This Time It’s Different: Polarization of the American Polity

10 Jan

In a new paper, Pierson and Shickler contend that this era of polarization is different. They fear that polarization this time will continue to intensify because the three “meso-institutions”—interest groups, state parties, and the media—that were the bulwark against polarization in earlier eras are themselves polarized or have changed in ways that they offer much less resistance:

  1. State Parties
    • State Parties Have Polarized “state party platforms are more similar across states and more distinctive across parties than in earlier eras (Paddock 2005, 2014; Hopkins & Schickler 2016).”
    • Federal Government is Much Bigger. This means state concerns matter less — which brought cross-cutting cleavages into play. “Although it has received less discussion in the analysis of polarization, a second development in the 1960s and early 1970s—what Skocpol (2003, p. 135) has termed the “long 1960s”—was also critical: a dramatic expansion and centralization of public policy (Melnick 1994, Pierson 2007, Jones et al. 2019). Civil rights legislation was only the entering wedge. During the long 1960s, liberal Congresses enacted, often on a bipartisan basis, major new domestic spending programs (especially Medicaid and Medicare, which now account for roughly a quarter of federal spending as well as, in the case of Medicaid, a big share of state spending). They greatly enlarged the regulatory state, creating powerful new federal agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency) and enacting extensive rules covering environmental and consumer protection as well as workplace safety.”
  2. Interest Groups Have Polarized
    • “The powerful US Chamber of Commerce provides a striking illustration of the broader trend. Traditionally conservative but studiously nonaligned, it now carefully coordinates its extensive electoral activities with the Republican Party, and its political director (a former GOP operative) can refer unselfconsciously to Republican Senate candidates as “our ticket” (Hacker & Pierson 2016).”
  3. Media —- the usual story

Why This Time is Different

  • “The Civil War era represents an obvious extreme point in the intensity of divisions, yet the period of partisan polarization was remarkably brief: The major American parties featured deep internal divisions on slavery up until the mid-to-late 1850s, and the new Republican majority became deeply divided over Reconstruction and key economic questions soon after the war ended.”

Questions and Notes

  • Why are business interest groups not more bipartisan? For instance, if the US Chambers of Commerce is going hard R, is it a sign that it represents businesses of a particular sector/region? Is the consolidation of the economy (GDP) in cities causing this? If so, then how does the oncoming WFH change affect these things?
  • Given wide swings in policy regimes are expensive for business—for one, they cannot plan, what are the kinds of plays eventually big businesses will come up with. In some ways, for instance, Twitter banning Trump is predictable. Businesses will opt for stability where they can.
  • The more frightening turn in American politics is toward populism and identity politics—so much for the end of politics.
  • The party coalitions keep evolving. For instance, in 2020, poor White people were firmly in the column of Republicans. While as late as 2004, as Bartels pointed out, they were not.

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