yes, it’s just us. A  Brown University study found that, while other nations such as Canada and New Zealand are also undergoing  increasing polarization, the United States’ rate of growth has been more dramatic than that of other nations’  since the 1970s. According to Pew Research Center, “the 2020 pandemic has revealed how pervasive the divide in American politics is relative to other nations.” This rift existed before the pandemic though. Even prior to last spring, Americans were far more divided on a number of pivotal issues than other major nations. Foundational disagreements on a number of key issues including racial justice, economic policy, climate change and many  more have left American voters feeling isolated in their opinions. With political rhetoric largely centered around the ambitious goal of bringing unity back to the nation, it is important to understand the origins of modern polarization and the factors that have contributed to the growing divide.  

Affective Polarization, Selective Disclosure & Partisan Media  

One reason for this rift could be that bipartisan politics in the United States has evolved to a point where parties have become very aligned with particular ideologies. This has led to a phenomenon known as affective polarization, which is when polarization reaches a point where people dislike and distrust members of the opposing political party because they feel that those who subscribe to the opposing ideology cannot understand their perspectives. That is, rather than being polarized on the basis of individual issues such as supporting or opposing gun control, Americans are divided on the basis of party affiliation. According to a study published in  the Annual Review of Political Science, with this type of ideological homogeneity within each party, individuals are less likely to come across a copartisan with opposing views and are more likely to view opposing partisans as more extreme than they truly are.  

This logic seems to be unraveling in reality. According to Pew Research Center’s post-election survey, only two percent of Biden voters and the same proportion of Trump voters said the opposing candidate understands them  “very well.”  

Americans are also more likely to have discussions with people who share similar views. This is called selective disclosure. Research from Dr. Dalia Baldassarri, a professor of sociology at New York University, suggests that selective disclosure may create the experience of increased polarization. Baldassarri’s research showed that  people were more likely to discuss politics with family members and were more likely to reveal their views to people with whom they already knew they shared opinions. This pattern of selective disclosure leads to the experience of homogeneity among groups of people and a heightened feeling of divide between groups.  

Additionally, with the popularity of partisan news in the United States, Americans are more likely to choose  news that confirms their views. This not only furthers confirmation bias, but research shows that news itself is  more focused on partisan divide than it used to be. One study found that there are about 20 percent more stories about polarization in American news than there were in 2000, heightening the effects of affective polarization  by making Americans further opposed to the other side.  

So, what does this all mean?  

Affective polarization has very real and prominent effects on the ability of the government to work for the  people. With the same polarization existing among politicians, a number of important issues are left unresolved due to gridlock. Dr. Jesse Shapiro, co-author of the Brown University study, said in a news report, “There are good reasons to think that when people in different political camps cease to respect each other, it’s harder to make political compromises and create good public policy.”  

In the long run, the outcomes are unclear. While affective polarization does result in increased political  participation and voter turnout, animosity stemming from political divide could extend well beyond politics. Another study in the Annual Review of Political Science found that in the last 50 years, the number of  Americans who would be unhappy if their children married someone of the opposite political affiliation has  increased by 35 percent, a figure far larger than apolitical prejudices. April Gu, Visiting Assistant Professor of  Business at NYU Stern School of Business and Associate Director of the Center for Business and Human  Rights wrote about the feasibility of closing the partisan rift, “Not only is it possible, it is essential. But we have a long road ahead.”  

While affective polarization stimulates political participation, it comes at a much larger cost that puts the future of the nation and its government in danger by creating an echo chamber that is pushing people to integrate political prejudice into every aspect of life and choking the government’s ability to act in the best interest of the people. Professor Gu added, “We saw some of the consequences during COVID-19 with the chaotic state-based approach towards the pandemic that were at cross-purposes with each other. In order to confront national and global issues we have to be able to come to a consensus and work together.”  

And yet, from a social standpoint, could it perhaps be just what the nation needs? While we are positioned at a turning point in racial, gender, and environmental justice, pressure from an increasingly divided electorate could  push politicians to embrace more radical approaches to institutional reform. Although more Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans, the overall ideology of the nation is center-right, according to a Gallup poll. Although affective polarization may cause Americans to integrate political prejudice into apolitical aspects of life such as social life and relationships, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad in view of pressing and widespread inequities.  


“1. Democratic Edge in Party Identification Narrows Slightly.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy,  Pew Research Center, 25 Mar. 2021, identification-narrows-slightly/.  

Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried. “Political Polarization & Media Habits.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism  Project, 28 Aug. 2020,  

Delia Baldassarri. “Either Ideologues, nor Agnostics: Alternative Voters’ Belief System in an Age of Partisan  Politics.” Delia Baldassarri, Delia Baldassarri, 1 Dec. 2018,  

Iyengar, Shanto. “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States.” Annual  Reviews,  

Saad, Lydia. “The U.S. Remained Center-Right, Ideologically, in 2019.”, Gallup, 23 Mar. 2021,  

“U.S. Is Polarizing Faster than Other Democracies, Study Finds.” Brown University,  

“What Biden and Trump Voters Say They Want the Other Candidate’s Supporters to Know about Them.” Pew  Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 10 Feb. 2021, want-them-to-know.

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