Rollins College

A Deepening Division in Liberal Democracy by Evangelina Wong

Liberal democracy, as a fragile system of government, is being threatened and eroded in the United States by continued polarization and deep divisions between people that hinges on cultural and social identity. The effects of extremist rhetoric, partisan identity as a social identity, isolated social networks, and a polarizing executive has led to evident backsliding of liberal democracy in the United States.

In the most recent edition of The Economist, the article “For the First Time Ever, a Majority of Democrats Identify as Liberals” evaluates the Democratic Party. As the country heads towards the 2020 presidential election, individuals within the party have begun to shift left on the political spectrum and more than ever, they have been identifying themselves as “liberals”. While the meaning of the identification as a “liberal” is unclear, there are several policies or ideologies they generally side on including universal health care coverage for all, the Environmental Protection Agency regulating carbon emissions, unrestricted abortion, and increased federal minimum wage. It is important to note that the increase in those identifying as “liberals” does not always mean they find themselves as “very liberal”; however, there is a decrease in moderate and conservative Democrats within the party. This change that is observed is possibly more complex than society pursuing increased human rights and equity but the result of a mixture of partisan identity as a social identity, isolated social networks, and extreme rhetoric.

The concern about this shift leftward is how it further divides the public along party lines and with regard to ideology. Over time, as partisanship remains stable, an individual’s views are shaped. Reducing the need to personally invest in the political decision-making process, parties act as a source of information and partisan cues direct voting behavior. Arthur Lupia notes how the reliance on “shortcuts” rather than true investment in preparing to make rational political decisions has resulted in the way the Americans are voting in political elections today. As parties inform individuals how to think or perceive issues and as the parties are growing in animosity towards each other, the people too are becoming divided. The public is also growing more and more resentful towards others because they have taken partisan identification as a social identity.

 Considering identity politics, the battle over ideology often becomes personal and fueled with resentment. While it may be the case that many individuals may vote due to their resonance with party ideas, Katherine Cramer in her book on The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker notes that individual political decision-making may go beyond ideology and be fueled from a sense of resentment towards others. Muzafir Sherif also highlights how social identity as a form of group membership reflects where and how people locate themselves in society and is based on perceptions of reality. Lacking objectivity, it is often superficial and acquired by individuals. By partisan identity acting as a form of social identity, there breeds a resentment of the other and growing conflict within society at large. Eventually, due to resentment, issues become secondary to identities so although an individual may not fully identify with party views or ideology, having partisan identification is enough to shift individuals on a political spectrum regardless of benefits or self-interests.

The principle reason why this is so harmful to liberal democracy is because the raging resentment and inability to tolerate and cooperate leaves individuals susceptible to extremist rhetoric and populist leaders. It is also damaging to democracy because there is a lack of rationality or consideration of truth. Each individual’s “reality”, or perception of it, is prioritized over actual truth because personal experience gives the greatest weight in decision-making. However, this is exactly what rhetoricians identify and exploit within the people. Cramer notes, tapping into preexisting sentiments and values, rhetoricians identify with what resonates among the people and ignites opinions that were lying dormant to reap benefits of divisiveness that they actively help create. This is extremely dangerous to democracy.

According to Sherif’s theory of identity politics, there are several components that contribute to greater divisions among groups. These include isolation, competition, inclusion among groups, homogeneity within groups, and lack of objective reasoning. Within the American political system 0-sum politics and the winner take all electoral rules contribute to the conflict between those with group identity. It is noted in rural consciousness that this group identity and competition over scare resources fuels resentment leading the people to be vulnerable to extreme rhetoric and voting against self-interests. Although this is taking place between rural and urban conflicts, it can also be seen with respect to partisan divisions. Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood studied group polarization and looked for evidence of it, finding that the effects on social identification of partisanship is more powerful than racism. The hatred and resentment between party members was further highlighted by Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover who noted that people vote against a party due to anger and misery but not because they necessarily desire for one to be in power. There was little effect of information and knowledge on partisanship and it all points to how the public is not actively and rationally considering the political situation but prioritizing personal perspectives of the reality and resentment to make political decisions.

While the shift of the Democratic Party towards the left is not immediately negative for American democracy, it is important to monitor and be aware of. The two parties becoming more polarized can ultimately deeply damage liberal democracy and become justification for breaking political and social norms and rules. Viewing the opponent as immoral and unjust, there is compromise and allowance of one’s personal party to break rules to keep the other out of power. This is dangerous as the role of the parties are to gate-keep and protect against authoritarians but instead, they slowly shift towards solely opposing competition. It does not matter which party becomes more extreme or shifts more drastically, since they respond to each other over time. Once the desire to be in control outweighs the responsibility of the agency, democracy will fail.

In response to: “For the First Time Ever, a Majority of Democrats Identify as Liberals.” The Economist, April 11, 2019.

*Photo under the Creative Commons*, Party Symbols, Creative Commons Zero License

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