At a recent talk to Politics A-level students at Charles Thorp Comprehensive School, I addressed the argument about the current polarisation in American Politics. Common sense understandings of the term would suggest that, in a two-party system, polarisation is when the 2 parties are moving away from the centre to the opposite ends of their particular ’ideological’ positions, in so far as one can accurately talk of ideologies and the 2 American parties.  The ‘polarisation’ school references the more harum-scarum noise from the Tea Party on the right and contrast it with selective froth surrounding the claimed socialist hallmarks of Obamacare and the stimulus package. Analysis, though, suggests this may not be an accurate representation of contemporary party politics in the USA and one could argue that, if there is a shift happening in American party politics, it is one marked by noise from the right of the Republican Party, which continues to reach a volume out of proportion to the support it actually has across America,  and a Democrat Party that is, in many respects, as ‘centrist’ as it has ever been, having drawn closer to the Republican mainstream in the years from Clinton to the present day. Try to ignore the stirring mood music and listen to Obama’s most impassioned plea for bi-partisanship at the 2004 National Democrat Convention . His forlorn hope of working positively with the Republican Party from the outset of his first term in 2008, and the Republican intransigence with which it was greeted, disappointed many of those enthused by Obama’s messages in his first campaign, who saw Obama’s first couple of years as a missed opportunity to make greater progress in securing the sort of society they thought they had heard of in Obama’s campaign. Polarisation to these Americans was heading in only one direction.

The context to this debate about polarisation is one where the pent-up feelings of those who, for a wide variety of reasons (which ultimately would make this ‘New Right’ an unstable ‘alliance’) detested the growth of the state and state-led programmes through the 30-40 years of the ‘New Deal’ consensus and saw in this ‘consensus’ the seeds of the political, social and moral collapse of the 1960s-1970s, coalesced around a different form of conservatism. Against a background of supportive economic and demographic changes in America,  ideologues, traditionalists, free-marketeers, libertarians, social conservatives (importantly including Christian fundamentalists) and a range of the crankier grassroots movements like the John Birch Society (which believed that a programme of fluoridation of the water supply was a communist plot to sap America’s bodily fluids), the right was galvanised and helped secure the elections of Reagan, Bush Snr. and Bush Jnr.

One consequence of this was to drive some moderate Republicans towards the Democratic Party – another factor, which would militate against a move leftwards in any sort of corresponding polarisation of Democratic tendencies. Another consequence is the current bind over immigration in which the Republican Party finds itself. It risks alienating groups of American voters – ethnic minorities – who are both increasing as an overall percentage of the American electorate and who show overall signs of being more likely to turn out to vote.  Fissures are again opening up in a Republican Party becoming polarised on this issue, with fundamentalists rejecting any compromise on ‘regularising’ the status of the 10 million plus illegal immigrants, whilst Speaker John Boehner and his supporters seem much more wary of turning their backs on immigrants and thus alienating the wider ethnic minority communities. This certainly makes it less likely that ethnic minority voters will be attracted to a Republican cause that harbours such immigrant-hostile views and this will not aid the Republican Party cause to win back the White House in 2016 and beyond.

by Nick Hayward, Principal Lecturer in Politics / Programme Director