The polarisation of American politics: Lessons for Sri Lanka

Tuesday, 25 December 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Back in 1984, President Ronald Reagan won 49 out of 50 states in America. Reagan was a Republican (same party as Donald Trump). President Johnson (Democrat) won 44 out of 50 states in 1964. 

Today, it would be beyond a miracle if a Republican can win Washington or New York or a Democrat win that many states in the Bible belt of America. Since 2000, 40 out of the 50 states in the US have voted the same party at each presidential elections. An increasing polarisation of the vote base. America has become polarised like many countries around the world. 

According to Pew Research of 1994, 20% of Americans had a very unfavourable view about the opposing party but today Americans saying they have an unfavourable view about the party on the other side of the political aisle is 90%. We have seen outright hatred towards Obama coming from the Republican base. From saying Obama was not born in America to certain fringe groups calling him the anti-Christ. That is a staggering increase in enmity along party lines and shows a divided country. 

American politicians divided firmly

Firstly, the American Congress is divided like never before and the ideological difference is great. The number of Senators and House of Representatives wanting to please even a small percentage of voters on the other side of the political aisle has lessened as politicians contest in their party strongholds. 

A Democrat contesting in New York or California has no reason to please Republican voters as these states are Liberal strongholds. Same way a Republican contesting in Texas or Arizona does not need liberal votes as these are conservative strongholds. So politicians are firmly either conservative or liberal. 

Middle ground politicians in America are disappearing. This has a snowball effect. Conservative politicians in return pass Conservative policies and liberals tend to move away and this happens vice versa in Liberal strongholds as well. 

Polarisation of the American people

The divide is seen very clearly nowadays in America and it is getting bad. People who consistently call themselves Conservative or Liberal has doubled from 10% to 21%. And only 39% of Americans take a middle ground in politics while in the late 1990s, it was 49%. We are seeing a process where the people of America are moving into two opposite camps.

There is an urban-rural divide as well with 59% of urban voters voting for Hillary Clinton and 62% of rural voters voting for Donald Trump. The number of Liberals saying it is important to have racial and ethnic diversity is four times more than the Conservatives. The difference does not stay with politics either but even lifestyles are getting polarised. Three quarters of Conservatives want large neighbourhoods with distance between houses and also prefer to have schools, stores and restaurants distant from their homes, which explains the fact that the majority of Republican voters are rural. The Liberals on the other hand prefer smaller houses with amenities being closer. 

The polarisation is growing as the Republican-Democrat divide is intensifying greatly in issues such as government, race, immigration, national security, environment protection, gun control, abortion, trade, etc., which were already high during the Obama years but now have reached a new high under Donald Trump.

Snowballing effect

It is only getting worse – 49% of consistent Democrats and 63% of consistent Republicans say their close friends share similar views. This means these people mix with likeminded people on the same side of the political aisle and do not get to hear the argument from the other side of the political aisle. 

This is made worse by the American media establishment where many media corporations have positioned themselves either as Conservative or Liberal. Vast majority of the Republican vote base get their news from channels such as Fox News. Fox news caters to the conservative base of America and give news the Conservatives want to hear. The Liberal media establishment led by media corporations such as CNN and NBC cater to the Democratic base and this draws the anger of the US President who calls them fake news and makes the Liberal media look like the enemy of the Republican voters.

A new era of hostilities 

This explains why according to Pew Research, the percentage of Republicans viewing the Democrats as unfavourable has gone up from 17% to 43% and Democrats viewing Republicans as unfavourable has gone up to 38% from 16% before. 

It gets more judgemental as people who are considered more religious are considered stronger Republicans, implying Democrats are further away from God. The scary part is that now the Republicans and the Democrats say the policies and activities of the other side is a national threat.

The consequences and the damages are also great, as people are under societal pressure to adapt to the people around them. According to a Gallup poll, even college educated Republican voters say climate change is exaggerated even though they see the proof of global warming and its devastation around the world. They are afraid to accept climate change because of the fear that they will be labelled a Democrat. 

The stronger the supporter of Donald Trump, the more likely he/or she is to call global warming a hoax. This does not help the fight against global warming and explains why the United States is the only country in the world to not sign the Paris Climate Agreement. Even Syria and North Korea see climate change as a threat and have signed. 

In 1984, Reagan won 49 out the 50 states in America which would be impossible today for a Republican to win that many. Same as how Johnson won 44 states in 1964. In the America of today, we already know which way many states are going to vote. And elections are decided by a few swing states such as Ohio and Florida. 

Swing districts of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has not reached the level of polarisation America has yet but we can see a trend towards it. Back in the 1960s, the UNP and SLFP could win any district in Sri Lanka but today it is not thinkable. 

The UNP of J.R. Jayawardene and Premadasa won districts such as Anuradhapura and Matara which the UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot win today and vice versa. 

We have come to a stage where we know which districts in Sri Lanka are voting which way before the elections. Like America’s swing states which decide elections, Sri Lanka too is beginning to have its own swing districts. We can call districts such as Puttalam, Gampaha and Polonnaruwa swing districts with many of the other districts pretty much decided before an election is called.

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