America’s Most Formidable Political Problem Isn’t Polarization. It’s Complexity

Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity
9 min readSep 22, 2022


This is the last in a series of articles examining then role of binary thinking in polarizing American politics.

It is that time once again when Americans must make critical choices about their future from a limited set of options. For more than 170 years they have been all but forced to select their leaders from just two political parties — Democratic and Republican — at times holding their noses as they did. Such nasal restraint will surely be evident this year as well. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, only about four-in-ten participants (41%) have a very or somewhat favorable view of the Democratic Party. Fewer still (37%) are impressed by the GOP. Moreover, a Gallup poll found that 77% of respondents said most members of Congress don’t deserve another term.

If they ever were, the two major parties are no longer emblematic of America’s political inclinations. Rather, they belie the complexity and diversity of the constituencies they claim to represent.

Where then might citizens’ partialities be more apparent? One predictable place to look is along the spectrum between left- and right-wings. But as scholars Verlan and Hyrum Lewis argue in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, this conventional configuration is a myth because the supposed fixed political positions merely represent social groups whose ideas and attitudes are in constant flux.

As for most voters, when pressed, they are inclined to define themselves ideologically. In the latest Gallup poll on U.S. political ideology, 25% of those queried describe their political views as liberal, 36% as conservative, and 37% as moderate. Yet even these labels can obscure far more intricate relationships.

Label Makers

Liberalism is a doctrine that has periodically shifted over time. In its classic form, it advocated the rights of individuals, the consent of the governed, and equity before the law. But it also endorsed free-markets and laissez-faire economics. During the Great Depression, however, the tenet became indelibly linked with the social welfare policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and economist John Maynard Keynes. Those who still embraced the principles of open-markets and limited government quit to establish neoliberalism which, despite its name, was a prominent factor in the rise of modern conservatism.

By the latter half of the 20th century, the word liberal had come under assault, such as by Newt Gingrich who repeatedly used it to disparage Democratic opponents, and subsequently by Trump-era Republicans who delighted in “owning the libs.” Thus, the term “progressive” has increasingly become the handle for partisans who promote social justice and economic equality through government policies.

For its part, American conservatism is presently undergoing a more profound transformation. Though initially erected on the pillars of anti-communism, pro-capitalism, and law and order, its founders would almost certainly be dumbstruck by current pretenders who venerate Russia’s Vladimir Putin and are waging war on corporate America and the FBI.

The ideology has never been monolithic and encompasses sundry variations. Social conservatism holds that society is a tenuous network of relationships that must be maintained by established institutions. Cultural conservatism relies on the authority of traditional values. Religious conservatives believe faith is the basis for governing.

These days all three precepts are bound within the dogma of Christian Nationalism. As political as they are religious, Christian Nationalists contend the U.S. is a Christian nation and governments at all levels are obliged to keep it that way. Adherents such as Georgia congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene and Republican representative Lauren Boebert from Colorado insist the country’s leaders should be “people like us” — i.e. natural born Anglo-Saxon Protestants — and hark back to the founding fathers who denied Catholics, Quakers, and Jews the right to vote, along with women and anyone of color other than white.

Far fewer, but no less illiberal, are young New Rightists, who reject elitist conservative orthodoxies like tax cuts and free-markets in favor of the weapons of culture war; and an emerging band of neoreactionaries who would welcome the return to something like an absolute monarchy. Operating at the extremes — or beyond the boundaries — of contemporary conservatism, these restorationists are no longer willing to preserve a status quo they perceive as decaying, and are driven instead by a compulsion to radically reverse course.

As difficult as it is to pin down liberals and conservatives, it is harder still to pigeonhole the plurality of citizens who have been stamped as moderate. In theory, these so-called centrists occupy the middle ground between ideological extremes. Yet like the spectrum itself, they are essentially a myth. In truth, they support an array of political policies, some of which are far from the center. In a study of moderate voters across a wide range of issues, political scientists Douglas Ahler and David Broockman found that 71% held at least one extreme position.

One explanation, according to Broockman, is that pollsters think primarily in binary terms and are disposed to categorize respondents as either left or right (liberal or conservative). When confronted by someone who provides answers that don’t fit easily into either bucket, that person is tagged a moderate.

Partisan Imbalance

Today’s political landscape is complex, with ideas and attitudes all over the map. Yet when this diversity is confined within just two parties, the outcome is polarization. In a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll taken this spring, polarization and extremism ranked among the nation’s most troubling concerns, behind only inflation and gun violence. But most respondents (84%) agreed where to put the blame: on politicians and political leaders.

Albeit the country is divided, it is not evenly divided. Nor are both parties equally at fault. In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein familiarized the concept of asymmetric polarization: an imbalance in the tendency of the two sides to move to their extremes. At the time, the authors asserted Republican lawmakers were outpacing their Democratic counterparts; and in the interim the GOP has hastened its momentum.

Historically, notes Matthew Continetti, founder and former editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon and author of The Right, mainstream conservatives have sanctioned and, on occasion, even welcomed militants to win over needed constituencies. In the 1950s and 1960s, Republicans tolerated the John Birch Society. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan courted fundamentalist groups like the Moral Majority. (It should be remembered, however, that for much of its history the Democratic party stomached the Jim Crow policies of its Southern members.)

