Polarization in Us Politics

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Analyze the evidence that American politics is becoming more polarized. If so, is this a reaction to the polarization of political elites?

Approx 1500 words
13/12/10

"The election of 2008... marked the end of an epoch. No longer could Republicans count on the basic conservatism of the American people, the reflexive hostility to candidates who favour big government" (Darman, 2010, 34)

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a consensus that the importance of political parties was in decline, that the shared conservative ideology of the American electorate was reflected in the similar ideology and policy of the Democratic and Republican party. Now, however, the parties are seemingly taking on renewed importance as the population of the United states grows less and less homogenous. There is now a consensus in the American media that their politics are increasingly Polarized between the liberal voters who vote Democrat, and the more traditional conservatives who support the Republican Party. This essay will assess the evidence for whether or not the American political system is indeed polarizing, and if so, then for what reasons? The role of political elites will also be examined, whether or not they are polarizing aswell, and whether this is a large contributing cause of the polarising of the mass?

Many, including Marc Hetherington, contend that there has indeed been a period of mass and elite polarisation, and Hetherington believes that the mass polarization is a reaction to the elites increasing partisanship (2001, 621, 629). There is evidence in surveys that the political elite is polarizing; the amount of self proclaimed "very conservative" Republicans in congress and senate has risen from 12 to 30 percent since 1972, and the amount of "very liberal" Democrats has risen from 8 to 20 percent (Stone, 2010, 39), this shows that as much as half of delegates are radicals. For this reason political debate has grown more and more rancorous, both in Washington DC and in the media.

The role of information in Democracy cannot be understated, it is a cornerstone of Dahls Polyarchy (1972). Although some media companies may attest to attempting to provide news without bias, their agenda as businesses is to turn a profit and as it is common for them to take up political positions in order to gain market share. To illustrate this, Fox News 24 hour television station was introduced in 1996 (this in itself could be seen as evidence for polarization) and by 2000 had managed to attract 17 percent of the US population by adopting a staunchly conservative viewpoint (DellaVigna, Kaplan, 2007), while one must stop short of attributing the Republican success at the 2000 election to the introduction of a conservative news station. The same study shows that not Fox News' emergences causation with an increase in voter turnout (DellaVigna, Kaplan, 2007, 1228), arguably mobilising a previously disenchanted group.

The radical left and right leaning delegates mentioned above are naturally the most visible politicians to the public in terms of media coverage as a result of the medias wont for framing politics in terms of conflict (Hetherington, 2001, 622). It follows that the mass public will draw their positions from the partisan opinions and attitudes which they are exposed to on their televisions and in their newspapers, either in support of, or by vehemently disagreeing with, the controversial politicians, political pundits and journalists, and will express these outlooks in the polls come election time.

One tool which the media can use to project an image of a polarized country is by utilising state boundaries to show the success of the different parties in nationwide elections. The red state/ blue state maps are now a fixture of the news coverage as election results flood in, but it is interesting to note that as recently as 1984 Democratic victories were shown in red and Republican in blue. It is also curious that...
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