Can political polarization be used for good?
The average political commentator often argues that unity is the highest virtue for any polity. Polarization is constantly lamented and is perceived as a sign of a deteriorating political environment. In fairness, a polarized political climate is not exactly hospitable toward productive political discourse. Against the backdrop of a divided culture, politics tends to to devolve into performance art and cheap renditions of political theater.
At the same time, polarization is not the end of the world. As a matter of fact, polarization in Washington can be leveraged to enact sensible policies at lower levels of government provided that politically minded people have the foresight to discover the openings. Just look at state governments.
State governments are increasingly becoming polarized on partisan lines, with thirty-eight states having trifectas. Twelve other states have divided governments, Minnesota being the only state featuring a divided legislature in the country. Of the aforementioned trifectas, fifteen are in Democrats’ hands and twenty-three are under Republican control. According to Ballotpedia, roughly 79 percent of Americans live in states with trifecta governments—36.5 percent live under Democrat trifectas and 41.8 percent live under Republican trifectas, respectively.
Given their partisan inclinations, these states are capable of transforming into policy ghettos, if you will, where the pet policies of the dominant political party—universal healthcare for Democrats or fetal heartbeat abortion bills for Republicans—can be signed into law with relative ease. Passing divisive policies of this kind would be a pipedream at the federal level due to partisan and even intraparty polarization.
The latter case is illustrative. Try getting fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party on the same page as the party’s chieftains, who are more than glad to spend inordinate amounts of money, in complete contradiction of their empty campaign slogans calling for fiscal prudence. The same process plays out when antiwar progressives butt heads with the neoliberal interventionist wing of the Democrat Party. Because there’s so much infighting on a host of policy questions, DC has struggled to pass broad-based reforms in the past decade.
In effect, a de facto state of gridlock has crystallized in DC as a product of partisan squabbling and factionalism, which is a reasonable compromise for skeptics of an intrusive government. Unity for the sake of unity often yields despotic results. When the ruling class comes to a consensus, it usually entails some kind of legislative effort that erodes individual freedom, undermines subsidiarity, and makes a mockery of property rights.
Factionalism, as messy as it can be, at least prevents the ruling class from coalescing around bold legislation that transgresses the rights of all Americans. America saw this kind of consensus during the New Deal and Great Society eras, when Americans had a high degree of trust in federal institutions and political leaders were roughly on the same page when it came to the issues du jour. Although no meaningful scale-back of the government has occurred in the past eighty years, Americans have grown more distrustful of the federal government, thus demonstrating some potential for gridlock and devolution of power as the politically active become more trustful of governments closer to them as opposed to the federal behemoth.
Polarization is most apparent on gun policy, arguably America’s most contentious issue. For example, the passage of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, along with other gun control encroachments such as the establishment of the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) played a significant role in the massive 1994 Republican Revolution backlash, when Republicans took back the House and Senate for the first time in forty years. Although NICS has remained in place since then, the 1994 AWB ended up expiring in 2004, with no successful effort to revive it thus far.
A similar pattern took place following the Sandy Hook shooting. A bipartisan background check bill sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) became one of then president Barack Obama’s attempts to leave a lasting legacy on gun control. The bipartisan gun control bill ended up languishing after it only picked up fifty-four votes. In addition providing campaign fodder for Republicans to exploit in 2014, the bill also gave a platform to lesser-known Second Amendment advocacy groups. More hardline gun lobbies such as the National Association for Gun Rights entered the national spotlight during this gun control fight and used it to build robust statewide networks to later advance in-vogue legislation like constitutional carry.
Even with these facts in mind, many who want to restrict people’s right to bear arms view President Joe Biden as an avatar for civilian disarmament who is capable of imposing their policy desires at will. In his more than four decades in the Senate, Biden has a long track record of supporting gun control, from his sponsorship of the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act to the passage of the 1993 Brady Bill, which helped establish the modern-day background check system at the federal level.
Since assuming the presidency, there have been hefty expectations for Biden to deliver on harsher gun control measures. Due to the present polarization in the country and the configuration of Congress, there is good reason to believe that Gun Control Inc.’s wildest antigun fantasies will not come to life any time soon. To pass these gun control measures, Democrats will need all of their fifty members and ten Republican senators to break a filibuster.
Undoubtedly, DC Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, with the right amount of arm-twisting, would like to bring back the 1994 AWB, if not expand it, and also pass other measures to restrict gun ownership. However, such plans will likely be dashed due to the slim majorities Democrats hold and the number of Democrats who hail from states with well-established gun cultures (Kyrsten Sinema [D-AZ], Mark Kelly [D-AZ], Jon Tester [D-MT], and Joe Manchin [D-WV]), demonstrating that there is no monolithic antigun culture in the US.
On the other hand, most Republicans have grown to fear their “deplorable” base, which will lash out at any perceived legislative betrayals through primaries or a constant barrage of humiliation via talk radio and other outlets that conservatives tend to congregate in. Republicans are now dealing with a new populist, insurgent base that is still fuming from the results of the 2020 elections and is in no mood to tolerate the political scheming of yesteryear.
Although the Biden administration recently announced executive orders that would deal with micromanaging certain firearms and accessories, no full-fledged bans or expansion of background checks are in the works in Washington at the moment. In fact, CNN observed that Biden’s executive action fell short of his bold campaign promise to ban so-called assault weapons and make red flag laws national.
All told, passing gun control will be no cakewalk for the Bloomberg gun control network. For the time being, the Left has come to terms with the reality that their pet issues are more likely to be passed in states with leftist political profiles (think California, Massachusetts, and New York), hence their pivot toward passing universal background checks and red flag gun-confiscation orders on a state-by-state basis.
Policy ghettoization is likely the next best alternative for America going forward because of how it reflects the political idiosyncrasies of the country’s diverse jurisdictions. Why should churchgoers in the Bible Belt have their hard-earned income extracted by the state to fund abortions, when California and like-minded progressive states can have those policies confined to themselves? If a number of blue states want to enact polarizing policies such as abortion on demand, carbon taxes, and Medicare for All, they can knock themselves out.
Red states should be allowed to respond in kind by passing abortion restrictions, banning biological men from participating in women’s sports, enacting constitutional carry, ignoring federal gun control laws, passing election integrity legislation, restricting abortion, and other legislative measures that would be dead on arrival in Washington, DC. The point is to not impose one-size-fits-all policies that could have a devastating impact on large parts of the population or go against the fundamental values of particular constituencies, thereby igniting social tensions.
The more polarization, the better. In promoting radical decentralization, forward-thinking political strategists could leverage America’s growing divisions and usher in a new era of competitive decentralization and local governance that cultivates social harmony and allows for Americans to establish roots in areas that align with their cultural and political values.