The Politics of Division

The presidential election shows the standoff in our national politics is growing more serious, says Tufts political scientist
Young woman with mask holding a “I Voted” sticker. The presidential election shows the standoff in our national politics is growing more serious, says Tufts political scientist
“We have to be able to discuss issues together, and people don’t discuss issues with people they don’t trust at all or even hate,” said Peter Levine. Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 4, 2020

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At noon on the day following the presidential election, as the final tally was still uncertain, Tisch College faculty spoke to a group of faculty, staff, and students online about what the election portends for politics in America.

The election, they said, confirmed what we’ve all known for years now: America is divided politically, almost split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. But the division runs deeper than that.

“We disagree about issues, but it is more than just the issues—it’s questions of fundamental identity and importance to people,” said Peter Levine, associate dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs. 

At the same time, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College, which researches youth engagement in politics, found that youth voting was stronger than in the 2016 presidential election, especially in key battleground states.

Levine spoke about the politics of division, how legislating in a divided government is nearly impossible—and has been for almost 40 years, and what might be done to fix the system.

Moving from disagreeing to disliking. “Americans disagree about things. That’s true and important. The other piece is that Americans really don’t like each other on the basis of their partisan identification,” he said.

That’s called affective partisanship, where you dislike a fellow citizen based on their political affiliation or identity. “If you’re given a zero-to-100 scale to rate the members of the other party, about a quarter of both Democrats and Republicans rate the other party members at zero. That percentage has gone up a lot in the last two decades. I think we have an unprecedented degree of affective partisanship, where you don’t like each other—and it’s very symmetrical.”

The division makes it hard to govern. “There is a theorem in political science that predicts that if you have a two-party system, voting will generally split evenly. The fact that we’re near 50-50 has produced a split government. In fact, most of the last 40 years has been divided government.”

Major legislation is becoming rare. During the periods of divided government, when no one party controls both Congress and the presidency, “there’s basically been virtually no legislative change,” Levine said. “In one typical month in 1964-68, Congress passed more legislation than they have passed in the past 20 years. We’ve had these little bursts of legislative activity when everything is aligned in the first two years of Obama, two years of George W. Bush, but that’s almost it.”

“So if you believe that we need to do something about climate change, it’s disastrous, because we’ve got another two years with no possibility of legislation on climate,” he said.

This election doesn’t signal a shift in politics in America. “Your assessment of the American public shouldn’t change as a result of this election compared to what you would’ve thought a week ago,” Levine said. “Maybe about 3 or 4 percent of the American people voted Republican when we thought they were going to vote Democratic. Whatever you thought about the public last week, you should still think the same now.”

Polarization is stronger than ever. “A measure of this is that back in the 1970s, hardly anyone objected if their son or daughter married someone from the other party, but now a really high proportion of people don’t like that idea,” he said.  

“The effect of polarization is new, and you can argue that it’s very hard to govern a community like that. We have to be able to discuss issues together, and people don’t discuss issues with people they don’t trust at all or even hate. They’re not open to reason. And it is very symmetrical between the parties.”

Political coalitions were possible earlier, but not now. “The parties now map onto ideology perfectly. For most of American history they didn’t, because one of the most conservative groups was the Southern Democrats. That created a situation where presidents could always govern because the president could always create a majority coalition based on parts of the two parties,” Levine said.

For example, during the Reagan presidency, even though Democrats had the House for the entire eight years, Reagan “just peeled off the conservative Democrats in the House and put them together with the Republicans.” That’s impossible today “because now the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican.”

Is our political system broken? “There are really serious arguments in political science that say that this is an impossible system to sustain,” Levine said. Some argue that every single system in the world that has separately elected presidencies and legislatures has ended in a coup or a takeover, “because you get infighting of the exact same type that we’ve seen for the last 20 years.”

“We have the oldest constitution in the world. It’s very rigid,” he said. “I think it’s just on the verge of collapse.”

Repairing the political system and civil society. We have a dilemma: we need real political reform, and some of that will be perceived as partisan, said Levine. Yet “we also need to reduce affective polarization, because we can’t have a sustainable community. That’s a hard combination,” he said.

For mindfulness-based stress reduction around the election and politics, visit the Tufts Mindfulness and Resilience Collaborative.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.