The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall 2010)

Why a Hyper-Polarized Party System Weakens America’s Democracy1

William Galston

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 12.3 (Fall 2010). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2010

(Volume 12 | Issue 3)

The current Congress—the 111th—is the most ideologically polarized in modern history. In both the House and the Senate, the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than is the most liberal Republican. If one defines the congressional “center” as the overlap between the two parties, the center has disappeared.

As David Brady and Hahrie Hahn have shown, this situation is not unprecedented.2 Party polarization in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries was as intense as it is today. In the sweep of American history, one might well argue, the ideologically overlapping and indistinct organizations of the mid-twentieth century are the outliers, not today’s highly differentiated and adversarial parties.

Still, the unending high-decibel partisan warfare of the past decade has led many Americans to look back with nostalgia on the more consensual, if muddled, party system that persisted until the 1970s.

Morris Fiorina and colleagues have suggested that this increased polarization is mostly confined to party elites and elected representatives and that the ideological center of gravity of the people has not changed much in the past generation.6 But an analysis of National Election Study data challenges this view. Alan Abramowitz finds that in 1984, 41 percent of voters were located at or near the ideological center, versus only 10 percent at or near the left and right extremes. By 2004, only 28 percent remained at or near the center, while the left and right extremes had more than doubled to 23 percent.7 Indeed, Abramowitz suggests, polarization actually rose faster in the electorate than among elites between 1972 and 2004. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Other evidence points in the same direction. If elected officials were becoming less representative of the electorate, we would expect to find that the ideological gap between the people and their representatives had increased. But as Gary Jacobson has shown, this has not happened.8 On the contrary, voters believe that their party and its elected officials have tracked their views quite closely during the past generation. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2

The gap has widened, instead, between voters and their perception of the other party’s ideological orientation. All other things equal, the greater the distance between voters and opposition party candidates, the less cross-party voting there should be. And that is exactly what has happened in the past generation: the percentages of Democratic identifiers voting for Republicans and Republican identifiers voting for Democrats have fallen by about half. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3

These correlations have not ended the debate about the dynamics of party change. It remains true that less-informed and less-engaged citizens—voters as well as non-voters—tend to be less polarized than are those who participate regularly and with higher levels of information. It is at least possible that the current level of polarization actively drives lower-information voters out of the process and that a less polarized system would both expand and moderate the electorate. In addition, it may be argued, as Fiorina and others have, that those who now participate have shifted their outlook in response to changes at the elite level: if the parties put forward more centrist candidates, the electorate’s views would move back toward the center.9 For example, ideological differences were muted in 1976 when a relatively conservative Democrat, Jimmy Carter, ran against a moderate Republican, incumbent President Gerald Ford. A 2012 contest between former New York Governor George Pataki and soon-to-be-former Indiana Senator Evan Bayh would evoke a similar response, or so the argument goes. (The improbability that either would receive his party’s nomination underscores how much has changed since the 1970s.)

The opposing thesis is that the parties simply have responded to new political opportunities in the electorate. It is not hard to find anecdotal evidence to support this proposition. As Lyndon Johnson predicted and George Wallace’s insurgency demonstrated, the Civil Rights push of the mid-1960s decoupled many whites from the Democratic party and created the opening for both Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and his appeal to urban white ethnic voters, also known as “forgotten Americans.” The Roe v. Wade decision opened the door for a new entente between religious traditionalists—evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, even Orthodox Jews—and the Republican Party. Conversely, the Republican embrace of southern-tinged religious and social conservatism pushed many upscale professionals who were fiscally conservative but socially moderate toward the Democrats. (John Anderson’s independent presidential campaign in 1980 was an early sign of their increasing disaffection from the Republican party.) And the inability of the Reagan administration to match tax cuts with spending cuts spurred rising concern about the federal budget deficit, sparking the Perot insurgency in 1992 and influencing Bill Clinton’s turn toward fiscal retrenchment in 1993.

