The US is known for its “culture wars”, a term coined by sociologist James D. Hunter, to refer to the struggle between traditionalists and social progressives in politics. According to Hunter, one’s political views are heavily correlated with personal beliefs and this accounts for the seeming divide in American politics.
However, there are several assumptions behind this idea that are problematic. The first is the assumption of two monolithic groups. In reality, among traditionalists and progressives alike there is a great variety of views and priorities. Just look at the actual makeup of the legislative bodies. One of the unique things about American government is the idea of a congressional “caucus” or “wing” (often known as Congressional Member Organizations) of major political parties. On the left major groups are the Progressive Caucus, with an emphasis on democratic socialism and labor issues, the New Democratic Caucus, with emphasis on moderate liberalism, and the Blue Dog Coalition with its social conservatism. On the right, major groups are the Tuesday Group, with emphasis on moderate conservatism, Republican Main Street Partnership, with emphasis on social liberalism, Republican Study Committee, with emphasis on social conservatism and religious overtones, and the Liberty Caucus and House Freedom Caucus, with emphasis on fiscal deregulation. However, the caucuses are not limited to ideological concerns. There are caucuses solely based on identity of congressmen, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues. The LGBT Equality Caucus is similar but does not based membership on sexual orientation. There is not yet a congressional caucus for non-White semites or South Asians, which is frustrating, because if there are to be caucuses at all for minority groups, they should represent all people of all identities. Then there are caucuses on specific issues such as gun control, online privacy, and relations with specific regions or countries.
There are more fundamental reasons for the divisive rhetoric on both sides. One of them lies in the two-party system, driven by the single member plurality electoral system, known colloquially in other places as “first past the post”. This system, unlike the more common coalition-building systems elsewhere, leaves little room for compromise. It also leave alternative options out of the electoral system due to the spoiler effect, which splits votes and forces voters to vote strategically against more unfavorable candidates.
It certainly doesn’t help that media is divided an often lacks in substantive debates on policy. Instead, the sensationalism in American media is one of the reasons that critical issues often go undiscussed. It also doesn’t help that media outlets are often all pro-corporate, despite the façade of ideological divides between different news stations (i.e. CNN vs Fox).
Despite the two-party system, there are those who reject both the traditionalist and progressive views, commonly denigrating them as the “establishment”, a term in the US which refers to the joint agreement of both sides on key economic issues. More importantly, much of the American population agrees on critical issues such as healthcare, universal higher education, the environment, etc. What one finds is that political polarization is more of a privilege of wealth (as almost all funding of both parties comes from a few neighborhoods on the East Coast) than a reality of American social life.