It seems that while political polarization may lead to more policy gridlock at the legislative level, one benefit may be that it increases the citizenry’s interest in politics. If apathy is the problem, politicians’ extreme espoused views definitely get people to pay attention. Moreover, it makes it easier for people to know whom to vote for, even if they may not agree with the candidates' extreme views. While I don’t think constitutional amendments are necessarily the best way to make policy, they do draw people to the polls when they are controversial (polarizing), as we saw with the marriage and voter ID amendments last fall. This argument does not just apply to voting, however. Citizens may be compelled to call or write (ok, email) their representatives and engage politically in between elections. Polarization forces voters to choose between two extremes, but at least they are compelled to choose.
While I understand your point of view, I disagree that political polarization increases citizens' interest in politics. In fact, I believe it has the exact opposite effect-- as polarization increases, the general population becomes disillusioned with politics, with constant bickering, extreme views, and an absolute lack of progress making paying close attention to politics worthless for the average citizen. This is happening now, as we are at a high level of polarization, with many feeling Congress is intolerable and approval ratings at extreme lows (as they should be). It seems to me that the current make-up of Congress makes it less about the issues and more about the personal and party arguments between legislators.
As the readings for this week showed, the general population has remained mostly centrist in their views and prefer consensus and movement on issues. Perhaps these voters may abstain from choosing between two extremes, though I do agree that landmark amendment votes like those in Minnesota this fall did draw people to the polls.
I will not be the person to 'defend' polarization, as I believe it has halted most of our progress on every extremely critical issue facing us today, but it does slow the process and make it more deliberate which reinforces our stable form of republican democracy.
I can see how both of your viewpoints explain alternative outcomes on polarization. Josie, there is no doubt that polarization has increased a typical voter's interest in politics. As Mann and Ornstein mentioned, this increase has taken place more so on the national stage, and may be more of a result of individuals being able to select their information source. Generally, this increasing interest in national politics has decreased interest in state and local politics, which are increasingly polarized as well. It's important to note on this point that as state and local politics has followed polarization at the national level, interest and engagement has not. So, it's difficult to distinguish whether this increase in national politics is a result of polarization, or more so as a result of individuals selecting specific information outlets that make it easier to connect to national politics.
Willy, I think your point on polarization turning people away from political interest is interesting as well. Let's look at the Minneapolis Mayor's race as an example of your point. The City of Minneapolis follows the model of most urban areas in being a decisively progressive stronghold. For this reason, the City does not even distinguish between (R) and (D) beside candidate names, as they are all fairly agreeable on policy issues with one another. Even as the candidates are all fairly similar, this race is expected to be one of the most exciting local races in the nation, complete with large rallies and spending for candidates. There is also likely to be plenty of citizen engagement and campaigning for specific candidates, even though they share almost identical political views. Just an interesting observation to your point that polarization may harm civic engagement, and that participation is alive and well in non-polarizing political races.
To answer the first question though, I think polarization on the national level dilutes policy, as these supermajoritarian organizations dictate weaker policy resolutions than statues would provide. An executive order on gun policy doe not hold as much weight or power as a congressional statute would. Also, increased policy decision by the supreme court resulting from congressional incompetence compromises their role as intermediary, and threatens checks and balances. One positive of polarization may result from increased transparency. Going back to our discussion on accountability, if we know where a representative stands on a controversial issue, it is easier to identify blame or praise.
An effect of polarization is an increase on both policy makers and voters on radical points of view with respect to the “other”. This will lead to more unhealthy confrontations instead of debating. If one should take this to the extreme, it would generate social and civil unrest. For instance, political systems such as those in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and to some extent Paraguay, have exacerbated this polarization aiming to keep the current status quo. Accordingly, the amount of pro/against establishment protest has increased in these countries. This has made most of these systems gridlocked and un-governable.
Also another effect of polarization is how additional important but not salient issues are disregarded. Polarization tends to go with the most salient issues and use them as “hot buttons” to generate confrontation. However, this would make other issues without proper response, and eventually they would become a compromising for both parties. This hinders parties’ trust from their voters.
I do not think that extreme polarization would benefit anyone. However, a certain amount of polarization is needed in order to produce sound policy outcomes. This is because polarization would encourage a sane debate of policy issues and would let the discussion of multiple ways to face them, instead of one dominant position.
As many have stated here, I agree that polarization is not inherently negative. As highlighted, there can be positive policy outcomes from polarization. However, I agree with William’s point about polarization of Congress increasing voter apathy, rather than encouraging voters to be politically engaged. Anecdotally, the majority of my friends and family who are not interested in politics cite Congress’s inability to get anything accomplished as a primary reason for their lack of involvement. Even common sense, seemingly bi-partisan legislation has a hard time passing because the polarization between the parties has made compromise a dirty word. A poignant example of the drawbacks of polarization was given in the video of Sean Theriault; he stated that Republicans agreed with 80 percent of the healthcare reform legislation, and yet all of them voted against the bill. Agreeing on 80 percent of the substance of the bill was not enough to bring these two parties to the bargaining table. While there may be positive outcomes of polarization, the inability and unwillingness to compromise at times makes the system frustratingly ineffective.
It seems to me that in addition to impacting the content and outcomes of policy proposals, that polarization also has an important influence on the tone and scope of political discourse within Congress and the wider public. Sebastian notes that this is evidenced in what issues are given notice by the electorate. I also think that it can be seen in the rise of cable news media and Gingrich's delegitimizing strategies described by Mann & Ornstein, both of which have employed polarizing rhetoric to make their respective gains in audiences and voters.
Beyond weakened policy outcomes political polarization has also severely undermined the Senate and House of Representatives as institutions of American democracy (which, granted, leads inevitably leads to weaker policy outcomes). The filibuster is a great example. Meant as a tool for encouraging debate on especially contentious legislation, it has turned into a weapon for obstructing the advancement of even the most basic functions of the senate (i.e. appointing judges and ratifying treaties). Additionally, as Mann and Ornstein point out, the conference committee, once a place where D's and R's hashed out differences and produced strong bipartisan legislation, has turned into one more forum for partisan bickering and whining. In my opinion there are no benefits to polarization. Democracies function when elected officials participate in dialogue and compromise, while respecting the rules of the institution the have the privilege of working in.