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How polarization benefits democracy

Guest Blogger

Everybody knows that the polarization of American politics only damages our democracy. But wait – could everybody be wrong? Political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz has a different view. In “The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization and American Democracy,” published by Yale University Press, Abramowitz contends that polarization engages the public and increases participation in the electoral process. The real problem with politics today is not the divide between left and right, he says, but the divide between those who are politically engaged and those who are not. Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University.

By Alan I. Abramowitz

Among members of the Washington commentariat it’s almost an article of faith that polarization is bad for American democracy. It’s a rare day that you won’t find an editorial or opinion column lamenting the growing ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans and the lack of bipartisan cooperation in dealing with the enormous challenges facing the country. According to these critics of polarization, ordinary Americans are fed up with the partisan bickering and just want their leaders to work together on issues such as health care, unemployment, energy, and deficit spending.

But are polarization and partisan conflict really bad for democracy? Certainly, they can go too far. It’s not healthy when supporters of the minority party question the legitimacy of our country’s elected leaders or when vigorous debate degenerates into name-calling and threats of violence. But a certain amount of polarization and partisan conflict can actually be very beneficial in a democracy.

The fact that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are much clearer today than they were 40 or 50 years ago makes it much easier to voters to choose candidates based on their policy preferences. And the evidence from recent elections indicates that far from turning off ordinary Americans, partisan polarization has led to increased levels of interest and participation among the public. Voter turnout was the highest in 40 years in 2008 and early indications are that turnout will also be high in the 2010 midterm elections. And more Americans are also talking about politics, displaying yard signs and bumper stickers, and giving money to the parties and candidates.

The other major problem with polarization, according to its critics, is that it leads to gridlock in government -- because Democrats and Republicans can’t or won’t work together, nothing gets done and problems just fester.

Gridlock clearly can be a problem in Washington. After 16 months in office, the 111th Congress has yet to pass legislation dealing with crucial issues such as climate change, immigration, and financial reform. But let’s place the blame for gridlock where it belongs. The main reason for gridlock in Washington is not polarization but anti-majoritarian rules such as the Senate filibuster that allow a determined minority to block the will of the majority.

Polarization can actually help to overcome gridlock in government by increasing party discipline so that after an election the majority party can enact its policy agenda. Because of polarization, the Democratic majority in the current Congress was able to maintain enough unity to pass a strong economic stimulus bill and a major health care reform bill over near-unanimous Republican opposition. And if you don’t like those policies, because of polarization you know which party to hold responsible in the next election.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 28, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: political partisanship, political polarization  
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