Political Polarization

Elkanah Tisdale, 1812 (Public Domain)

The current levels of political polarization and partisanship, which we are keenly aware of in the wake of the US Federal Government shutdown, get blamed on many factors, especially the bogeyman of new technology, the internet and social media.

Political critic Dan Carlin makes the point in his most recent Common Sense podcast (“The Shutdown Sideshow” at about 8:30) that increased political polarization should be an expected consequence of increased gerrymandering. In gerrymandered voting districts engineered to effectively guarantee the victory of a particular party, the winner of the election is primarily determined by the party primary elections. The winner of the party primaries is determined by each party’s “base” voters.

The inevitable result of such a system is the election of progressively more extreme politicians selected by gerrymandered districts, which effectively cut the majority of moderate voters out of the process. Responses to the activity of these politicians would then drive polarization among voters.

Is Dan Carlin right on this one? I cannot say for certain, but after five minutes of thought, it seems like increased political polarization is the expected consequence of an increasingly gerrymandered system, with or without modern communication technology. The burden of proof, therefore, falls more heavily on those arguing that it is the result of some other factor (eg, internet) or that political polarization has not increased.

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