Rethinking Political Polarization and the Making of Partisan America

Colin P. Arnold, University of Virginia

Discussions of political and/or partisan polarization have become commonplace across a number of disciplines including history and economics, most obviously political science, and to a lesser extent sociology. Though a common point of interest, the issue of polarization remains hotly contested topic. Scholars of various stripe continue to offer competing conceptualizations of polarization, debate who exactly has polarized, with some rejecting the notion altogether. One thing however is clear—partisanship has again become the most significant predictor of individuals’ political behavior and reported issue/policy preferences. This paper seeks to move beyond these conventional debates by showing how the increasingly polarized state of American politics is the contingent result of political party practices within the broader institutional context and trajectory of American political development. Polarization is a necessarily complex phenomenon as parties and constituencies do not change their positions or convictions on various issues in perfect harmony. However, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have increasingly sought to establish stark explicitly partisan boundaries across even the most ostensibly non-contentious sociocultural and economic issues, though by no means to the same degree. Consequently, polarization may have less to do with voters’ reported preferences, objective or otherwise, growing further apart than a growing sense that the respective opposition party poses a fundamental or even existential threat to the nation’s collective interests.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 108. Parties & Coalitions in US Politics