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Pervasive political polarization affects everyday lives, experts say

Caution tape closes off a voting stall to

Caution tape closes off a voting stall to distance voters to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus on Election Day at the East End School in Portland, Maine, on Nov. 3. Credit: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

ALBANY — The political divide nationally and in New York is becoming so deep and pervasive that for many people this polarization determines how they vote, what they accept as fact, who their friends and neighbors are, and even who they would welcome into their family, according to political scientists.

They say the nastiest political rift since the 19th century matters because it’s increasingly causing gridlock in Washington and Albany to pressing problems, such as rising crime and voter access, while eroding faith in bedrock institutions.

What is less certain for those who have researched political polarization is how the country and state can pull itself out of this divide.

Some political scientists "see polarization as much more deep-seated … that people with different partisan identities don’t trust each other anymore — or like each other," said Meena Bose, director of the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American President at Hofstra University.

A catalyst for this divide has been the trend in both parties to increasingly tie conservative or liberal ideology into the party’s platforms. She said the result can be gridlock.

A 2014 poll by the independent Pew Research Center of more than 10,000 Americans showcased that tribal attitude two years before Donald Trump successfully tapped it. The poll found that: "In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994." Most of the intense partisans believe the other party’s policies "are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being."

Driving this "growing contempt" for the other party are activist minorities in each party. But the Pew study found the larger center or middle of each party cedes power to the vanguard and "remains on the edge of the political playing field … and disengaged."

The result of these ardent, ideological stands includes a mistrust in fundamental institutions, including the news media, business, Congress, the Supreme Court and state government, which deepens the divide, the researchers said.

"It didn’t manifest all at once," said Gerald Benjamin, retired distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "It evolved over time with elections … and there are some national figures who exploited this who found it a better path than mitigation."

Political scientists said the roots of political polarization took hold long before polarizing presidents such as Trump, before the Tea Party in Congress in the 2000s and before the "Republican Revolution" of the 1990s. Rather, the seeds were planted in the 1960s, when the Republican Party that had been center-right attracted conservative Southern Democrats. That prompted more liberals to align with the Democratic Party, which had been more center-left.

That’s also when the presidential primary system developed. That gave the most reliable primary voters — the most extreme members of each party — outsized influence in the selection. For example, it led to the 1964 Republican presidential nomination of far-right GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater, who famously said: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." He lost to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

After that in New York State, upstate conservative Democrats and the socially liberal, centrist "Rockefeller Republicans" of the 1960s began a steady decline in numbers.

The partisan divide in New York is clear today.

In May, a Siena College Research Institute poll showed 67% of Democrats believed the state was on the right track, while 70% of Republicans said it was on the wrong track.

Heated rhetoric in the State Legislature gave voice to that polarization.

Senate Republican leader Rob Ort of North Tonawanda said in June that Democrats "don't view hardworking, law-abiding taxpayers as a priority. Instead, radical, left-wing causes are the priority." Days before, on the floor of the Assembly, Assemb. Jessica González-Rojas (D-Queens) denied that Democratic parole reform was "radical" as portrayed by Republicans in the "fear mongering the other side likes to engage in … to resist the ongoing criminalization of our people."

In the closing days of the 2021 legislative session, the polarized rhetoric included an exchange over the Democrats’ "Less is More Bill." It would prohibit parolees from being sent back to prison for minor, technical violations such as being late for meetings with parole officers.

Assemb. Emily Gallagher (D-Brooklyn) said bill would end "locking up our neighbors in cages," while Sen. Alexis Weik (R-Sayville) said the bill reflected the "pro-criminal attitude" of Democrats and "will make communities less safe."

The bill passed easily along party lines in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Four days, later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would lament the difficulty polarization poses for getting all New Yorkers vaccinated for COVID-19 amid opposition by some Republicans: "We have the most conservative people in this country. We also have the other end of the spectrum, literally socialists … Also, in a superheated political environment, everyone has an opinion, everyone has 20/20 hindsight."

Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University political science professor, is among researchers who believe reports of polarization are overblown by the echo chamber of news media and political pundits. But he said the desire to jam through big ideological wins "does affect real people."

"There are ways to push the ball forward and we don’t get there because when a party gets in, they aren’t satisfied with a first down or two, so they go for the ‘Hail Mary,’" Fiorina said in an interview with Newsday. "It’s the ‘opportunity cost,’ the chance to make real progress. We keep passing up the good because each party keeps going for the perfect."

Polarization also stiffens the partisanship that has blocked action on many measures in Congress, including rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, voting rights and gun control.

Amid such polarization, facts can take a beating.

Americans have increasingly moved — to rural towns rather than urban neighborhoods; the Midwest and South vs. the Northeast; upstate vs. downstate — in part to be among like-minded people, the Pew study showed. That hinders acceptance of shared facts essential for compromise, researchers said.

Nationwide, the media plays a big role, researchers say. The extremes of both sides are an outsized presence on Twitter and other social media and on cable TV programs that favor their views. Both sides also create their own websites often labeled as news that promote their values and denigrate their opponents'.

Today, "people are able to select sources of information that reinforces their ideology," Benjamin said.

For example, an April national poll by the Kalikow School at Hofstra found the electorate "remains so sharply polarized that nearly 30% are convinced that former President Trump won the 2020 election." More than 60% of Republicans said Trump won the election six months before. Less than 1% of Democrats agreed.

Biden won the presidency with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232, a tally upheld by numerous recounts and court decisions. Biden also won the popular vote by more than 7 million.

In another stark contrast, the poll reported 86% of Democrats said the Jan. 6 protest at the nation’s Capitol captured in extensive news and social media images was an "insurrection." Among Republicans, just 13% said the forced entry by Trump supporters to stop the certification of the presidential vote was an insurrection, 60% said it was protest that got out of hand, and 27% considered it a "normal rally."

"It’s not that we have different viewpoints," said Lee Miringoff, political science professor and director of the Marist College Poll. "It’s that the other side is seen as totally nuts and probably unpatriotic."

"The current climate is untenable because democracies function well with a fabric that connects people with political leaders and the media," Miringoff said. "Some of that may be written in the Constitution, but it’s not written in stone."

Historically, major threats have cut through political polarization such as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has killed 200 times as many as either disaster, has failed to put a dent in this polarization.

"How much really changed in peoples’ attitudes by the pandemic, which is about the biggest potential game-changer we could have experienced?" Miringoff said. "It’s still played out along the fault lines."

"We see little evidence that Americans are coming back together," said Larry Sabato, professor at the University of Virginia. "Most partisans despise the other party with a greater intensity than they like their own."

Sabato said President Joe Biden, who is a center-left Democrat, has tried repeatedly to gain consensus with Republicans. "Yet his job approval is in the mid-50s … With a pandemic tamed, the economy coming back, and international relations calmed, a president should arguably be in the 60s or beyond," he said. Pervasive political polarization affects everyday lives, experts say

Bose of Hofstra said she’s cautiously optimistic polarization will eventually wither.

"Fifty years ago, the idea was that whatever challenges we faced, the American system could deal with them," Bose said. "Now, in 2021, I think there is a real question."

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