Much is being written and discussed in the media and social sciences about polarization in the United States. What are the factors driving polarization, what are the consequences? And who is actually polarized? The elites or society or both? Research has not yet provided clear insights. However, research has now clearly shown that polarization is more pronounced among the political elites than in society, and elite polarization has manifested itself temporally earlier than polarization in society. This shifts the focus when considering possible causes. And one thing has now become undeniable, and this has been demonstrated particularly by the studies of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, that polarization is asymmetric. The Republicans have become significantly more conservative, while the Democrats have only marginally shifted to the left. This is evident in the voting behavior in Congress. Is the crisis in the USA primarily being attempted by the Republican Party? Such a diagnosis would be too simplistic, but it does draw attention to developments in the Republican Party that must be addressed in their significance for the problems in representative democracy. Political scientist Francis E. Lee has empirically demonstrated this.
Along two dimensions, problems in representation are evident, namely in a kind of decoupling of representatives from the represented. In the socio-economic dimension, this affects both parties equally: the politicians in Congress have more and more wealth and also better education than US society as a whole. At this point, all members of Congress have at least a bachelor's degree. In US society, however, this is only just under 38 percent. And the average wealth of members of Congress is around $1 million. For US households, the figure is $160,000. Such numbers underpin the narrative of a detached political elite that no longer represents the interests of US citizens. In particular, the political right repeatedly mobilizes successfully with this narrative. It is precisely the Republican Party that has moved further away from US society in recent decades. And this is evident in various central cleavages. First, "gender." While the proportion of women in Congress in both parties was almost the same from 1970 to 1990, albeit equally low, at less than 5 percent, the proportion among Democratic Party representatives has steadily increased to almost 40 percent in 2018 since the 1990s. A different picture emerges among Republicans, where the proportion of women in the same period is still below 10 percent and has even declined since 2010. A similar pattern is evident in the representation of ethnic minorities. Among Democratic representatives, their share has increased from around 5 percent at the end of the 1960s to almost 40 percent in 2018. And here too, a very different picture emerges among Republican representatives: their share has never exceeded the 5 percent mark. The view of religion is also interesting. Among the Democrats, the proportion of evangelicals has decreased from 15 percent in the mid-1960s to under 5 percent in 2018. Among Republicans, the trend has gone in the opposite direction: the proportion has increased from around 15 percent to over 35 percent.
Overall, the two parties in Congress have been reorganizing along central cleavages since the 1990s. The Republicans are increasingly becoming a party of white evangelical men, while the Democratic Party in Congress is much more diverse. And even though representatives from both parties have much in common according to socio-economic criteria, they represent completely different societies. This makes cooperation in Congress difficult and sometimes impossible. The development within the Republican Party also explains the initially mentioned asymmetric polarization, which is particularly evident in a decoupling of the Republican Party from social reality.