While President-elect Biden has called for unity, the aftermath of this year’s election leaves America seemingly more divided than ever. Protestors of all stripes were out in the streets in the weeks after the election, sometimes clashing violently. As Democrats celebrate Trump’s ouster, more than 70 percent of Republicans believe the election was rigged, making them unlikely to view Biden as a legitimate leader.
How did our country become so divided? Our media landscape, with its online echo chambers and partisan outlets, certainly plays a role. So does an ever-widening cultural rift between rural whites and diverse city-dwellers, red states and blue states. But one of the biggest forces driving polarization is often overlooked: It’s a deliberate strategy that politicians use to get elected.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from President Trump’s success, it’s that polarization is a remarkably effective political strategy. Fanning the flames of division carried Trump to victory in 2016 and, in 2020, kept the race much closer than predicted for an incumbent in the midst of both a public health and an economic crisis. While many assumed this year’s record turnout was driven by voters eager to repudiate Trump, it’s clear that nearly as many were motivated by their enthusiasm for him. He received the second-highest number of votes ever by a U.S. presidential candidate and, despite the “never-Trump” movement within his own party, the support of 94 percent of Republicans.
Trump’s lasting popularity makes it clear that our current level of polarization is not an accidental byproduct of politics — it’s an intentional strategy on the part of politicians. My research as an economist at USC Marshall School of Business, along with my coauthor Ricardo Alonso from the London School of Economics, helps explain why veering to the extremes can be politically advantageous for candidates like Trump.
We can think about every election as a gamble and every voter as a loaded dice. What’s the probability a voter will choose one candidate over another? While some are die-hard Democrats or Republicans, plenty are closer to the middle and could potentially go either way on Election Day. If I’m a politician and the odds are in my favor, I want to reduce the probability that voters will cross the aisle by removing any lingering uncertainty and solidifying my support.
One of the best ways to do this is by taking more extreme positions that differentiate me from my opponent. Rather than simply pledging to curb immigration, rile up crowds by promising to build a wall. Instead of reforming the existing health care system, advocate for a complete overhaul and “Medicare for All.” Rather than renegotiating the terms of participation in the European Union, press for a permanent Brexit. At the same time, I paint my opponent as equally extreme: a socialist seeking to tear down the American way of life or a capitalist in the pockets of greedy billionaires.
Drawing a stark line between myself and my opponent on divisive issues pushes voters in the middle to pick a side, while at the same time mobilizing my base. This strategy worked for Trump in 2016, and he doubled down on it in 2020, ignoring advice to play to the middle. His aggressive performance in the first presidential debate, his push to nominate a new Supreme Court justice before the election and his continued minimization of the threat of COVID-19 even after outbreaks at the White House all served to lock down the type of voter who carried him to victory in 2016. After the election, Trump continued to polarize the country by refusing to concede and pushing the narrative that the election was stolen.
What does this polarization do for Trump? It mobilizes people. It sets up a stark choice and asks them to pick a side. Whether Trump’s next act is as a conservative media personality or a repeat candidate in 2024, he benefits from keeping the country divided. And the lines he has drawn have become lines for the party as a whole. Many Republican congressional leaders have held back on publicly acknowledging Biden’s victory out of a fear of angering the voters Trump has won to his side.
While Trump doubled down on extremism this election, Biden and the Democratic voters who nominated him decided not to take the gamble of a hard turn to the left. Biden avoided issues he didn’t think he could win in battleground states, ducking calls from progressives to support packing the courts and “Medicare for All” and oppose fracking. He understood that polarization only works on issues where the majority of voters are on your side. If not, you’re better served by downplaying divisive issues that could alienate undecided voters.
Trump continually tried to draw Biden into his polarized landscape, however, relentlessly pushing the focus to divisive topics where he believed Biden was at a disadvantage. While Biden tried to avoid questions about defunding the police, for instance, Trump positioned himself as the “law and order” candidate standing against the violence and chaos he claimed was plaguing Democratic cities.
Ultimately, Trump read the odds wrong this time around. His divisiveness may have solidified his supporters, but it also inflamed the opposition. One poll found that almost half of Biden voters said their choice was more of a vote against Trump than a vote for Biden. While Biden hewed to the middle on policy issues, he did draw a stark line between himself and Trump on issues of character, temperament and leadership.
While Trump will be leaving office, the use of polarization as a political strategy is not going anywhere. Up-and-coming politicians have taken note of how well it worked for Trump, as well as figures from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Technology and media are increasingly creating echo chambers where more extreme positions resonate and platforms where candidates can deliver divisive messages directly to voters. Campaigns have better data about voter preferences and more sophisticated marketing strategies that they can use to identify and leverage divides in the electorate.
There are no clear, simple solutions to counteract the forces that incentivize extremism. Educating voters to critically evaluate information and focusing on areas of consensus could take the air out of politicians’ attempts to fixate on the most polarizing, hot-button issues. So could an expansion of ballot initiatives and other forms of direct democracy that focus on issues rather than politicians.
Polarization will be with us as long as it continues to be an effective strategy for candidates like Trump. Even if it sometimes misses the mark, the potential payoff makes it a bet many politicians are willing to take — and we all have to live with the consequences. Biden may harken back to an era of compromise and moderation, but he will be hemmed in by the forces of extremism on both sides. How will his presidency weather the pressure to polarize?
Odilon Camara is an economist at USC Marshall School of Business who studies voting, elections and polarization.