Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Polarization Happens (or Doesn't)

Via Sullivan, there's apparently a debate on the right about whether liberals and conservatives are equally pushing for polarization.  David Frum doesn't like right-wing "purity" tests for GOP candidates; Eric Erickson says that the Dems do it, too.  On the particular case Erickson cites -- Evan Bayh -- I don't think he has much of a case.  As Erickson notes, a friend of Bayh was quoted as saying that he didn't like taking hits from liberal bloggers, who certainly have bashed the Indiana Senator (and gave him little credit, as far as I could see, for mostly quietly supporting both the stimulus and the health care bill -- no Benator grandstanding from him!).  However, "I sometimes get criticized from the extremes" is hardly the same thing as the primary challenges that John McCain and Bob Bennett are receiving this cycle.  I'm not going to do a count right now, but I do think that there have been far more ideological challenges to sitting Republicans from the right than to sitting Democrats from the left in recent cycles.

Frum's point, however, is that
As many political scientists have demonstrated, the parties are becoming more polarized even though the electorate is not. The cause of the “disconnect” (as Morris Fiorina calls it)? Party elites, both Democratic and Republican, have found ways to take command of party institutions and steer their organizations further and further away from the broad preferences of the country.
Absolutely correct -- but incomplete. I've talked about some of these issues before, but I think it might be helpful to lay them all out in one post.

The process Drum describes is certainly one party impulse, but it isn't the only one.  There's also the Downsian incentive to move to the center (of each district) in order to win.   Typically, these impulses are in tension, but the money is in the middle: that is, politicians want to win in order to have jobs, political consultants want to win in order to enhance their reputations, many party-aligned interest groups want to win in order to implement as many of their public policy objectives as possible, party bureaucrats want to win because it tends to generate larger and better financed formal party organizations, and policy wonks want to win so that they can get government jobs (which is not about immediate financial reward, but does tend to help their long-term earnings; they also might actually care about changing the world).  Each of these incentives push a political party towards the center, which is the ideal position for winning elections in a two-party system.

Against all that are those interest groups that are willing to risk and all-or-nothing strategy. and support candidates who are less likely to win but would take extreme positions if they do win, and those with no material self-interest in the success of the party who tend to be ideological extremists -- the political science literature calls them "purists" or "amateurs" (although note that the latter is only a tendency; it's certainly logically possible to be a pragmatic amateur).  Also pushing parties away from the center are primary electorates.  Primary elections -- you might not know this, but very few nations have adopted that particular American innovation -- introduce another possible polarizing incentive, since candidates must appeal to the median voter in a primary electorate in order to win the nomination, and if voters are even somewhat sorted ideologically into parties then that median point will be to the left of center for Democrats, and to the right of center for Republicans.

Most, but not all, of the self-interest incentives push parties to the center.  There are also, however, another set of factors that can push parties to the extremes.  Parties have their own internal cultures and information flows, and they can affect the behavior of party actors, even if outside observers might find those actions irrational in some objective sense.  For example, a politician might erroneously but sincerely believe that there's a hidden vote available to candidates that ignore the middle of the electorate in favor of mobilizing the party's base (it's possible that there might conceivably be rare circumstances in which that's a wise electoral strategy, but normally any candidate who captures the center will win an election; what I'm talking about here, however, is when those rare circumstances do not apply).  A partisan policy wonk might mistakenly believe that her issue positions, which are well-received on partisan blogs, are actually far more popular than they in fact are.  And some politicians and their staffs may simply hold issue positions because they really believe in them, regardless of electoral incentives (and, in most cases, that won't actually hurt them very much with the electorate, which is far less attentive that pols and other political actors believe). 

If you're still reading this long piece, what you probably want is a takeaway paragraph, but unfortunately I can't give you one.  Political scientists have reached no consensus at all on which of these incentives, or even which actors, are the important ones.  Some of us think that politicians are the crucial actors.  Others believe that pols will ultimately follow whatever bargains are reached by party-aligned interest groups.  My own (unpublished as yet) claim is that there is no ultimate answer: the results of both which actors will be most important and which incentives they will follow are contingent on the (formal and informal) rules of the game, and on all sorts of other things happening in a society and its politics.  I know: not really helpful, is it?  Sorry, but that's how I see it.  The main thing is that, if I'm correct (which of course I believe I am) there are a wide range of possible stable outcomes when it comes to polarization.

