political polarization

This chart above comes from a June 23, 2005, New York Times article "One Nation, Divisible" , points out that in 1955 33% of house members and 39% of senators were centrists while it was 8 and 9% in 2004. They attributes polarization to political redistricting, which makes seat safe for representatives with more extreme views which extended to the Senate as House members moved up.
"The expansion in the number of safe seats in the House that began in the 1980's has put an increased importance on primaries, which favor more ideological candidates."

A February 29, 2012, article "After Many Tough Choices, the Choice to Quit" about Main Senator, Olympia Snowe's decision not to run again, talks about the difficulties of being a centrist. It points out,

"Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the senator often considered the most conservative Democrat, and Ms. Snowe, seen as the most liberal Republican, will both be gone next year, as will Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who left a Democratic Party that would not tolerate his pro-Iraq war stand. They follow a parade of centrists out the Senate doors in recent years, including the Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh; a Republican-turned-Democrat, Arlen Specter; and two Republicans-turned-independents, James M. Jeffords and Mr. Chafee."

As anger over the state of politics increases apathy, "only the most rabid partisans vote," so political strategists steer campaigns to issues that turn them on, said former Republican governor of New Jersey and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Christie Whitman, who supports abortion rights. For Republicans, those are often social issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception. But the rise of a new strain of fiscal conservatism has also led to moralistic portrayals of votes on spending and the debt limit. And when issues are framed around morality, compromise becomes very difficult.

"You can't compromise with someone who's amoral," she said.

There is an indication that the general public is becoming more polarized.

Several reasons have been proposed for the polarization.

The Migration Effect:
With increased mobility, people are moving to states which have politics they agree with. The result is fewer swing states and more states where politicians do not have to move to the middle to get reelected.

No more Conservative Democrats in the South
After the Civil War Southerners did not want to be associated with the party of Lincoln, so many conservatives became democrats. This resulted in a more moderate democratic party.

At the same time many republicans were more socially liberal and economically conservative. Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley's VP was a progressive republican. He didn't like what Taft was doing and created "The Progressive Party" a.k.a. "The Bull Moose Party". Both he and Taft got beat by Woodrow Wilson. The progressive republicans started moving to the democratic party.
See Republicans and Democrats on civil rights

Janis's Groupthink:
Experts and lay pople alike used to think that groups make more conservative (moderate) decisions than individuals.The mistaken reasoning was that groups come to decisions that reflect the average position of all group members, therby diluting extremist views. A groundbreaking study by James Stoner in 1961, since replicated hundreds of times, showed that in fact groups make more polarized decisions than individuals. Whether it be in relation to financial risk-taking or political attidudes, group discussion accentuates any initial bias held by group members. In the early 1970s, Yale University psychologist Irving Janis argued that certain conditions can lead to a particularly extreme form of group polarization called "groupthink," in which a dangerous illusion of consensus takes over. The preconditions for groupthink include members being close-knit and like-minded; a group leader tow makes his or her own position known; and the group being shut off from other influences and opinions. Janis argued that groupthink was responsible for the catastrophic decision making that led to the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the United States' failure to anticipate Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
Source: 30-Second Psychology : the 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute.- Christian Jarrett

The Echo Chamber Effect:
Around 2004, Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, started referring to the effect of associating with people we agree with as the echo chamber effect.

In military circles, this process is called "incestuous amplification." Among psychologists, it is known as "group polarization." In a nutshell: Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.
See: NPR "On the Media", Feb., 6, 2004

More choices in media, Fox and MSNBC instead of just ABC, NBC and CBS, and a multitude of Internet based media choices, blogs, facebook friends, etc. contributes even more to this process.

In "The Wisdom of Crowds" by New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki, he argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them."
Four elements required to form a wise crowd: (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions.

In a 2014 article, "Liberal Donors Pollute Politics, Too" they say,
"Those who are worried about man-made climate change might be tempted to welcome the news that Tom Steyer, a Democratic billionaire, will spend $100 million this year to fight it.
... But his money can't begin to compete with the forces on the right. The Koch network alone raised $407 million in 2012, and pro-environment spending from the left will only prompt more from the vastly richer conservative forces.

This arms race escalates every campaign cycle, producing a torrent of attack ads that make all candidates look like liars, cowards and thieves, increasing cynicism that keeps people away from the polls."

Liberals are more likely to compromise:
At "Our Cold Civil War Intensifies" | The Dish June 2014, Andrew Sullivan shows a Pew poll snowing liberals are more likely to compromise.

Gerrymandering is commonly blamed for polarization, but there are several studies which discredit that theory.
See Gerrymandering.

Republican Shift to the right:
My favorite republicans, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower would be considered socialists in todays republican party.

In Eisenhowers famous Farewell Adddress he warned of the power of the Military Industrial Complex.

In 2017 the Military and big business seem to be gaining more power than ever.

Republican hardball strategies:
In 1978 Newt Gingrich told a gathering of young Republicans,
"One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” he told the group. “We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal, and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics.”

In the 1994 midterms his "Contract with America" 10 bills Republicans promised to pass if they took control of the House. 300 candidates signed it.
As Election Day approached, they maneuvered to block every piece of legislation they could—even those that might ordinarily have received bipartisan support, like a lobbying-reform bill—on the theory that voters would blame Democrats for the paralysis. It worked voters frustrated with Congress voted for change and the republicans picked up 54 seats in the house.

See Republican Hardball: Gingrich to McConnell and Trump

Books - Articles:
Why We’re Polarized, 2020, Ezra Klein
Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization? - "Find very little for such a link."

Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception, 2014 by Joseph T. Hallinan
Polarization in American politics | Pew Research Center
"Our Cold Civil War Intensifies" | The Dish June 2014
Book: Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, by Cass Sunstein, 2009
Radio: On The Media (NPR): Transcript of "The Echo Chamber Revisited" (June 17, 2011)
Article: How a High Choice Media Environment Leads to Greater Selectivity, Fragmentation and Polarization, by Rebecca Chalif, 2010

"Two little questions to revive the lost art of compromise", By Chris Satullo, WHYY, Philadelphia (NewsWorks)
Polarization - ChangingMinds.org
Group Polarization: The Trend to Extreme Decisions -- PsyBlog
Are the Media Biased?
Politics and Science

last updated 4 Feb 2014