But Republicans miscalculated their capacity to control reactionary impulses and made it possible for Donald Trump to occupy the White House. “Those of us at the Republican National Committee, on the Hill, and throughout various GOP campaign high commands were under the impression that we were wise enough to be the self-imposed limits on the base’s excesses,” writes Tim Miller, a journalist and communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. Accordingly, many of the same politicians who once demonized the former president are now convinced their futures rely on indulging his voters.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, what has been characterized as a “civil war” between moderates and progressives is dubious. Here as elsewhere, shorthand labels tend to confuse rather than clarify matters; in this case by setting up false conflicts. The fact that just one or two senators can effectively veto proposed laws supported by the vast majority of Democrats does not represent a major rift within the party but does expose an antiquated legislative process.

Indeed, America’s outdated two-party system is damaging not just its political health, but its social and economic well-being. Granted the nation’s elected officials are considerably more divided than most of their constituents, correcting that imbalance presents formidable challenges.


Currently, there are more than 200 qualified political state-level party affiliates across the United States. The Democratic and Republican parties account for almost half. Better known minor bodies include the Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties. Most others often go unnoticed. But voters increasingly want viable alternatives to the big two. In a recent USA Today/Suffolk poll, when participants were asked whether the parties adequately represent Americans’ views, only 25% agreed. Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll found support for a third-party had reached a high point (62%).

In response, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and ex-Republican governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman unveiled the Forward party during the summer, promising “a political home for the majority of Americans who want to move past the era of divisiveness and do-nothing politicians.” Some ten months earlier, the group No Labels had begun to quietly provide a third option in the belief that the two major parties “might leave us with no real choices.” Unlike Forward, No Labels is a one-off alternative that would kick in only if both parties went to extremes.

So far, the Forward party’s launch has landed with a thud, and No Labels remains a well-kept secret. Both also make the false assumption that Democrats and Republicans are equally repulsive to the public, and that they can offer some kind of common ground. But the two parties are not equivalent and, as Joe Biden has remarked, there are far more Americans “from every background and belief who reject the extreme MAGA ideology than those that accept it.”

To be sure, the majority of Americans generally agree on a broad range of crucial issues, including abortion, gun control, voting rights, same sex marriage, climate change, immigration, unions, and book banning. Even within the Republican party, constituents have sometimes diverged from legislators. This past summer Kansas voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have made it easier for the state legislature to restrict or ban abortion. Earlier, six red state ballot initiatives forced elected officials to expand Medicaid eligibility after they failed to do so under the Affordable Care Act.

With respect to these and other matters, the real differences are in the details, which are tough to discern in “winner take all” match-ups. In many other countries, multiple political parties can flourish because of systems that award seats proportionally to the percentage of votes they win. If that existed in the United States, a minor party that garnered only 10% of the vote could still occupy 10% of the seats in Congress. Yet there is no system like this in the U.S., which is one reason polarization there is more turbulent than in any other consolidated democracy in the world.

The Primary Problem

Whereas multiple choice may diminish polarization in general elections, it can have the opposite effect in primaries. The number of candidates running in primaries has increased dramatically in recent years. The 2016 GOP presidential race fielded 17 aspirants, while in 2020, the Democrats featured 28 hopefuls. Congressional primaries are also crowded, and the more contenders who run, the fewer votes required to win. Among the members of congress who won their contests in 2020, the majority earned less than 45% of the vote, and 38% received less than 40%. That means candidates may need to appeal only to a limited group of supporters — sometimes at the extremes — to come out on top. Take this year’s slate of victorious Trump-supported Republican competitors in Arizona, for example: none received even half the votes cast.

Tipping the Scale

Imbalances like this permeate America’s political system. Since 2000, more voters have registered as Democrats (40%) than as Republicans (29%), amounting to a difference of about 12 million in party registration states. Yet the parties are evenly split in the Senate despite the fact that the 50 Democratic members represent 43 million more citizens. This is because the founding fathers saw fit to grant every state equal representation regardless of population. Consequently, Wyoming’s five hundred and eighty thousand inhabitants have the same voting power as California’s thirty-nine million; and more clout than the District of Columbia’s six hundred and seventy thousand residents who have no representation whatsoever.

What You Don’t Know …

Given the flood of information directed at their politics it might be assumed Americans have a good grasp of what’s going on. That would be wrong. Awash in dissension and misinformation, people are increasingly choosing to be willfully ignorant. Consumption of traditional media has continued to decline, and better than four-in-ten (42%) are actively avoiding news.

But even among those who claim to be very interested in the politics, research has shown that many think they understand more than they actually do. The Dunning-Kruger effect maintains that the less individuals know about a topic the more certain they are about their knowledge. Not only do they overestimate their own expertise, but they also underestimate the competence of their peers. More importantly, they significantly misjudge the political mind-set of their rivals, presuming they hold more extreme beliefs than is the case.

These then are the circumstances Americans face as they go to the polls. The good news is that they are not nearly as polarized as portrayed. The bad news is that is in the interest of politicians, pundits, pollsters, populists, and the press, among others, to paint them that way. Complexity is hard to explain and comprehend. With conflict, on the other hand, it is easier to do both. Binary notions like right or wrong, good or bad, us or them are more engaging and, sadly, more likely to engender extremism. And given that the country is bound to get more complex, it is apt to become more polarized.



Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity

Making complex ideas easier to access, understand, and use