One more thing, which might be fairly important.  The core assumption of everyone who has studied party incentives has always been that winning is always a good thing.  For purists, it might be a good thing that is trumped by other considerations, but we've always assumed that winning office was at the very least a neutral factor, and in almost all cases, certainly for any professional politician or operatives, incentives would always run toward winning office.  That no longer appears to be true, at least (or at least mainly) on the conservative side of the spectrum.  There's just no getting around the fact that there is a large conservative marketplace, and that there's more money that can be squeezed out of that market when Democrats take office.  I don't know that any conservative operatives actively follow the obvious incentive and consciously try to make their own side lose elections, but the incentive most certainly exists, and may well affect behavior in some cases.

All of which still supports my general point I've made in the past, which is that while polarization is a natural development, there are a lot of different possible degrees of polarization, and the current levels are very high -- and hardly inevitable.


  1. It seems to me that this whole conversation by using the word polarization tends to tiptoe around the big ol' elephant in the room. (Hey! A double metaphor)

    We are not "polarized" so much as one party in a two party system has become extreme. Overall opinions have the same range they always have and the Democratic coalition is dominated by the roadkill middle. The actual left as apposed to the strawman seen in things like the various right wing screeds on the best seller list is always freaking out because they can't get what they want from the Democratic party like the right can from the Republicans.

  2. I haven't studied it in depth so you probably have a more informed opinion on this than me, but lately I've been thinking about the polarization in our politics and it occurs to me that, chronologically at least, it seems to coincide with the fading away of local political machines.

    My evidence is largely anecdotal and historical, so I can't quote any numbers here. However, if we look at, say, the legislative agendas of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson, which were all far more radical in their own ways to what Mr. Obama has been trying to do, and then compare the support they managed to garner among the other party to the support Mr. Obama has managed to attain, the radicals come away with significantly more cross-isle allies than the moderate. There could be many explanations for this, and likely many different factors that play a role in it, but I hardly find it insignificant that the reform movements to dismantle party machines and "democratize" congressional operation hit its stride in the years after Johnson, and that it is the election of Nixon and the rise of the concept of a "silent" or "moral" majority at the maturation point of this movement which most scholars look to as the beginning of the current period of intense partisanship.

    It seems to me that, for all the corruption local party machines generate (and they certainly do generate corruption), they also ensure, by keeping the locus of funding for campaigns within the districts which the politician represents, that politicians stay more loyal to the interests of the local party (their machine) than to the national one. For much of our history our politics has been largely about local or regional concerns (The West's siding with the more culturally alien North on slavery and taxation due to their agreement regarding infrastructure development comes to mind), and as a result, for much of our history party affiliation has been much less important that district similarity in determining which politicians work together. When a national party can control funding, however, even at the local level, as the big two can today, and just as importantly when they can control expertise, depriving independent-minded politicians of those professional campaign staffers and propagandists necessary to any modern election, then the national party and its interests naturally become more important to the candidate than those of his constituents, and, considering that national parties can only run on big, cultural issues, then cultural issues (including basic party affiliation) come to dominate campaigns and legislative relationships. This process is only amplified when the constituents often don't even know what is in their own interests which, as you point out above, is often the case.

    At least that's my feeling on it but, like I said, I haven't done enough in depth research and number crunching to throw out anything scientific. What would your thoughts be on the decline of local party machines and the rise of partisanship?

  3. I agree with AhYup .. it seems that our discipline (political science) is not doing a very good job of understanding the different reactions to polarization by the Dems and the Repubs. It seems incredibly clear to me that the GOP (internal culture, information flows, political and policy incentives) has become more extreme. The GOP is more coherently and consistently polarized than the Dems.

  4. I think this is valid as an assessment of attitudes and motivations of both voters and political professionals. What this fails to discuss is issues affecting turnout. The author needs to take a look at the varying interests of Republican and Democratic parties in voter turnout. The Republican interest has been made obvious in the US attorney scandal where US attorneys who got confused and concentrated on crime, and failed to make "voter fraud" a priority, were fired.

  5. AuYup and Jason,

    I agree that we haven't done a very good job, at least to the best of my knowledge, of studying differences in the structure of the two major parties, if any. As far as the effects...well, right now with Dems occupying ~60% of the seats in Congress, it's not surprising that they have control of the middle. That was less true when Dems had 48% (or whatever) of the seats. It's also easier to keep party discipline when you're in the minority. Long term, I do think Dems have more internal diversity than does the GOP, but whether it's more now because of long-term change, or if it's just the effect of the last couple election cycles, I couldn't say.

    I don't think the timeline is right for demise of local machines -> national polarization. The machines declined in the first half of the 20th century, and polarization peaked in ~1935-1970. I do think that parties have nationalized significantly, but whether that's cause or effect, I don't know.


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