Polarization and Ideology

October 19th, 2011  |  Published in Politics  |  2 Comments

Now that TPM has sent me a tidal wave of traffic, I’m kind of itching to correct something from my last post. Some criticism I’ve gotten has convinced me that this was a bit poorly stated:

In the United States, the diminishing distance between the parties–and the total incoherence of the Democratic side–has led the ideological and the partisan to become totally disconnected. Thus we see the parties locked in ever more vicious and polarized combat, even when both sides seem to be marching to the same neo-liberal drumbeat.

The talk about “distance” and “coherence” is confusing here, because some people read me as saying that the Democrats used to be more ideologically coherent than they are now, which isn’t really the case. What I was trying to say, however, was that the very well-attested evidence of increasing polarization between the parties doesn’t imply a widening ideological divide in our political debates. To use the language from my last post, things like the McCarthy, Poole, and Rosenthal measures of polarization really only speak to increasing partisanship; they have little to say about ideology. It’s possible for partisan polarization to increase even as the ideological range of the political debate is narrowing, and I’d argue that’s exactly what has happened. I’ll just belabor the point a bit more with two extreme hypothetical examples.

First, consider a world in which the only issue is the tax rate. Democrats favor a plan where everyone pays a 31 percent tax rate, and Republicans favor a plan where everyone pays a 30 percent tax rate. Democrats will always vote for the 31 percent plan and against the 30 percent plan, while Republicans will always vote for the 30 percent plan and against the 31 percent plan. By the standards of the political science literature, this situation would be extremely polarized, because Democrats and Republicans never vote with each other on anything. But the ideological distance between them is minimal, and the distinction between having one party or the other in the majority is only a tiny difference in your taxes.

Now consider a world in which the only issue is whether the government should attempt to promote white supremacy and racial segregation, or whether it should promote racial equality and civil rights. Both parties contain a mixture of civil rights advocates and racists, and so any given civil rights or pro-segregation bill can attract bipartisan support. This is, of course, only partly a hypothetical–it’s kind of how politics worked in the mid-20th century. In contrast to the previous example, this situation is not polarized by party at all, and you can’t directly predict policy outcomes based on which party has a majority. But the ideological stakes are obviously huge, and the range of debate is far wider than in the previous example.

My position is that we’ve moved in the direction of the first hypothetical, where sharp partisan division conceals ideological homogeneity. Even when political rhetoric seems to imply ideological divides, the results of governance tend not to bear this out: Obama didn’t stop torture, close Guantanamo, or get tough on the banks, and I don’t think the Republicans will actually “repeal Obamacare” or institute a flat tax. Which isn’t to say that there is no difference between the parties, only that the differences are much less than the rancor of partisan politics might lead you to believe. To borrow a quip from academia, “the politics are so intense because the stakes are so low”.

The narrowing of ideological divides has, in some cases, worked in a way that I find politically desirable–i.e., it’s no longer acceptable for a mainstream politician to explicitly defend white supremacy. But with respect to the welfare state and the redistribution of wealth, the ideological narrowing has been quite pernicious, and that’s the dynamic I hope things like Occupy Wall Street will begin to change.

Responses

  1. Dan Miller says:

    October 19th, 2011 at 2:07 pm (#)

    That makes things a lot clearer–thanks!

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    June 1st, 2012 at 1:46 am (#)

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