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In the world of politics, polarization (or polarisation) can refer to the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes. Polarization can refer to such divergence like public opinion or even to such divergence within certain groups. Almost all discussions of polarization in political science consider polarization in the context of political parties and democratic systems of government. When polarization occurs in a two-party system, like the United States, moderate voices often lose power and influence.
Political polarization refers to cases in which an individual's stance on a given issue, policy, or person is more likely to be strictly defined by their identification with a particular political party (e.g., Democrat or Republican) or ideology (e.g., liberal or conservative). According to DiMaggio et al. (1996), "Polarization is both a state and a process. Polarization as a state refers to the extent to which opinions on an issue are opposed in relation to some theoretical maximum. Polarization as a process refers to the increase in such opposition over time." Some political scientists argue that polarization requires divergence on a broad range of issues based on a consistent set of beliefs. Others argue polarization occurs when there are stark partisan or ideological divides, even if opinion is polarized only on a few issues.
Political scientists typically distinguish between two types of political polarization: elite polarization and popular polarization. "Elite polarization" refers to the polarization of political elites, like party organizers and elected officials, while "popular polarization" (or mass polarization) refers to polarization in the electorate and general public. In either context, opinions and policy positions are characterized by strict adherence to party lines. Elite polarization and popular polarization can occur at the same time or independently of each other. A central issue in the study of political polarization is investigating the relationship between elite polarization and popular polarization, particularly any causal relationships between the two.
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