There was a time when someone with an opposing political view was not automatically your enemy. Opposing views were not irreconcilable differences and heated exchanges did not necessitate hatred and violence. Yet at this point, especially precipitating from this election cycle, people are more polarized than ever.
In the last 20+ years, Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly polarized in their party alignment and the moderate voter demographic is growing thinner with each election cycle.
Americans are growing more disdainful of the opposing party with roughly 80% of both Republicans and Democrats viewing the other party unfavorably. What's more, however, is that about 1/4 of Democrats see the opposing party as a "threat to the nation's well-being", while 36% of Republicans feel that way about the Democratic Party. While adverse sentiments have always been held between Republicans and Democrats towards the other party, there has certainly been a surge in the amount of people with deeply negative opinions as well as a significant increase in the intensity of these views. Yet, not only are party lines hardening, but both parties are becoming more ideologically stringent with the labels "conservative" and "liberal." According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2012, self-described conservatives outnumber moderate Republicans by roughly two-to-one and self-described liberals are as common as moderate Democrats. Ideology and partisan identification are becoming strongly correlated and people are sticking to their parties even when ideological contradictions poke their head out. There are more consistently conservative voters and consistently liberal voters than ever before. As one might guess, ideological uniformity is increasing amongst the most politically active and vocal of Americans. Remaining is a detached and seemingly apathetic moderate voter base whose voice is drowned out in the echo chambers of the close-minded and vitriolic.
What exactly are we fighting about?
Well, for the most part, the issues themselves have not changed much. However, the issues where partisan divisions are the largest have certainly shifted to some degree. Today, the two most divisive issues regard the social safety net and environmentalism. On the Republican side, there's an increasingly strong assertion being made that caring for the nation's poor and unable to work is not the government's responsibility, and a fairly sharp decrease in support for tougher environmental laws (almost 40 point decrease from 86% since 1992). Conversely, Democrats view the government as an important role in the lives of the poor and those incapable of working. In addition, almost all Democrats say that stricter environmental regulations are necessary (93%).
Personally, I believe that the political polarization has arisen from a severe polarization of opinions on many of the social issues that the GOP campaigned on in recent election cycles. Democrats have become more socially liberal and more secular over the past couple decades. Many of the problems are one side or the other, with no middle ground. For example, the issue of gay marriage really only comes down to two stances: you support legal marriage between any two people, or you only support marriage between 1 man and 1 woman. As Democrats have become increasingly more liberal on these issues, they've become increasingly less willing to accept a candidate that opposes gay marriage. Moderates and younger Republicans are being alienated by hard-line, far-right stances on gay marriage, immigration, and abortion; at the same time, the number of people who claim to be consistently conservative across issues has also increased. But are the views of Americans shifting or are politicians creating a divide?
The fact of the matter is...
Each Congress is becoming more polarized in their attempt to expand voter bases and cement ideological divides that get people out to vote for their party. The Republicans reach out to the far right with bans on abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. The Democrats reach out to the far-left, through Bernie, with promises of universal health care and free college tuition. The problem is that Americans are growing frustrated with lack of options offered by government and the polarized views of politicians has sparked the divide among people. Left-leaning moderates are jumping to the left, Right-leaning moderates are jumping to the right (save young republicans and social liberals). Through this frustration, people are clinging to their parties stronger than ever in the hopes that their party will solve the nation's problems and make everything better. Unfortunately, this polarization of party affiliation only damages the potential for progress. Compromise is essential to a functioning government: a word absent from the vocabulary of our Congress.