The Madison Program recently sponsored a public lecture by James Q. Wilson, Professor at Boston College and arguably America’s greatest living political scientist, on the topic of political polarization in America. I went for a couple of reasons: Professor Wilson is a really big deal, polarization really interests me (shameless plug: Whig-Clio is holding a screening of the award-winning documentary “Split: A Divided America” the week we get back from Fall Break), and—this one was really important—Professor Wilson co-wrote the textbook my American Government class used during my sophomore year of high school. Two parts of the lecture particularly interested me:
First, Professor Wilson’s explanation of the origins of our present hyper-polarization included an argument that higher education is a contributing factor to our polarized state. Apparently, surveys taken by reputable political scientists have shown that the distribution curve for Americans with college educations is bimodal rather than unimodal—meaning that that highly educated voters are likelier to identify themselves as closer to one end or another of the political spectrum. The distribution curve for Americans without college educations is unimodal, closer to the normal distribution.
Second, and this is an observation based on Professor Wilson's omissions, the lecture made no mention of the effects of polarization on the American political system. It’s in vogue to bash partisanship these days, and I definitely think partisanship in Congress has had a paralyzing effect, but very few political commentators seem to be talking about the benefits of partisanship and polarization.
At a very base level, partisanship ensures that the minority opinion is heard and helps prevent a tyranny of the majority. On top of that, it shows that voters are engaging with relevant issues. Granted, there are plenty of unsophisticated partisan opinions to be had, but one bright spot in this election cycle (which many politicians, Democrats anyway, have described as gloomy and despondent) is that voters paid attention to a midterm election cycle. Who would’ve thought?