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The Polarization of Politics in America

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The polarization of political views in America

Modern day media has reared its ugly head to make American politics more divisive than ever before. On the one hand, independent media has a more prominent presence which leads to new angles and ideas for those who actively seek them. The flipside is that the internet world is built to be an echo chamber of cognitive bias. Recent studies have shown that our pre-conceptions are not challenged on the web – rather, they get reinforced.

Research from The Pew Research Center confirms that there is growing polarization of politics in the United States, with consensus opinions on both the left and right spreading further apart.

All one has to do to seek proof of this? Take a look at the current outliers in the field of candidates that have announced their US presidential bids: a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, a libertarian-leaning Paul, and a (very) outspoken and often controversial real estate magnate confirm this to be true.

As seen in the above animation, the share of Americans who express a consistently liberal or conservative views have doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. The median positions, which used to overlap relatively closely, have spread much further apart such that the “typical” Republican is more conservative than 94% of Democrats. Two decades ago, this number was only 70%.

Further, there is more hate and blame being passed around these days:

Growing Animosity in United States Politics

It is now true that 43% of Republicans have “very unfavorable” attitudes about the Democratic Party, and 36% of Republicans even go so far as to say that the blue party is a threat to the nation’s well-being. The feelings are mutual on the other side of the aisle as well, with 38% of Democrats having “very unfavorable” attitudes towards Republicans. This animosity of people surveyed has more than doubled since 1994.

The most ideologically polarized Americans are those that are more engaged in the political process:

Polarization is with the politically engaged

Those that were “consistently” or “mostly” liberal or conservative in their views tended to be those that also considered themselves to be politically engaged.

While the polarization of politics in America seems greater than before, the good news is that the addition of people like Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Bernie Sanders to the conversation may help for an escape from the usual carefully-refined rhetoric. Getting politicians outside of their comfort zones is a small win for everyone, and it will at least provide for new ideas along with some popcorn munching styled entertainment.

Original graphics by: Pew Research

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Chart of the Week

Mapped: The World’s Oldest Democracies

This map shows the 25 oldest democracies in the world, based on how long current democratic governments have been in continuous power.

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Mapped: The World’s Oldest Democracies

Which country today is the world’s oldest democracy?

It’s a loaded question ⁠— as you’ll see, there is plenty of nuance involved in the answer.

Depending on how you define things, there are many jurisdictions that can lay claim to this coveted title. Let’s dive into some of these technicalities, and then we can provide context for how we’ve defined democracy in today’s particular chart.

Laying the Claim

If you’re looking for the very first instance of democracy, credit is often attributed to Ancient Athens. It’s there the term originated, based on the Greek words demos (“common people”) and kratos (“strength”). In the 6th century BC, the city-state allowed all landowners to speak at the legislative assembly, blazing a path that would be followed by democracies in the future.

However, Ancient Athens wasn’t really a country in the modern sense. It’s also not around anymore, so that certainly disqualifies the oldest continuous democratic country today.

Iceland and the Isle of Man both have interesting claims to democracy. Each has a parliamentary body that is over 1,000 years old, making them the longest standing democratic institutions in the world. But Iceland only got its independence in 1944 from Denmark — and while it is self-governing, the Isle of Man is not a country.

Of course, when we’re talking about democracy today, we’re really talking about universal suffrage. New Zealand may have the best claim here — by 1893, the self-governing colony allowed all women and ethnicities to vote in elections.

A Common Set of Criteria

While many civilizations, institutions, and societies have a rightful claim to contributing to democracy (including many we did not mention above), measuring the world’s oldest democracies today requires following a common set of criteria.

In today’s chart, we used data from Boix, C., Miller, M., & Rosato, S. (2013, 2018), which looks at the age of democratic regimes for 219 countries since the year 1800. Countries are classified as democracies if they meet the following conditions:

  1. Executive:
    The executive is directly or indirectly elected in popular elections and is responsible either directly to voters or to a legislature.
  2. Legislature:
    The legislature (or the executive if elected directly) is chosen in free and fair elections.
  3. Voting:
    A majority of adult men has the right to vote.
  4. Democracies also have to be continuous in order to count. Although France has important democratic origins, the country is currently on its fifth republic since the French Revolution, thanks to Napoleon, Vichy France, and other instances where things went sideways.

    While the above criteria isn’t perfect, it does create a stable playing field to assess when countries adopted democratic systems in principle. (However, the exclusion of certain populations, notably women and specific ethnicities, in being given the right to vote, or to be elected to legislative assemblies, is another story).

