Who is to blame for polarization in America?

It has been commonly observed that polarization in America has increased greatly in recent years. It is hard to disagree, given the rancorous political discourse we witness on a daily basis between the two major political parties, not to mention among many friends and neighbors.

However, it is useful to remind ourselves that the current polarization is not completely new or unprecedented in scale. The historian Gordon Wood has pointed out that “[John] Adams’s Federalists and [Thomas] Jefferson’s Republicans were far more divided than today’s political parties” (“Polarization Is An Old American Story,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4, 2018). 

As nasty as it gets, the degree of name-calling between political opponents today cannot match the salty language of earlier eras. Note, for example, during the presidential campaign of 1800, the Federalists were called “British bootlickers” while the Jeffersonian-Republicans were labeled “Gallic jackals,” “lying dogs” and “frog-eating, man-eating, blood-drinking cannibals.” The hatred was such that when Jefferson won the election, Adams refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. 

As for political brawling, the jostling reported at some Trump rallies in 2016 could hardly compare with the physical beating administered in 1856 by Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina, to Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts, who was almost caned to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Moreover, as polarized as our current politics appear, the ideological differentiation is mostly confined to elites, while the great majority of Americans tend to be relatively nonpartisan and hover around the middle of the spectrum in their views on many issues, such as immigration, health care, gay rights, abortion, gun control and other concerns. 

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman discussed this in a September 2018 column titled “Is America More Politically Polarized than Ever? Not Quite.” 

“In the 1950s, 75 percent of Americans were happy to call themselves Democrats or Republicans, but today, only 60 percent identify with either party,” he wrote. “Independents now make up a plurality of the public. Self-described moderates outnumber either liberals or conservatives.”

According to the Pew Research Center study in 2012, “The way that the public thinks about poverty, opportunity, business, unions, religion, civic duty, foreign affairs and many other subjects is, to a large extent, the same today as in 1987.” 

Morris Fiorina of Stanford University echoes this view in a Washington Post commentary, noting that most people are not terribly conservative or liberal, yet, strangely, the middle “has no home in either party.” 

So polarization is a complicated phenomenon.

We keep hearing how Donald Trump is divisive in his enabling of the far right. Yes, his tweets and other comments are often coarse, crude and maddening, contribute nothing to civil or constructive discussion of public policy, and add only to hostile feelings on the part of political opponents. 

However, to the extent polarization is widening today, my view is that the other side is equally to blame. I am referring not only to politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other leading Democratic Party figures, whose practice of identity politics as well as their shrill rhetoric stoke divisiveness no less than Trump, but also the mainstream liberal media that enable their increasingly far-left views. 

I am not alone in saying this. A Politico poll last year revealed “a majority of voters think that President Donald Trump has done more to divide the country than unite it … but that the national news media are even worse” (“Poll: Majority Blames Both Trump and the Media for Dividing Country,” Politico, Nov. 1, 2018).

Take, for example, the recent flak over Trump’s denunciation of   Rep. Elijah Cummings, calling the African-American congressman who represents northwest Baltimore “racist” and his district a “disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess.” 

On the one hand, as the media were quick to characterize the tweet, there is no question Trump used over-the-top expletives in criticizing Cummings. On the other hand, to be fair, Cummings triggered Trump’s anger with typical Democratic over-the-top accusations of Border Patrol agents resembling concentration camp guards.

Even though liberal media rebuked Trump as a racist for his denigrating Cummings’ heavily black district, the same media had previously run stories similarly calling out the district’s rodent problem, high murder rate and other failings. Cummings himself, as far back as 1999, had called his district “drug-infested” with children walking around like “zombies.”

We will continue to risk increasing polarization as long as we have a president lacking self-control and feeling a need to give expression to the concerns of so many voters largely ignored by intellectual, corporate, Hollywood and other elites, alongside a mass media that are utterly irresponsible in presenting a one-sided view of reality when they discuss race, gender and most other topics. 

When the left constantly rants about white privilege, they ignore the white working class and poor rural whites in Appalachia and elsewhere, not to mention the fact that Asians are the single most successful racial-ethnic group in America educationally and economically. 

When the left increasingly rants about white supremacy, it is much of the power structure in the United States – the New York Times, NBC News, and the like – doing the ranting against whites. They are calling attention to a disgusting but nonetheless marginal phenomenon, because the neo-Nazis, the Klan and their ilk are statistically a tiny percentage of the U.S. population. Yet we are led to believe that “the deplorables” are a majority in America. 

The left misrepresents facts no less than Trump and the right. It is a toss-up as to which is more outlandish — Trump claiming that the Clintons killed Jeffrey Epstein, or Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris claiming that Michael Brown was murdered by then-police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. 

Each side is feeding the other’s anger. As former University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins once said, “If we can’t disagree well, democracy is in danger.” We all need to take a good hard look at ourselves and determine whether we will be part of the problem or part of the solution in healing the body politic.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.