Polarization is Destroying America

The defining construct of American politics is partisan polarization and it is, bit-by-bit, chipping away at that which makes us Americans

I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality of American politics. If someone sent you this email - or you are a free subscriber - and you’d like to subscribe: you can sign up here.

Most close observers of modern American politics would agree that we are living in an era of extreme partisan polarization. The political divides between the two parties have seemingly never been greater.

But if polarization is well understood, its impact is gravely underestimated. Polarization is transforming American politics and American society - and bit by bit, it is doing terrible damage to the country. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to start writing about this issue in far more detail because I believe that political journalism is failing to fully grapple with this ongoing sea change in the nation’s politics. There is still a media inclination to view politics through an outdated lens - one in which persuadable voters matter, bipartisanship is still possible, lying, hypocrisy, or blatantly anti-democratic acts are disqualifying, policy outcomes move voters, and there are political rewards for addressing parochial and constituent concerns.

These factors have not disappeared, but their relevance to modern politics is waning. Instead, we’ve reached a political inflection point in which the primary factor in determining voter preferences is whether there is a “D” or an “R” next to a candidate’s name.

Split ticket voting has largely disappeared. In 2009, there were 13 Democratic senators in states won by John McCain. Today, there are 3 Democratic senators in states won by Donald Trump in 2020. In 2009, there were 10 Republican senators in states Obama won. Now there are 3 Republican senators in states where Biden prevailed. In the House of Representatives, a mere 16 members represent districts won by the other party's presidential nominee. In 2009, that number was 83.

The result of this divvying up by party identification is that most members of Congress run for reelection in districts that are not competitive, and the key to victory comes down to a candidate’s effectiveness in mobilizing the segment of the electorate likeliest to vote for them. For most Republican candidates, the greatest challenge to their political future is not losing to a Democrat but instead being felled in a primary by a more conservative Republican. The same is increasingly true of Democrats. For example, in the Senate, every Democratic candidate up for reelection in 2022 is running in a state won by Joe Biden. This makes the vast majority of Senate Democrats much more inclined to follow the national party - a phenomenon we’ve seen play out in today’s narrowly divided Senate.

For Republican politicians, outreach to Democrats or the shrinking number of swing voters runs the risk of alienating Trump Republicans. As we saw in Senate races across the country in 2020, Republican candidates, when given the choice between upsetting their Trump-supporting base or moderating their positions to expand their political support, overwhelmingly chose the former. And for those running in red states, it ended up being the smart move - they all handily won reelection.

As these dividing lines between the two parties become more sharply defined - and it becomes more difficult to move voters away from their partisan homes - there is little inclination for members of either party to compromise, work across the aisle, or seek bipartisan agreement. Party loyalty trumps all other considerations.

The SALT Fight

One recent example of this phenomenon is the fight in Congress over the state and local tax deduction. Last month, House Democrats from some of the wealthiest districts in America delivered an ultimatum to President Biden - lift the cap on state and local tax deductions (SALT), that was part of the 2017 Trump tax cuts or lose their vote on the tax bill that would pay for Biden’s more than $3 trillion infrastructure bill. With the party’s ultra-slim majority in the House, the defection of a mere handful of Democrats could doom Biden’s legislative efforts. 

On the surface, this looks like a classic parochial concern and a clear demonstration of how local issues drive federal legislating. But this drama is playing out in a very different political world - one in which the SALT deduction is not a political bargaining chip to negotiate an agreement between members of Congress from different parties or different regions, but rather a blunt political tool that a handful of Democrats can use to hold their party hostage. The SALT deduction is an issue that affects both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Indeed, in 2017 more than a dozen House Republicans did not vote for the Trump tax bill because the legislation capped the SALT deduction. (Conversely, Republicans included it in the legislation because they knew it would hurt Democrats).

Those Republicans in California, the Northeast, and the affluent suburbs of Illinois and Virginia, where capping the SALT deduction can cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in higher taxes, who did vote for the bill were wiped out. According to an analysis from the Tax Policy Center, “the largest shift towards Democratic house candidates occurred in the 20 percent of counties with the greatest percentage of tax filers taking the SALT deduction.”

Ironically, taking the opposite position on SALT didn’t do much to help either. On the twelve GOP members who went against their party and voted to protect their constituents from tax increases, five lost reelection, and two retired. Once again, partisan loyalty trumped parochialism, even for voters.

Today, the SALT fight is being fought almost exclusively within the Democratic Party. For the vast majority of Republicans, the political imperative of opposing Democratic bills and a Democratic president dwarfs all other political considerations.

This new reality makes bipartisan legislation far more difficult to achieve, particularly for Republicans. There is little upside to be seen siding with “the libs,” even on issues of principle, as Rep. Liz Cheney can attest. With every election, down to even local races, becoming nationalized, members of Congress incur little benefit from a policy outcome that directly benefits their constituents if the alternative is bucking their party.