    The Oldest Democracies, by Number of Years

    Using the above criteria, here is a list of the world’s 25 oldest democracies:

    RankCountryAge of Democracy (Years)
    #1🇺🇸 United States219*
    #2🇨🇭 Switzerland171
    #3🇳🇿 New Zealand162
    #4🇨🇦 Canada152
    #5🇬🇧 United Kingdom134
    #6🇱🇺 Luxembourg129
    #7🇧🇪 Belgium125
    #8🇳🇱 Netherlands122
    #9🇳🇴 Norway119
    #10🇦🇺 Australia118
    #11🇩🇰 Denmark118
    #12🇸🇪 Sweden108
    #13🇫🇮 Finland102
    #14🇮🇸 Iceland101
    #15🇮🇪 Ireland97
    #16🇸🇲 San Marino74
    #17🇦🇹 Austria73
    #18🇫🇷 France73
    #19🇮🇹 Italy73
    #20🇮🇱 Israel71
    #21🇨🇷 Costa Rica70
    #22🇮🇳 India69
    #23🇯🇵 Japan67
    #24🇨🇴 Colombia61
    #25🇯🇲 Jamaica57

    * The data goes back to 1800, so U.S. democracy can be considered at least 219 years old.

    Using this specific criteria, there is only one country with continuous democracy for more than 200 years (The United States), and fourteen countries with democracies older than a century.

    As you’ll notice in the data, many countries became democracies after World War II. The Japanese Empire, for example, was occupied by Allied Forces and then dissolved. It then regained sovereignty afterwards, emerging as a newly democratic regime.

    Final notes: The data here goes back to 1800, and we have adjusted it to be current as of 2019. One change we made was to Tunisia, which is listed as the 24th oldest democracy in the data. Based on our due diligence on the subject, we felt it was appropriate to leave it off the list, given that most experts see the country as only achieving the status in 2014 in the post-Arab Spring era.

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Chart of the Week

All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart

Just 15 countries are responsible for almost three quarters of the world’s carbon emissions. But what does this look like per capita, and over time?

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All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart

Two degrees Celsius may not seem like much, but on our planet, it could be the difference between thriving life and a disastrous climate.

Over two centuries of burning fossil fuels have added up, and global decision-makers and business leaders are focusing in on carbon emissions as a key issue.

Emissions by Country

This week’s chart uses the most recent data from Global Carbon Atlas to demonstrate where most of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from, sorted by country.

RankCountryEmissions in 2017 (MtCO₂)% of Global Emissions
🌐 Rest of World10,02827.7%
#1🇨🇳 China9,83927.2%
#2🇺🇸 United States5,26914.6%
#3🇮🇳 India2,4676.8%
#4🇷🇺 Russia1,6934.7%
#5🇯🇵 Japan1,2053.3%
#6🇩🇪 Germany7992.2%
#7🇮🇷 Iran6721.9%
#8🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia6351.8%
#9🇰🇷 South Korea6161.7%
#10🇨🇦 Canada5731.6%
#11🇲🇽 Mexico4901.4%
#12🇮🇩 Indonesia4871.3%
#13🇧🇷 Brazil4761.3%
#14🇿🇦 South Africa4561.3%
#15🇹🇷 Turkey4481.2%
🌐 Top 1526,12572.2%

In terms of absolute emissions, the heavy hitters are immediately obvious. Large economies such as China, the United States, and India alone account for almost half the world’s emissions. Zoom out a little further, and it’s even clearer that just a handful of countries are responsible for the majority of emissions.

Of course, absolute emissions don’t tell the full story. The world is home to over 7.5 billion people, but they aren’t distributed evenly across the globe. How do these carbon emissions shake out on a per capita basis?

Here are the 20 countries with the highest emissions per capita:

Emissions per capita
Source: Global Carbon Atlas. Note: We’ve only included places with a population above one million, which excludes islands and areas such as Curaçao, Brunei, Luxembourg, Iceland, Greenland, and Bermuda.

Out of the original 30 countries in the main visualization, six countries show up again as top CO₂ emitters when adjusted for population count: Saudi Arabia, the United States, Canada, South Korea, Russia, and Germany.

The CO₂ Conundrum

We know that rapid urbanization and industrialization have had an impact on carbon emissions entering the atmosphere, but at what rate?

Climate data scientist Neil Kaye answers the question from a different perspective, by mapping what percentage of emissions have been created during your lifetime since the Industrial Revolution:

Your Age% of Total Global Emissions
15 years oldYou've been alive for more than 30% of emissions
30 years oldYou've been alive for more than 50% of emissions
85 years oldYou've been alive for more than 90% of emissions

Put another way, the running total of emissions is growing at an accelerating rate. This is best seen in the dramatic shortening between the time periods taken for 400 billion tonnes of CO₂ to enter the atmosphere:

  • First period: 217 years (1751 to 1967)
  • Second period: 23 years (1968 to 1990)
  • Third period: 16 years (1991 to 2006)
  • Fourth period: 11 years (2007 to 2018)

In order to be a decarbonised economy by 2050, we have to bend the (emissions) curve by 2020… Not only is it urgent and necessary, but actually we are very nicely on our way to achieving it.

Christiana Figueres, Convenor of Mission 2020

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