Polarized politics

Rhiannon Evans-Young

At PLMR’s Westminster Breakfast event last week, I was lucky enough to watch an excellent panel discussion between MPs from the three main parties. Outside of the Commons, the exchanges were candid and respectful, whilst remaining engaging and thought provoking.

When listening to Conor Burns (Conservative), Tessa Munt (Liberal Democrat), and Pat McFadden (Labour), discuss issues ranging from the economy to pay-day lending, I was struck by the overlap that exists between the main parties on so many areas of policy. A healthy amount of adversity is present within our political system, you only need to tune into Prime Minister Questions on a Wednesday to see that, but common ground still exists. It is not mandatory to oppose every policy that a Labour politician advocates in order to call yourself a Conservative.

Whilst we undoubtedly have a spectrum of political ideology in mainstream British politics, it pales in comparison to the polarized political system that exists in the United States. The sixteen day shut-down showed just how wide the gap between Republican and Democratic ideology has become and how a lack of middle ground literally brought the system to a halt.

Despite the fact that the 2012 Election gave the Obama administration a popular mandate to pursue healthcare reform, (reform that had also already been ratified by the Supreme Court), the Republican Tea Party drew their fellow Republicans into political deadlock as they refused to let Obamacare be enacted without a fight.

The recent chaos in the States has been described by some as a ‘Republican Civil War’, with the Tea Party Republicans and the rest of the Party members locked into a struggle over what their shared moniker means. Ted Cruz led the charge which pulled the Government into shut down, with Speaker Boehner lacking the leadership skills to defy Cruz’s crusade or to break the (non-existent) Hastert rule.

When comparing American party politics to the kind of machinations we see on the British stage, it is no surprise that so many of us on this side of the pond are amazed at the massive polarization that exists in the States. However, although American politics have become adversarial to the extreme, the machinations behind the gulf in ideology cannot be dismissed purely due to the presence of ‘unhinged’ politicians.

At the root of Republican discourse, and discord, is economics. The Party today is built on a foundation that advocates a ‘low-wage, low-tax, decentralized system’. Obamacare goes against every one of these fundamentals and is something that Tea Party Republicans especially were simply not able to stomach. The way they have continued to push against health care reform despite the popular mandate behind it is hard to justify, but from a purely ideological perspective, one can see how their standpoint chimes with many deep-seated Republican beliefs. However, despite some method in their madness, the fact remains that the polarization of views has reached the point of political impasse.

The shutdown not only drew attention to the difficulties faced by an American Government confronted with a fundamentally divided House, but it has also highlighted the comparatively narrow spectrum of political identity that exists within Britain. The British political system appears more nuanced and flexible when compared to the staunchly held values of Republicans and Democrats, with the ‘centre’ far more heavily occupied. Of course, common ground does exist in the United States, especially when you look at politicians individually, and it must be remembered that they are trying to represent a vast population. But seeing a cross-section of British politicians discuss key issues last week made me appreciate having a system where we can enjoy healthy political debate without it threatening to bring our whole nation to a stand-still.

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