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Political polarization is increasing, but so is participation, sociologist finds

It's a common refrain: "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the two political parties." But a recent study by Kyle Dodson, a graduate student in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Sociology, indicates that Americans have put this complaint to rest.

Political Polarization

Illustration by Ned Shaw

According to his research, Americans' perceptions of major differences between the parties have increased steadily since the 1980s, leading to a dramatic increase in different forms of political participation."The increasing awareness of party differences isn't coming from thin air," Dodson said. "Americans are tracking real changes that are going on with the parties. Over the past 30 years, they've become polarized in their policy agendas and people are noticing."

Dodson collected and analyzed National Election Studies (NES) data from the presidential elections between 1960 and 2008. NES data consists of surveys taken from respondents who were interviewed both before and after elections. In order to analyze the trends in political activity, a range of dependent and independent variables were examined, including the respondents' age, gender, education level, income, political interest, voter turnout, campaign work and attendance at political events.

Dodson discussed his research at the American Sociological Association annual conference in San Francisco in August 2009.

The data show a decline in most forms of political behavior and activity in the United States from the 1960s to 1980. This trend, Dodson argues, supports the claim that political behavior declined as a result of a decline in social involvement. However, from 1980 through 2008, the trend changed course and each political activity saw an increase.

The results from his research suggest that a considerable source of political behavior lies within party activities. These party activity patterns, along with a change in demographics, are believed to be the reason for the rise in political trends over the past 20 plus years, Dodson said.

"A lot of research suggests that Americans are more socially isolated today than at any point in the past two to three decades," Dodson said. "Normally, this would depress political participation. But the rise of partisan politics has given Americans an important reason to get involved."

People tend to associate themselves with particular views and positions belonging to various political parties. According to Dodson, if a party offers ideas that are more acceptable to the public, then the public tends to get more politically involved.

When asked about a possible connection between the growing partisanship of political parties and the perceived increase in political rudeness and incivility, Dodson believes that they are somewhat related. But while rudeness in the political arena may be distasteful, Dodson said, it can provide relevant information that both voters and politicians can learn and grow from.

With all this political polarization, is there a chance that people will be driven away from participation in politics? Dodson believes that at a certain point it very well may be possible; however, in reality it is improbable that things will drive people too far away. "It is unlikely for parties to diverge so much that people will stop participating," said Dodson.

There will always be policy differences, says Dodson, but from time to time we reaffirm what we have in common and are reminded of the similar goals that we all share.