According to some political scientists, America has undergone what is known as asymmetric polarisation, which is when both of the two main political parties become more extreme, but one becomes far more extreme than the other. In America’s case, both the Republicans and the Democrats have abandoned the centre, but the Republicans are far further from the centre than the Democrats. This video from Vox explains the concept well.
Asymmetric polarisation has several components. The first and most obvious one is ideological: Republican values have moved much further to the right than Democrats’ values have to the left. Particularly since Trump came to prominence, Republicans espouse a philosophy that explicitly rejects the liberal international world order. Globalism, free trade and institutions like the UN are denounced for trying to undermine the American nation. This contrasts heavily with the prior bipartisan consensus in favour of American-led liberal institutions facilitating democracy and capitalism across the world. Republicans are increasingly sceptical of alliances with democratic countries like Canada or Germany, and place greater trust in autocratic regimes like Russia or the Gulf states. The Republican tilt towards authoritarian nationalism is one which has no equivalent on the Democratic ranks.
Republicans are also increasingly wary of the institutions that make America function. Everything from the universities, the intelligence agencies, the courts, and of course the Fake News Media, are seen as enemies of the popular will. Amongst the more intransigent Trump supporters include conspiratorial notions of a ‘Deep State’ which is trying to frustrate Trump at every opportunity. This goes beyond usual ideas of an establishment- it finds any restraint on Trump’s exercise of power as illegitimate. Again, there is no equivalent on the Democratic side.
Republicans have lost respect for the norms that need to be respected if the political process is to function smoothly. Under Mitch McConnell’s leadership as Senate Majority Leader, the filibuster has been used at a record rate. The refusal to even consider Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, was a blatant abuse of the Senate’s power. Whether its the extreme gerrymandering of Congressional and state districts, the purging of voters from electoral roles, or shutting down the government over the funding of Obamacare, the Republican Party no longer plays by the rules. Instead, it openly plays dirty. Once again, no equivalent can be found with the Democrats.
Asymmetric polarisation has had severe consequences in public policy. When Republicans used to consider immigration reform, they now force migrant children from their parents. When they used to accept the science of climate change, they now believe it is a hoax. Republicans used to believe in government intervention in healthcare, as seen in Romneycare in Massachusetts, or Bush’s Medicare expansion. They would work with Democrats to achieve tax cuts, welfare reform or free trade agreements. Such bipartisanship is unimaginable today, except for perhaps a few Republican governors in the Democratic Northeast.
None of this is to say the Democrats are just as centrist as ever. On some social issues like gay marriage or drugs, the Democrats have moved considerably to the left, though that is partly due to a nationwide shift in attitudes. The Democrats’ progressive wing has become more prominent, though it is yet to take over the party the way the Tea Party replaced the Republican establishment in 2010. Immigration is perhaps the issue where polarisation has been the most symmetrical. While Republicans have become more hostile to immigration, Democrats have become far more welcoming. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders framed deportation as an unnecessary abuse of human rights, rather than a means to enforce democratically-agreed laws. More broadly, Democrats embrace multiculturalism at least as enthusiastically as Republicans reject it.
But the most potent argument in favour of the asymmetric polarisation thesis is one which contextualises the Republicans’ shift to the hard-right in the norms of the Western world. The Republican Party at present is no longer comparable to other centre-right parties in liberal democracies, such as Germany’s CDU, Spain’s Peoples’ Party or Ireland’s Fine Gael. Rather, it has more in common with explicitly illiberal populist parties like Poland’s Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Fidesz, or even France’s Front National. Unlike the former and like the latter, it rejects free trade, is sceptical of supranational institutions and liberal globalisation. Its electoral appeal rests on pandering to xenophobic and isolationist sentiment. It disregards the norms of democracy, denounces universities and the media for their pluralistic values, seeks to entrench an inherent advantage in the political process. Most significantly, it places the whim of a strongman above ideological coherence or even a broad set of ideals. The Republican Party has gone crazy. America’s media ought to ditch the pretence of both sides being equally at fault, and report the truth.