Negative Polarization: America’s Middle Ground is Losing Ground

Growing party polarization has been a staple of American politics for more than a decade now. It’s easy to point to Eric Cantor’s shocking upset in 2014, John Boehner’s resignation, and the collapse of The Grand Bargain in 2015 as the Republican Party’s polarization climax. Yet since 2015, polarization in both parties has risen dramatically. Americans are firmly aware of the never ceasing banter between “leftists” and the “alt-right” on 24-hour news stations and across our social media. The rise of radicalism in politics needs no introduction to the average American; we see the consequences every day. However, it is the rise of negative polarization that often goes unnoticed and may be more harmful to democratic institutions.

This study, based upon Harvard’s 2016 CCES polling data, shows that both Republicans and Democrats view the opposition as much more extreme than their own party. While only 6% of Democrats view the Democratic party as “Very Liberal”, 65% of Republicans view the Democratic party as “Very Liberal”. Likewise, 14% of Republicans view the Republican party as “Very Conservative”, while 50% of Democrats view the Republican Party as “Very Conservative”. This heightened view of extremism by the opposite party comes at the cost of “Middle of the Road” and more moderate views. Deeply negative views of the opposing party perpetuates polarization and prevents any moderate opportunity and consensus. The rise of extreme liberal and conservative ideology is collinear with the condemnation of ideological opposition. In the age of President Trump, negative polarization is about more than just policy. Due to his opposition to the Trump administration, Jeff Flake, one of the most ideologically conservative Senators, is now viewed much more favorably by Democrats than Republicans. It would be interesting to see if this trend of stemming negative polarization via opposition to Trump rather than policy carries over to the general population, but the data just isn’t there.

It’s easy to censure and denounce conflicting policies if those policies are perceived as extreme. Polarization may continue to rise, but your “communist leftist” and “alt-right MAGA” neighbor likely believes that their political opinions are much more moderate and reasonable than you do. If you really think that radical neighbor is as extreme as it gets, they likely do not view themselves as very liberal or very conservative — they view their extreme as moderate. The perception of a moderate body within each party has all but dissolved. When a party does view a member of the oppositional party as favorable, they are labeled the exception rather than representative. Casting away moderate voices as extreme enables Washington’s inability to create sensible, moderate solutions to solve the nation’s most crucial problems.