Polarization and Sovereignty

August 3, 2021

The Fracture of the U.S. Part 3:
Polarization and Sovereignty

This series has touched on a few key concepts for why the U.S. is likely to fracture such as:

  • The U.S. is an empire and all empires fall
  • the internet is changing the concept of citizenship

Now looking at the U.S., I want to focus on two key concepts, political polarization and the changing nature of sovereignty. 

For the whole series


Part 1: Empires Fall

Part 2: Citizenship and The Internet

Part 3: Polarization and Sovereignty (this post)

Part 4: How the United States Will Fall


The U.S., a growing divide

Political polarization in a two-party system is when the parties pull apart along ideological lines.

In the U.S. the left is pulling harder to the left, and the centerline of the Republicans is coalescing towards the right. The gulf between red and blue is getting wider than ever.

This graph actually doesn’t go back far enough though, polarization in the U.S. began in the 70s (Pew Research), but we don’t have any substantial reasons why. The linked article attributes some responsibility to “the disappearance of moderate-to-liberal Republicans (mainly in the Northeast) and conservative Democrats (primarily in the South). Since the 1970s, the congressional parties have sorted themselves both ideologically and geographically.” 

That still doesn’t tell us why that happened though.

Why is the U.S. so polarized?

If you read all the literature on U.S. polarization, there aren’t many satisfying explanations. Many discuss the polarization itself as the cause, as in a self-reinforcing concept, but don’t hint much at the root cause of it. 

As I read through all the research I started to put the pieces together. Here’s the reason the U.S. is so polarized.

The system leads to polarization

The first is the system itself. The founders of the United States were concerned with two things:

  1. Balancing the power of the 13 semi-sovereign states so no one state could steamroll the others
  2. Trying to prevent parties from forming

They succeeded on the first part and immediately failed on the second. When they set up the election rules there weren't many other systems to compare and contrast, considering the U.S. was the first modern democracy. The only electoral system they had as a reference was plurality voting, a system from the year 1430 which they imported from Britain (Atlantic).  

They believed that checks and balances would prevent parties. No one knew that parties were inevitable in democracies. And they didn’t know their voting procedure would create a two-party system.

Why does our system create two parties? It’s because here in the U.S. we use plurality voting.

From fairvote.org,

Plurality voting: A system in which the candidate with the most votes wins, without necessarily a majority of votes.

If that definition sounds exactly how your idea of voting works, then you're definitely an American. Plurality voting is how the U.S. runs (and always has run) elections. 

But that system inevitably leads to a two-party system. This was first established by a French political scientist name Maurice Duverger. He examined electoral systems and first observed back in the 1950s that plurality voting inevitably leads to two-party systems. For more on that checkout Duverger's law

So, we now have an entrenched two-party system because of the way we vote. Up until recently, the two parties had enough ideological overlap that it didn’t matter much. There were conservative Democrats in the South and liberal Republicans in the Northeast, and that allowed for better collaboration between the parties. But that has changed.  

Vicky Chuqiao Yang Ph.D. of the Sante Fe Institute has been researching polarization. Her research found it’s politically strategic for parties to pull apart ideologically. Moderate voters engage in what she calls “satisficing,” where they vote for a “good enough” candidate. Parties can capture the more extreme voters by pulling hard to one side while retaining moderate voters. The moderate voters that are politically active hold their nose and vote for the candidate that most aligns with their views, even if more extreme. The alternate candidate is considered worse (Yang research).

The founders set up a two-party system, and in a two-party system, you have polarization because it's strategic. 

How the media makes it worse

In 1961 we had access to three TV channels, some radio stations, and newspapers. Most Americans consumed the same news. 

The change began with the rise of cable news offering more options and competition among media companies. The internet increased the competition further by many orders of magnitude. Now modern media is another significant contributor to political polarization.

Media companies make their money based on advertising revenue. They need people to see their content to increase advertising revenue. But now they’re in competition with many other media companies, bloggers, and the whole internet, not just two other TV channels. 

Media now competes for clicks, and the best way to do that is to make sensational news that fosters outrage. 

Why the outrage? Because it’s powerful. Negative partisanship is stronger than positive. People click on articles about the horrible things the other party is doing. So the media offers this up in cable news and on the internet.

Facing a barrage of sensationalized outrage people retreat to self-reinforcing, internet echo chambers. They find friends on Facebook that have the same beliefs as them, they block those that don't. And the feedback loop accelerates.

Former President Barack Obama recently quipped, “What you increasingly have is a media environment in which, if you are a Fox News viewer, you have an entirely different reality than if you are a New York Times reader.” 

It’s a completely different reality shaped by different media sources.

Look at the January 6th capital riots for a clear example of different realities on display. Look at how both parties responded and how the different partisan media outlets covered and continue to cover the incident. The incident wasn’t a wake-up call, didn’t lead to more unity, it plays out along partisan lines and further deepens our political divide.  

There are two Americas now, red and blue. The traditional media, new media, social media, and internet media all reinforce the new paradigm, even prevent our ability to break it. 

Ok, so it’s a little polarized right now, why is that so bad?

The polarization leads to two concurrent problems, one with the people, one with the government. The people themselves begin to rip appart, that’s why we end up with right wingers storming the capitol over a perceived stolen election. It’s why we have antifa wreaking havoc across many cities and shootings with Proud Boys. Extreme polarization leads to the radicalizing of people on both sides. Left unchecked it destabilizes the population.

