The 2020 US presidential election, along with President Donald Trump’s allegations of electoral fraud and refusal to admit defeat, have bitterly divided Americans. Between the headlines about “A Cold War Between Red And Blue America” and concerns about the use of political force culminating in the January 6 storming of the Capitol, bipartisan contempt and hostility are increasingly worrying features of contemporary US politics. Indeed, President Joe Biden made unity a centerpiece of his inaugural address, pleading with Americans to “show respect to one another” and to argue that “politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
In such a tense climate, is there anything that could usher in a new era of partisan reconciliation? Conventional wisdom suggests that more cordial relations between political elites and greater courtesy in the media can curb partisan hostility among the general public. By setting a personal example of political tolerance and courtesy for ordinary Americans, politicians and media personalities could reverse the tide of growing party-political resentment.
Public courtesy has its value. However, focusing on the behavior of politicians and media elites should not obscure a fundamental feature of party political resentment: it is rooted in deep structural features of American politics. Reshaping these structures requires a concerted political effort.
Our analyzes of partisan hostility in 20 Western democracies since the 1990s identify three factors, as we report in a recently published book. The first is the nature and intensity of the debates in the party system. Political debates cover several thematic dimensions. Conflicts over taxes, government spending and redistribution lead less to partisan hostilities than to disagreements over so-called cultural war issues of national identity, race and multiculturalism. These cultural issues increasingly dominate US politics and lead to violent resentment from the partisans.
Second, electoral rules are important: electoral institutions, which win all winners, are strongly associated with a greater dislike of partisan opponents compared to more proportional systems such as those found in Western Europe. More proportional electoral systems that encourage power-sharing and enable multiple ruling parties are associated with much less partisan hostility.
The third factor concerns economic conditions: partisan hostility is stronger in countries with higher economic inequality and higher unemployment. The economic downturn of the COVID-19 era, which exacerbated both income inequality and unemployment, is a sign of partisan resentment among the US public and abroad. All of these structural factors that fuel partisan resentment in the United States will not go away even as Democratic and Republican officials become more civilized with one another.
It is known that the Democratic and Republican parties have polarized ideology in recent decades. What is less commonly observed is that this polarization largely lies above core values of race, multiculturalism, and America’s national way of life.
America’s growing cultural polarization is evident from a comparative perspective. According to data based on party platforms published before the elections, the United States was one of the least culturally polarized Western democracies in the 1990s. Until 2016 it was one of the most culturally polarized. No other Western democracy has seen such a sharp increase in party-political disagreements on issues of national identity during this period.
This growing cultural divide between the parties closely follows the hostility of the partisans. People may compromise on economic issues, but it is often more difficult to compromise on cultural values that are intertwined with ingrained beliefs about racial justice, gender norms, and national identity. Hence, cultural questions about who we are feel angrier to most people than more traditional economic debates about who gets what.
There is little in the political events of 2020 that could reduce these cultural divisions. If anything, the racial justice protests that erupted last summer in response to police brutality seem to be coupled with the Trump administration’s efforts to link electoral fraud to black communities and the violent end of the Trump presidency being destined to keep cultural issues high on the political agenda – which can further fuel partisan hostility.
Electoral rules are another structural factor that presents challenges for those who wish to defuse America’s intense partisan hostility. The United States is unique among Western democracies in that partisan competition is strictly limited to two dominant parties. Many Western democracies instead use some kind of proportional surplus-win system that promotes the viability of multiple parties.
Comparing party-political resentment between Western societies reveals two disturbing patterns. First, citizens of countries that use winner-take-all voting systems, including the United States, tend to be more hostile to political opponents than citizens in countries with more proportional voting systems.
One reason is that in a two-party system where all winners are taken into account, there is no incentive to compromise or collaborate with political rivals, while cooperation between opposing parties is through coalition governments, as is common in countries with proportional voting systems , gentler, friendlier policies are encouraged. For example, Germany was ruled by a grand coalition of the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the party that has traditionally been the largest center-left party, the Social Democratic Party. This political trade across ideological boundaries has likely helped lower the political temperature between supporters of these parties.
Given that America’s multiple-electoral system maintains two-party Democratic-Republican dominance – what Lee Drutman calls the “two-party fatefulness loop” – neither party is motivated to carry out electoral reform. Without reforming the mainstream of the US electoral system, the pluralism-based partisan contest, in which all winners are taken into account, is likely to perpetuate political hostility.
Partisan resentments are linked not only to cultural differences and voting rules, but also to economic factors. Partisan hostility is stronger, particularly in countries with higher economic inequality and higher unemployment.
The good news is that if high unemployment levels in the US plummet following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, that improvement should defuse some of today’s intense partisan resentment and distrust. The bad news is that even as unemployment hit a 50-year low, the United States showed sharp partisan hostility in the years leading up to the pandemic. A fall in unemployment can therefore only lead to the partisans’ bitterness returning to its high level. Meanwhile, inequality continues to grow.
Unfortunately, the United States is the most economically unequal Western democracy, and unlike unemployment, income inequality is unlikely to decline anytime soon unless dramatic, far-reaching economic policy changes are made. This suggests that it will be difficult to tackle the roots of party political resentment without also attacking the roots of economic inequality, how bourgeois the new Biden administration is towards Republicans – and vice versa. The Biden government appears to be taking steps in this direction, for example by proposing a doubling of the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour and showing more support for union formation. It remains to be seen, however, whether such political changes can be implemented in a deeply divided Congress.
In his first address as President-elect, Biden spoke directly of concerns about growing partisan resentment in the United States: “It is time to dispel the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. In order to make progress we must stop treating our adversaries as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans. “
But politeness is not enough. To defuse the country’s highly hostile partisan climate, American leaders should act to address the structural roots of partisan hostility: cultural wars, an all-winners electoral system, and economic inequality.