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Rethinking Polarization

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Rethinking Polarization

National Affairs,

5 min read
4 take-aways
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Tribalism, not ideological differences, is fueling partisan politics in the US. 

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The statement that America’s political landscape is dangerously divided is not controversial. Yet the question of what is driving this intense partisanship is far from settled. Is increased social inequality, caused by globalization and the digital revolution, fueling the divide? Or has the advent of the internet and social media stymied civil political discourse? Perhaps, but American political essayist Jonathan Rauch challenges us to start with something much more elemental: human nature. In a thought-provoking essay, he explains why political scientists must start taking primal human group instincts much more seriously. 


Polarization in American politics has increased sharply, yet today’s ideological differences remain remarkably incoherent.

Evidence of the United States’ profound political polarization over the past 10 to 15 years abounds: A 2018 Pew Research Center poll, for example, has found that fewer than half of Democrats and Republicans would support their elected representative entering into a compromise with members of the opposing camp. In Congress, party-line voting has become the norm while the ideological center in US politics continues to erode. Yet although more Americans embrace extreme political positions, their positions lack ideological consistency. Philosophical divides within both the Democratic and the Republican parties remain pronounced. While members of the Democratic Party variously embrace forms of technocratic market capitalism and social democracy, Republicans divide between populists and internationalist libertarians. Thus, ideological differences alone cannot explain the growing partisanship in American politics.

Tribalism, not ideological...

About the Author

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of six books and many articles on public policy, culture and government.

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