Some observers have suggested that members of the “Tea Party” movement represent the latest chapter in this saga of electoral change. The results of a recent in-depth survey call this thesis into question. It turns out that 74 percent of the Tea Partiers are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, and 77 percent voted for John McCain in 2008. Ninety-two percent are dissatisfied with the way things are going in America; 83 percent believe that government is doing too many things better left to individuals or the private sector; and only 4 percent trust government.10 While some of them might be disaffected enough to field independent candidacies, they seem very unlikely to shift their allegiance toward the Democratic Party in anything like its current incarnation. In the main, they are insurgent, libertarian-leaning Republicans who are trying to move their party back toward the small government orthodoxy that they see George W. Bush and the Republican congressional majority as having abandoned in the decade just ended. As Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute puts it, “they…are not in a traditional sense swing voters.”11

Over the past decade, the costs of increased political polarization have been mounting. We are unable to deal with large questions—such as our fiscal crisis—that cannot be solved without bipartisan cooperation and mutual compromise. Staffing our governing institutions has become more difficult: many judicial nominations have gotten caught in the partisan cross-fire, and even executive branch appointments have bogged down, making it hard for incoming presidents to deal with pressing problems. When one party dominates both the executive and legislative branches, polarization often moves policy in directions that moderate and independent voters find troubling, which tends to produce abrupt lurches from one off-center majority to another. When power is divided, polarized parties find it hard to agree on much of significance. Polarization means that our debates no longer stop at the water’s edge, which makes it harder for the United States to maintain a steady stance on defense and foreign policy. And perhaps worst of all, polarization undermines public trust in government, now languishing near record lows.

As I draft these remarks, the most likely outcome of the November mid-term elections is a new round of divided government. If so, we will face a choice between gridlock and a degree of cooperation across party lines that we have not seen in quite some time. In less troubled times, we might be able to afford a year or two of inaction. But with an ongoing economic crisis and two foreign wars, we need prompt, coherent, and sustainable policies. It remains to be seen whether our polarized party system is up to the job. The evidence of recent years is anything but encouraging.

Endnotes

  1. Portions of this essay first appeared as “Can a Polarized American Party System Be ‘Healthy’?” in the Brookings Institution’s Issues in Governance Studies 34 (April 2010).
  2. David W. Brady and Hahrie C. Hahn, “Polarization Then and Now: A Historical Perspective,” Red and Blue Nation?: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics, Volume 1, ed. Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady (Washington: Brookings, 2006) 119–51.
  3. The trend in polarization among voters is based on the difference between mean scores of Democratic and Republican identifiers and leaners on the seven-point liberal-conservative scale. The trend in polarization among elites is based on the difference between mean scores of Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives on the first dimension DW-nominate scale. Polarization scores from 1972 are used as a baseline for both series. Sources: National Election Studies cumulative data file; DW-nominate scores compiled by Keith T. Poole (voteview.com/dwnomin.htm). Alan I. Abramowitz, “Disconnected, or Joined at the Hip?” Reprinted with permission from Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady, eds., Red and Blue Nation? Causes and Consequences of America’s Polarized Parties (Washington: Brookings, 2006) 81.
  4. Sources: National Election Studies cumulative data file.Gary C. Jacobson, “Comment” Reprinted with permission from Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady, eds., Red and Blue Nation? Causes and Consequences of America’s Polarized Parties (Washington: Brookings, 2006) 87–8.
  5. Sources: National Election Studies cumulative data file.Gary C. Jacobson, “Comment” Reprinted with permission from Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady, eds., Red and Blue Nation? Causes and Consequences of America’s Polarized Parties (Washington: Brookings, 2006) 87–8.
  6. Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy Pope, Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005).
  7. Alan I. Abramowitz, “Disconnected or Joined at the Hip?” Red and Blue Nation?: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics, Volume 1, ed. Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady (Washington: Brookings, 2006) 77.
  8. Gary C. Jacobson, “Comment,” Red and Blue Nation?: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics, Volume 1, ed. Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady (Washington: Brookings, 2006) 85–95.
  9. Fiorina 2005.
  10. Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, Tea Party Could Hurt GOP in Congressional Races, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Dems Trail 2-Way Races, But Win If Tea Party Runs (Hamden: Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 24 March 2010) <http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1295.xml?ReleaseID=1436>.
  11. Quinnipiac University Polling Institute 2010.

William Galston is the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of eight books and more than one hundred articles on questions of political and moral philosophy, American politics, and public policy. His most recent book is Public Matters: Politics, Policy, and Religion in the 21st Century.

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