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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Red and Blue Nation?

boisi center for religion and american public life

On March 29 the Boisi Center hosted a panel to discuss the extent to which America has become a nation politically polarized between “red states” and “blue states.”

William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, began by defining “polarization” as a drift of the public away from the political center toward the extremes.  He cited clear empirical evidence that such a drift has occurred over the past forty years. The most important reason behind this polarization, Galston argued, was the profound weakening of a (formerly) shared American framework of assumptions about the world and the economy. Although polarization affords voters more distinct choices (because candidates represent more deeply opposed positions), Galston feared its corrosive effects on the body politic.

Hahrie Han, the assistant professor of social sciences at Wellesley College, provided the historical context for our discussion. She recalled the early twentieth century as a period of great change and polarization, not unlike today. In fact, she said, the most notable aspect of the recent polarization in American politics is the period of bipartisanship that preceded it.  Although Han argued that polarization enhances participation (by motivating voters in adversarial elections), she felt that today’s single-issue politics inhibits the growth of an organized center.

Our own Alan Wolfe focused his remarks on the role of religion in contemporary American politics, arguing that the major religious alignment of the late twentieth century is ending. This alignment was characterized by alliances among conservatives and liberals across denominational lines and by conflict between conservatives and liberals within single denominations. But the way politics has shaped these conflicts over the past twenty years has called into question the significance of religion as an organizing force. Wolfe’s primary concern was that the country will now become less polarized politically—but more religiously polarized.

The final panelist, Marc Landy, professor of political science at Boston College, claimed that political polarization is too often exaggerated in the United States. He acknowledged the paradoxically high incidence of divorce in the religiously inclined “red” states, but suggested that social instability (which causes divorce) is the reason religion has taken hold there. Landy also pointed out that foreign policy is always a source of discord.