Published: April 24, 2023

During the latest installment of the Coloradan alumni magazine’s dialogue series Coloradan Conversations on April 18, a discussion around the polarization of politics took center stage at the Chancellor’s Hall and Auditorium in the CASE building.

Focusing on the spring 2023 cover story, “How Did Everything Get So Political?”, this hybrid event featured three CU Boulder experts addressing the rise of political branding strategies and how differing approaches to identity and social issues contribute to contemporary patterns of polarization.

Each presenter shared a detailed historical timeline providing context on how specific topics evolved into the political hot-button issues they are today. Following their individual research and insights, the experts engaged with audience members’ reflections and questions during the panel discussion portion of the evening. 

“We often use the word politics to refer to electoral politics,” said speaker Jennifer Hendricks, a professor of law and co-director of the Juvenile and Family Law Practice. “So, when we ask the question, ‘how did everything get so political?’—what we often mean is ‘how did it get so partisan?’” 

Mobilizing change

Celeste Montoya, an associate professor of women and gender studies and faculty director for the Miramontes Arts & Sciences Program, shared a historical overview of how parties have realigned their approaches to race and gender and how this has contributed to contemporary patterns of polarization. 

“In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen some important mass mobilizations attempting to put some important issues back on the table when people felt the parties were failing to respond to them,” said Montoya. 

These movements have included the immigrant rights movement, when Congress failed to pass meaningful legislation about immigration reform; the Occupy Wall Street movement, which resurfaced class politics and income inequality; the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlighted lingering social inequality; the #MeToo movements and the Women’s March, which focused on gender violence; and the marriage equality and trans rights movements. 

There has also been mobilization in the opposite direction, such as the anti-critical race theory, anti-trans rights movements—“and that’s important to remember, too,” said Montoya. 

That has led to significant partisan divides. Citing a March 2022 Pew Research study, she said, “Republicans and Democrats in Congress are further apart ideologically today than at any time in the past 50 years.”

She also stated the country is at a pivotal point in our democracy: “And what happens next is not yet written in stone.” 

Montoya continued by explaining that here on the CU Boulder campus, we’re free to talk about certain issues, which is a right we shouldn’t take for granted: “[That] makes it all the more important that we do [talk about them].”

Political branding

Doug Spencer, associate dean for faculty affairs and research and a professor of law focused on the rise of political branding, or the use of corporate advertising strategies to sell political ideas—along with what branding strategies within the machinery of politics means for the right to vote in America. 

He stressed the relationship between political parties, political polarization and the incentive structures among American politics. While scholars are still exploring all the reasons, causes and results of this polarization, Spencer said that he thinks political parties have a big role to play.

“Political parties have similar incentives to corporations, such as appealing to the broadest number of people in society so that they can win elections,” he said. “But unlike corporations, political parties—as long as they get 50% plus one of whoever shows up on election day—they get all the power and all the money.” 

According to Spencer, this results in parties having “countervailing incentives to manipulate who shows up to vote and to exert as much effort deciding who votes as they do persuading people of their positions,” he said, “along with the incentive of mobilizing their supporters while strategizing on ways to exclude the opposition from voting.” 

That means that political parties are strongly invested in preventing their own supporters from defecting. “They prey on human psychology and help us learn the joy that we feel when others who aren’t like us suffer,” said Spencer.

“This is democracy on the low road; it’s not the ideal democracy. We need parties to maximize their value to everybody and not just to their current customers.”

Reproductive rights

Professor Jennifer Hendricks discussed the politicization of reproduction’s deep history in the United States and how it is intertwined with racial and gender hierarchies, both under Roe v. Wade and in the new, post-Roe regime of state control over pregnancy. 

For example, she explained how Black women’s reproduction was notably politicized after the prohibition of 1808, the year when Congress prohibited further imports of enslaved people into the U.S. In response, the slave states turned to inhumane forced childbearing and family separation that became the foundation for the political economy of the South and the nation. 

Hendricks also shared how in the late 1800s, Indigenous women’s reproduction was notably politicized when the U.S. government adopted a policy of “Kill the Indian, save the man,” stripping Indigenous children of their culture.

Around that same time, although some disapproved of abortion, Hendricks said, “[People] thought of it as an act of desperation by an unmarried, pregnant woman rather than a political crisis. Abortion triggered a political reform movement when white, married women—inspired by the Women’s Rights Movement that symbolically began in Seneca Falls in 1848—began to use abortion as a way to control their bodies and their reproduction.” 

She described this as a “rebellion against husbands and against women’s duty to the state to produce white babies in order to fulfill Manifest Destiny.” 

The states ultimately passed a total ban on abortion, which was then overturned when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973.

A backlash was already in the works by the early years of what’s referred to as the second wave of feminism during the Supreme Court’s original ruling on Roe vs Wade. “One of the most prominent features of that backlash was the focus of abortion, which emerged as an encapsulation of an entire range of beliefs about gender and the status of women,” said Hendricks. 

Featured exhibitors and additional resources

The evening’s two featured exhibitors included researchers from the LeRoy Kellerson Center for the First Amendment, which supports and encourages teaching, research and community outreach on topics and issues relating to the nature, meaning and contemporary standing of First Amendment rights and liberties.

Additionally, attendees had the opportunity to meet the team behind The Free Mind podcast. Hosted by Matthew Burgess, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, the podcast explores topics in Western philosophy, politics, literature and history with adventurous disregard for academic fashions and intellectual trends.

Learn more about the polarization of politics and the event’s featured experts. You can also watch all three presentations online.