What Happens to the Polarized U.S. Political System Now?

The polarization that has dominated U.S. politics for the past decade or so doesn't seem as if it's going away anytime soon. CSA Images/HowStuffWorks
The polarization that has dominated U.S. politics for the past decade or so doesn't seem as if it's going away anytime soon. CSA Images/HowStuffWorks

After a brutal campaign for president, we have a winner. Finally.

Republican Donald Trump pulled one of the biggest stunners in presidential election history on Tuesday, rolling to victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College. At publication time, Clinton seemed on track to eke out a win in the popular vote, the sixth time in the last seven elections that Democrats won the popular vote (and the second time they lost the presidency anyway, along with Al Gore in 2000.)


Still, popular in politics, especially in presidential politics, doesn't mean quite the same thing that it does in beauty pageants or high school hallways. Take two parties at each other's throats for decades, add in a split electorate, mix in divisions within the two parties and popular (in an everyday sense) doesn't have a lot to do with it.

Trump — and even Clinton if she had won — has a lot of work to do.

"We really have a no-majority party system [see Now That's Interesting, below]," says Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Minnesota's Carleton College and the co-author of "Polarized: The Rise of Ideology in American Politics." "When Gallup does surveys, more people have a negative view of each party than a positive view. So it's kind of hard to build a majority when most people don't like you."

The Path Ahead

A majority, of course, is what politicians dream about, the big prize that can help them get their policies enacted. But even though Trump won the Electoral College, and even though Republicans retained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Democrats in Congress (and, presumably, some anti-Trump Republicans) may not be inclined to work with Trump.

It boils down to something we all should be used to by now. The polarization that infuses American politics isn't going to go away after this election. It's not going to make things easy for Trump. Or, perhaps, for any politician in the foreseeable future.

"The pessimistic view is that it's going to continue to be polarized by party, which is something that's been true for the last decade or more," says Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona. "The optimistic view is that enough of the senators and representatives have gotten the message from their constituents that they're sort of tired of gridlock, and they'd be more willing to work together."

Wait. Does that mean there's a reason for optimism?

"Well ...," Norrander says. "There's usually more continuity than there is change in elections."

Polarized Positions

There was a time in American politics when things weren't quite so red and blue. That, Schier argues, is when things got done. One party ruled. The other kept them in check. And politicians worked across the aisle to enact real change.

Now ... not so much. The reason?

From "Polarized," co-written with Todd Eberly:

"Ideological politics is an enemy of our constitutional order. Our system of widely scattered powers was not designed to facilitate quick approval of ideological agendas ... Our nation's founders wanted governance to reflect popular opinion by requiring extensive deliberation among contrasting viewpoints before government acts. And ideological politics shuns such deliberation."

These days, despite popular-vote wins, Republicans and Democrats are more evenly matched. And that makes politicians on both sides unwilling and/or unable to abandon their own ideologies to work on a compromise.

And in case you were wondering, we did ask both Schier and Norrander about the potential rise of a third party to shake things up. Both said that third parties have no real strength now and they don't see it changing in near future. So back to our two-party discussion.

"I just don't see one party ever breaking out and becoming the sort of ruling party the way FDR's Democrats were earlier in the 20th century," Schier says. "They were the dominant party for about 30 years and then, 'Boom,' that disappeared."

Can President-elect Trump, someone who prides himself on being a dealmaker, change that?

"His rhetoric is pretty red-hot ... He just doesn't strike me as having the sort of temperament that would calm things down. He may want to make deals, but I think his own personality gets in the way to make deals," Schier says. "He's already poisoned the well in significant ways with just the way he's handled himself. Gosh, he can't even get along with the [Republican] Speaker of the House [Paul Ryan]. That's just kind of amazing."

Not to mention there could be some hard feelings left over from a Democratic Party that was widely expected to win the presidency and is filled with many who have called Trump "unfit" to be president.

Yep. This could go on for a while.

"We've survived nasty elections before. In the 1800s, there was a lot of slinging mud back and forth," Norrander says. "Hopefully, the institutions are strong enough to be able to function, even through politics that are more extreme."