No Longer Feeding at the Trough

A similar dynamic is playing out on President Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill. In the old days, when a president (of either party) proposed $3 trillion in infrastructure spending - as Biden is doing now - Republicans and Democrats would be looking for opportunities to get their cut. Deals would get made. A Northeastern senator might ask a Midwestern senator to support more funding for mass transit in return for his or her vote on farm subsidies. It wasn’t the most efficient system, but it was a way to get things done in Washington.

In a different world, the SALT deduction is the kind of thing that Northeastern and Far West Democrats would trade, as part of the negotiations on the infrastructure bill, for some parochial Republican priority - more money for smaller regional airports, extending Amtrak train lines to red states, etc. But Republicans are unlikely to trade their votes because the vast majority have concluded that opposing Biden and the Democrats is more beneficial, politically, than diverting federal spending to their district. Back in the day, Democrats holding out their support for major legislation like eliminating the SALT tax would have been your typical dog bites man story. Today, it’s a man bites dog story.

Horsetrading is essential to democratic governance, particularly in the American political system, with its multiple choke points and avoidance of strict majority rule. It relies to a disproportionate degree on compromise and assembling regional or ideological coalitions capable of crossing party lines. That is not the political world in which we currently reside. 

This is just one small way in which polarization is changing the rules of American politics. But it’s hardly the only one.

Polarization is Killing Americans

In more than a dozen red states, recalcitrant Republican state legislators continue to refuse to accept billions of dollars in federal dollars to expand Medicaid. Doing so is not only depriving 4 million people in these states access to health insurance; it costs money because states still need to provide emergency coverage for the uninsured. Study after study has shown that Medicaid expansion is a financial winner for states - and that’s not even to mention the longer, healthier lives of those who receive coverage.

In Missouri, last Fall, a ballot initiative passed to expand Medicaid, but last month the Republican-dominated state legislature balked at allocating the money. Their rationale was that it would bust the state’s budget. Keep in mind, the federal government pays 90% of the bill for those who received care under Medicaid expansion, and Missouri currently has a budget surplus. In addition, the recently passed American Rescue Plan allocates another 5% of the costs for states that expand coverage.

But none of that matters because Medicaid expansion is associated with Obamacare, and Republicans don’t want to be on the record supporting any aspect of that legislation.

The Effects of Polarization are Not Just Political

It’s not just the political realm that is being roiled by polarization. After Republicans declared war on football and, more recently, baseball, it tested sports allegiances. Polarization is even affecting children’s books and food. But the most pernicious impact has been in the realm of public health and the response to COVID-19.

This chart from Charles Gaba, who runs the ACA Signups website, offers remarkable evidence.

There’s a near-perfect correlation between voting preferences and the likelihood of getting vaccinated.

The chart for US states, writ large, is equally astounding.

According to recent polling by the Economist/YouGov, two of the biggest drivers of mask-wearing (for or against) are partisan identity and ideology.

Democrats are not immune to the pull of tribalism either. It’s difficult not to see the continued refusal to follow the science on mask-wearing as a form of virtue signaling — a way of demonstrating that Democrats are not like MAGA-hatted Republicans who refused to wear masks last year. In effect, one of the most significant factors in determining whether you followed public health guidelines the past 15 months had nothing at all to do with science but rather whether one was a Democrat or a Republican.

To be sure, the effects of polarization are asymmetrical - in other words, they are far more pervasive among Republicans than Democrats. Yet, the fault lines are becoming increasingly unstable. Check out these CBS poll results from last January.

Biden voters actually have a more negative view of Trump voters than vice-versa. But the fact of the matter is that it’s nearly impossible to have a functioning democracy with these levels of contempt and disdain for political rivals.

E Pluribus Unum

America has always been a unique country in that it’s founded not on ethnicity or race (ish) but rather on an idea - a creed enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. While America has never truly lived up to these lofty ideals, there’s long been a sense that the country is defined by its founding motto, E Pluribus Unum, "Out of many, one.” But, rarely in modern American history has that notion seemed more quaint. Americans across the political divide increasingly view those of a different political persuasion as not rivals or simply people they disagree with, but rather as enemies. Increasingly, Americans define themselves by their partisan identification and congregate and associate with those of similar political persuasion. These cleavages are certainly more prevalent in the political world. But as the debate over mask-wearing and vaccines show, they are seeping into people’s daily lives and having life and death consequences.

Partisan polarization is a fact of life in America - and if the past few months are any indication, we are nowhere near the bottom. Going forward it is essential that we better understand it, recognize the defining role it plays in modern politics, and think of creative ways to ameliorate its impact. But that begins with understanding where we are and that, in fact, America has a problem.

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Musical Interlude

My record player is broken, which is a situation I need to rectify quickly. In the meantime, here are a few random tunes I really like.