The 2020 U.S. presidential election, along with President Donald Trump’s allegations of electoral fraud and refusal to concede defeat, have bitterly divided Americans. Between headlines about “A Cold War Between Red and Blue America” and concerns about the use of political violence—culminating in the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol—cross-party contempt and hostility are increasingly troubling features of contemporary U.S. politics. Indeed President Joe Biden made unity a centerpiece of his inauguration speech, imploring Americans to “Show respect to one another,” arguing that “politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
In such a tense climate, is there anything that could usher in a new era of partisan reconciliation? The conventional wisdom suggests that more cordial relationships between political elites and more civility in the media may tamp down partisan hostility in the wider public. By setting a personal example of political tolerance and civility for ordinary Americans, the argument goes, politicians and media personalities could reverse the tide of growing partisan resentment.
Public civility has merit. Yet focusing on politicians’ and media elites’ behavior should not obscure a fundamental feature of partisan resentment: It is rooted in deep structural features of American politics. And transforming these structures requires concerted political efforts.
Our analyses of partisan hostility in 20 Western democracies since the 1990s identify three factors, as we report in a recently published book. The first is the nature and intensity of issue debates in the party system. Political debates cover multiple issue dimensions. Conflicts over taxation, government spending, and redistribution produce less partisan hostility than disagreement over so-called culture war issues of national identity, race, and multiculturalism. These cultural issues increasingly dominate U.S. politics, inciting intense partisan resentment.
Second, electoral rules matter: Winner-take-all electoral institutions are strongly linked with greater dislike of partisan opponents, compared to more proportional systems of the kind found in Western Europe. More proportional electoral systems, which encourage power sharing and allow for multiple parties in government, are associated with much lower levels of partisan hostility.
The third factor pertains to economic conditions: Partisan hostility is more intense in countries with higher economic inequality and with higher unemployment. The economic downturn of the COVID-19 era, which has exacerbated both income inequality and unemployment, bodes ill for partisan resentment in the U.S. public and abroad. All of these structural factors, which intensify partisan resentment in the United States, will not disappear even if Democratic and Republican officeholders interact in a more civil manner.
It is well known that the Democratic and Republican parties have polarized on ideology over the last few decades. What’s less commonly observed is that this polarization is largely over core values related to race, multiculturalism, and America’s national way of life.
America’s growing cultural polarization stands out in comparative perspective. According to data based on party platforms posted prior to elections, in the 1990s the United States was among the least culturally polarized Western democracies. By 2016 it had become one of the most culturally polarized. No other Western democracy experienced such a sharp increase in partisan disagreements over issues of national identity across this time period.
This growing cultural divide between the parties closely tracks partisan hostility. People may compromise over economic issues, but it is often harder to compromise on cultural values that are intertwined with deeply held beliefs about racial justice, gender norms, and national identity. Thus, cultural questions of “who we are” feel angrier to most people than more traditional economic debates over “who gets what.”
There is little in the political events of 2020 that seems likely to reduce these cultural divisions. If anything, the racial justice protests that erupted in response to police brutality last summer, coupled with the Trump administration’s effort to link electoral fraud to Black communities and the violent end to the Trump presidency, seem destined to keep cultural issues high on the political agenda—which may further inflame partisan hostility.
Electoral rules are another structural factor that pose challenges to those seeking to defuse America’s intense partisan animosity. The United States is unique among Western democracies in the extent to which partisan competition is strictly limited to two dominant parties. Many Western democracies instead employ some form of proportional, multiwinner voting system, which promotes the viability of multiple parties.
When comparing partisan resentment across Western societies, two disturbing patterns emerge. First, the citizens of countries that employ winner-take-all voting systems, including the United States, tend to express more intense hostility toward political opponents compared to citizens in countries with more proportional electoral systems.
One reason is that incentives to compromise or cooperate with political rivals are absent in a two-party, winner-take-all system—while cooperation between opposing parties through coalition governments, which is the usual governing arrangement in countries with proportional voting systems, promote gentler, kinder politics. For example, Germany has been governed by a grand coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and the party that has traditionally been the largest center-left party, the Social Democratic Party. This political bargain across ideological lines has likely contributed to lowering the political temperature between supporters of these parties.
Given that America’s plurality voting system sustains Democratic-Republican two-party dominance—what Lee Drutman terms “the two-party doom loop”—neither party is motivated to pursue electoral reform. Without reforming basic features of the U.S. electoral system, plurality-based, winner-take-all partisan competition will likely continue to sustain political hostility.
Partisan resentment is linked not only with cultural issue disagreements and election rules but also with economic factors. Specifically, partisan hostility is more intense in countries with higher economic inequality and higher unemployment.
The good news is that if the high U.S. unemployment levels following the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak decline, this improvement should defuse some of today’s intense partisan resentment and distrust. The bad news is that the United States already featured sharp partisan hostility in the years preceding the pandemic, even as unemployment hit a 50-year low. Thus an unemployment decline may only cause partisan bitterness to revert toward its high baseline level. Meanwhile, inequality continues to grow.
Unfortunately, the United States is the most economically unequal Western democracy, and unlike unemployment, income inequality is unlikely to recede anytime soon absent dramatic, wide-ranging economic policy changes. This suggests that however civil a tone the new Biden administration adopts toward Republicans—and vice versa—it will be hard to address the roots of partisan resentment without also attacking the roots of economic inequality. The Biden administration appears to be taking steps in this direction, for example by proposing a doubling of the minimum wage to $15 per hour and showing more support for unionization, but it remains to be seen if such policy changes are viable in a deeply divided congress.
In his first address as president-elect, Biden spoke directly to concerns over the rise of partisan resentment in the United States: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”
But civility isn’t enough. To defuse the country’s intensely hostile partisan climate, American leaders should act to address the structural roots of partisan hostility: culture wars, a winner-take-all electoral system, and economic inequality.