Three panelists discussed the effect that polarization has on the U.S. Constitution, the separation of powers, and American society at a presentation titled “Coming to Terms with a Polarized Society” Wednesday evening.
Sponsored by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy alongside the Society of Fellows and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, this event was the first in a series of five aiming to understand polarization within society. Nolan McCarty, the event’s presenter, is the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. The other panelists were political science professors Frances Lee of the University of Maryland and Christina Greer of Fordham University.
The panelists, all academics, presented analytical viewpoints based on their studies of the roots and effects of polarization and partisanship. In their speeches, each of the panelists gave possible sources of these trends.
McCarty discussed his research showing that the trends of polarization and partisanship began in the 1970s and was detected by political scientists in the early 1980s. He emphasized that polarization and partisanship are intrinsic parts of U.S. society and argued that this was not a cause for concern.
“It’s important not to romanticize this era,” he said. “There is a very important reason why there was no polarization in the 1950s and 1960s—it’s called segregation.”
Lee also explained her research, which focuses on Congress’ failures to legislate due to polarization and partisanship. She and other researchers looked at the goals detailed in the majority party’s opening day address over time in comparison to how successful the party was in enacting legislation based on those goals.
“The modal outcome is failure: 48 percent of the time on average. Roughly half the time, the majority party fails to achieve any of its goals,” Lee said.
Greer agreed with McCarty and Lee’s research on polarization and partisanship, explicitly emphasizing the gender and race gap that exists within American politics. She noted that there have only been two black male governors and no black female governors.
Ultimately, McCarty saw the media’s portrayal of national policy-making as the cause of this trend of polarization and partisanship within U.S. politics.
“The media often covers policy making as much as they would cover a heavyweight boxing match, scoring the winner and loser round by round. In such an environment, both sides are low to make any compromises for fear of having a losing round,” McCarty said.
In contrast, Greer again looked toward the representation of U.S. citizens within the government as the cause of of polarization. As a result, she called on women to run, noting that she feels the need to do this every time she speaks.
“Women need to be asked [to run] seven times by someone who is credible,” Greer said. “Women of color need to be asked about 11 times.”