A number of people have asked me since my move how I perceive the difference between politics in the US and the UK. Another article in Sunday’s New York Times neatly summed it up, showing the gap between the approval rating of the president by the members of his own party and the rating by members of the opposing party. This year, that gap is the widest it has ever been in an election year(84% vs. 16%). To my mind, it is polarisation that marks out American politics, at least as presented in the media.
Britain’s parliamentary system is clearly oppositional, with the two key parties sitting opposite one another and childishly sniping and sneering. But it has never seemed to me like people identify themselves based on political parties in quite the way that prevails in most public discussions of US politics.
Over the past 25 years, the article notes, there has been a sharp increase in the number of registered Democrats identifying as ‘liberal’ and a similar increase in Republicans identifying as ‘conservative’. Sadly there is no attempt to match that with surveys of what those words are perceived to mean. I would suspect that the definition of each one has been significantly shifted over the same time period to a point where it is difficult to attach much real meaning to the statistics.
This polarisation leaves many in an unrepresented place. When opinion polls attempt to draw inferences from the numbers of ‘democrat’, ‘republican’ and ‘independent’ voters there seems a tacit assumption that ‘independent’ means ‘somewhere between the two’, when there are sufficient numbers on either ‘extreme’ to draw this into question.
A feasible third party could potentially address that, but such a party would have an uphill struggle to establish itself. Recent polls indicate that there is a largely voiceless middle ground in which many voters find themselves when it comes to hot-button issues such as abortion, suggesting there is plenty of ideological space for a third party that tries to rise above traditional markers of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. The question is whether it would ever be possible to convince that ephemeral combination of media and public to listen while a more sophisticated argument is made. Polarisation makes good TV, after all.
An extremely amusing illustration of the polarisation of US politics can be found here.