Rollins College

The Detrimental Effects of Party Polarization on Democracy by Christian Santiago

A Response to “How the Democratic Shutdown is Threatening the United States Democratic Legitimacy” by Chad Krys

The current state of the United States government can best be described as it was by Abraham Lincoln over a century ago when he likened it to the Biblical “household divided against itself [that] will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Although it would be a stretch to say that the country is on the road to another Civil War, it cannot be denied that in recent years American society and politics have become extremely polarized.

Today, it seems that Republicans and Democrats seem to have the same primary goal, to keep the other party from achieving their goals. This has led to a political climate of intolerance for opposing views and an unwillingness for compromise. As described by Robert Dahl in his book, On Democracy (2000), consensus on large political decisions in democracies are nearly impossible without a “high tolerance for compromise … [and] leaders who can negotiate solutions to conflicts”. Dahl also argues that politicians must be willing to democratically bargain with each other (i.e. concede the authority to make laws to the opposing party when it holds the majority).

It is plain to see that the polarization of politics has made compromise and democratic bargaining virtually non-existent in our current political system. An example of the dysfunction that this polarization causes can be seen in the recent debates that surrounded the United States’ plans regarding southern border security. On the Republican side of the debate existed politicians wanted to “build a wall” on the border to stymie the flow of illegal immigration. On the Democratic side of the debate existed politicians who opposed the building of any barrier on the southern border with Mexico, claiming that it would be an inefficient method of immigration control and would be too costly. This debate was a hot topic issue in D.C. that had largely gone nowhere, with Republicans urging Democrats to fund the wall and Democrats urging Republicans to stop attempting to fund the wall. All attempts by moderates to come to a compromise were futile, each side wanted to have their cake and eat it too.

As discussed by Chad Krys of Boston University in his article, “How the Democratic Shutdown is Threatening the United States Democratic Legitimacy”, this unwillingness for either political party to discuss a compromise agreement culminated in the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history. During the shutdown the U.S. was left in disarray. Federal employees went weeks without receiving pay, national parks began to fall into disrepair and federal departments partially shut down their operations. As described by Seymour Lipset in his article, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” (1959), these instances of failure create doubt in the general public about the government’s efficacy and de-legitimizes the institution on which the government is based on (democracy in this situation).

To make a bad situation worse, after the shutdown had finally come to an end, the President (after getting nowhere in negotiations with Democrats) declared a state of emergency to acquire the funds needed to build the wall. This decision has been met with severe backlash as it has been seen as an executive aggrandizement of legislative power. In their book, How Democracies Die (2018), Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn that the executive consolidation of power creates a dangerous situation where an authoritarian government can rise.

The “my way or the highway” mentality that has been adopted by lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum is not conducive to a good democracy. Lawmakers must be willing to negotiate deals with their opponents and make compromises to make laws that will meet the expectations of both parties involved. An increase in bipartisan cooperation in policy making would incentivize both parties to keep proposed laws alive. This would, in effect, keep the operations of government running smoothly and prevent the civil unrest and doubt that follows a breakdown in the law-making process. No policies will be made or instituted at an acceptable rate if the government continues to waste time on political gridlock and partisan bull-headedness.

*Photo by DonkeyHotey, “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey – 3D Icons” (flickr), Creative Commons Zero license.

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