Data showing Americans’ increased political polarization breathes new life into an old cause: mandatory voting. If the connection between the two isn’t clear, then bear with me. A new report from the Pew Research Center shows that a growing share of Americans hold increasingly strident ideological views; those views are increasingly far apart; and the people who hold those polarized views are the most likely to vote. It seems self-evident that this is a problem. Increased polarization means voters elect lawmakers who are increasingly unwilling to compromise, which in turn means Congress can’t react to new problems or deal with old ones. It also means that whichever party wins the White House is all but guaranteed to infuriate the half of the country whose votes it didn’t get, as the demands of each party’s most strident supporters become increasingly irreconcilable.
That toxic mix of legislative gridlock and unpopular executive action leads to deeply imperfect policies and more people tuning out of politics – which in turn leads to still greater polarization, because the only people still willing to vote are those with the most strident views. Oh, and half of the country starts to hate the other half.
If you accept the premise that this is undesirable, you’re left with two options. The first is to try to reverse the polarization. I accept the theoretical possibility of that goal, but have yet to hear anyone make a compelling proposal for how to do it — especially given the desire of the most liberal and most conservative Americans to live near and associate mostly with people who share their views.
That leaves the second option of trying to get more centrist Americans involved in politics. As Pew reports, just 39 percent of those with mixed ideological views say they always vote, compared with 58 percent of those with consistently liberal views and 78 percent with consistently conservative views. Those in the mixed category were also less than half as likely to contact an elected official, and one-third as likely to contribute to a political group.