On the government side, the problem with increased polarization is gridlock.

  • One, the ideological gulf between the average Republican and Democrat member of congress is wider than it ever has been before. See the chart up top. 
  • Two, in a hyper-partisan world crossing the aisle, is tantamount to treason against your country. Red America wants what's best for Red America and Blue America wants what's best for Blue America. We no longer live in a world where Red and Blue America want what's best for ALL Americans.

Nothing gets done. Each new president undoes most of what the previous president did as the first order of business. Our legislative branch is in gridlock and can't agree on legislation. Two of the three branches of government are ineffective.

This makes the supreme court more important, which in turn raises the stakes of elections, causing the polarization to worsen. 

It’s a negative, self-reinforcing feedback loop that leads to further gridlock and polarization. This leads to the government’s ineptness.

Can we fix it?

So rather than let the situation get so out of hand as to lead to the fracture of the country, can we fix it? 

The short answer is probably not, unless we change the election rules.

We could have viable 3rd parties with proportional voting instead of plurality voting. Proportional representation is the way that most other democracies work. According to our friend Duverger, the French political scientist, they encourage multiple parties. For a good explainer on proportional representation check this out. 

Can we switch to proportional? Sure, we could. There’s nothing in the constitution that says that we can’t. But here’s the catch, it would require an act of congress. Yes, the gridlocked congress would have to agree to lose power to 3rd parties. This would likely be a devastating blow to the Republican party. At best it would be unhelpful to the Democrats. Though the key is there, neither party will unlock the path forward.

So then what happens?

In our current system, we can’t get anything done, the system itself and the media reinforce the status quo, which leads to a worsening system. What breaks us out of this? 

There are only really two possibilities here. To paraphrase Ezra Klein in a recent interview we’re going to have a legitimacy crisis or the demographics are going to change such that the problems fade. 

What would demographic change do? Well if Texas and Georgia, through demographic shifts, become reliably Democrats that changes the game, leads the U.S. out of a gridlocked country, and allows the Democrats to take more control. Of course, traditionally Democrat states could shift more Republican.

Let’s look at the other alternative, a legitimacy crisis. In that case, the people themselves, or some of the larger states, or potentially even some of the smaller states will decide that the government doesn’t work, isn’t legitimate, and they can get more done on their own, without the gridlock.

The people and states become open to radical ideas like breaking up the country, which we'll explore in the next post. 

An evolution of sovereignty  

When I talk about this to people, they’re dismayed, they say America’s diversity is a strength. That we’re stronger together. 'Strength together' is changing as sovereignty changes though. The evolution of sovereignty changes the calculations of whether secession is good strategy. 

First, let’s understand sovereignty. Merriam-Webster defines it as freedom from external control, an autonomous state.

Each state in the U.S. is a semi-sovereign state. By being part of the United States they have ceded some control to the U.S. federal government. 

Each new state gave up some sovereignty for better trade and protection from the larger government. It’s important to realize what the trade-off was and whether the deal is still worth it.

In a global world, it’s in everyone’s best interest to trade together and not kill each other. The loss of sovereignty is not worth it if states feel like they can get the upside with a limited downside. 

Global supranational organizations like the UN, NATO, NAFTA, and WHO give the protections of a big country to a small country. 

The trade-off of being a semi-sovereign state within a federal government isn’t worth it if a semi-sovereign state can be a sovereign state and a member of the supranational organizations. The amount of sovereignty given to the supranational organizations is less than that ceded to the federal government, while the upsides remain the same.

What if California secedes?

Let’s walk through a thought exercise. What if California secedes and for some reason the United States simply allows it, no fight or court cases. Everyone has one year to move in or out of California, then that’s it. Those that remain are citizens of California and no longer citizens of the United States. 

What happens next? 

Does China invade California? Would California’s new allies: Canada, Mexico, the U.S. , UK, EU, Japan, South Korea, etc “allow” this? No. 

What about trade? 

Does the world want Teslas, Hollywood movies, software, strawberries, and almonds that California exports? Why yes they do. Who imports all those things right now? Canada, Mexico, China, Europe, and of course the U.S. would import all those things. 

Who already sells to California? Does the rest of the world, including China, want to sell to California’s citizens? Why yes they do. California is currently the 5th largest economy in the world. 

So even if California doesn’t have the economic output of the U.S. , or the military strength of the combined U.S. forces, California, would be an important part of international trade and protected by peace treaties.   

The new world is a global world united by treaties, agreements, and supranational organizations. The nature of sovereignty has changed post-WWII, but the repercussions haven’t caught up. They will, and it will be a different world. More independent, sovereign states held closer together by supranational org glue. 

1+1 = an inevitable fracture

The increasing polarization and gridlock of the U.S., coupled with the evolving nature of sovereignty is a wicked combo that leads to the fracture of the country.

We’ve talked about empires, the internet, and now polarization and sovereignty. Each of these trends alone may not cause the U.S. to fracture; together, fracture is inevitable.

Next, we’ll explore how this might actually go down. Till next time.


Special thanks

Adam Cotterill
Sunil Suri
Jesse Germinario
Christine Cauthen

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