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How Americans Were Driven to Extremes

In the United States, Polarization Runs Particularly Deep

U.S. President William Clinton, a Democrat, next to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, two Republicans, April 1995 Stringer / Reuters

Every day brings more evidence of the United States’ profound political polarization. Partisan intransigence, vitriol, and divisiveness now contaminate most government institutions. What is more, these sentiments have steadily infiltrated every nook and cranny of American life. The 2020 presidential campaign will only further intensify the country’s partisan tribalism. And despite the lofty praise that news media and civil society heap on politicians who work across party lines, the divisive trend continues with no end in sight.

The more than 35 books published on this subject in the past decade have shed much light on partisan dynamics. Yet almost without exception, they examine U.S. polarization as an isolated phenomenon, separate from the experiences of other countries. In our research and advocacy work, we have taken a different tack.

Collaborating with scholars from around the world, we have examined the striking rise of severe polarization in numerous other democracies, including Bangladesh, Colombia, Poland, and Turkey. In each case we took a close look at the roots of polarization and then traced its trajectory over time, analyzing the main drivers as well as the negative consequences and attempted remedies.

Although polarization in the United States shares some basic features with political divisions elsewhere, we found that it stood out in many crucial respects. American polarization has deep roots that have taken decades to grow and strengthen. The United States may look much like many other angry, divided countries, but its brand of polarization raises specific concerns about the future and functioning of its democracy.

WHO KILLED CONSENSUS?

In most highly polarized states, the fundamental divisions arose first among elite political actors. They then spread throughout society when politicians made calculated efforts to solidify or expand their bases. U.S. polarization has altogether different sources. Partisan sentiment bubbled up from the belly of American society, not the head.

The cultural transformations that swept the United States in the 1960s and 1970s first set the trend in motion. During this period, the civil rights movement, the women’s

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