Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged polarization

Domestic Realpolitik

In their piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Jon Haidt and Marc Hetherington present clear empirical evidence of the political polarization that plagues contemporary American politics.  They offer some viable solutions as well, but end on a note of pessimism regarding the likelihood that things will look much different after November’s election.
 
You can think of our political system as addicted to conflict.  For politicians, obstruction is an effective legislative strategy.  For the corporate media and its punditocracy, promoting conflict is a good business model.  And let’s face it, because everyone is convinced that the other side struck first, hitting them back – even harder – curbs the nasty cravings of righteous indignation.  As any committed Democrat who has followed Mitt Romney’s travails over the last two weeks can tell you, conflict just feels goood.
 
Luckily, 21rst century celebrity scandal culture has taught us all what to do.  With any addiction, the first step in breaking the habit is acknowledging the problem.  And while the airwaves and blogosphere are filled with people bemoaning our legislative gridlock and the breakdown of political civility and cooperation, every four years we hit the wall of denial.  When election time nears, candidates from our two major parties propose ideologically sensible policy platforms that take no account of our polarized political culture, and because of this failure to recognize that we have a problem, these idealized political agendas have almost no chance of being enacted into law.
 
In foreign policy, there has long been a distinction between realism and idealism.  Rather than let ideology guide our interactions with other countries, realists accept that the world of international relations is a complicated and chaotic place filled with conflicting dynamics of power and self-interest that we ignore at our own peril.  What I am arguing is that we need a realist school of domestic policy as well.
 
What I ache for as a citizen is to hear our Presidential candidates address political polarization as a real policy problem – a genuine obstacle to enacting their agenda that must be acknowledged and overcome. I am waiting to hear journalists ask President Obama and Governor Romney, specifically, how they plan to enact their agenda, not in the political vacuum they assume in their stump speeches, but in the real world of hyper-partisan political gridlock we actually live in.  I know that politicians and pundits want to avoid the issue – saying it is beyond any politicians’ ability to control the other side’s behavior – but without some recognition that this is the real political terrain that must be negotiated, their best laid plans for investing in our future or weaning people off government dependence are little more than fairy tales.  
 
Without feeling hyperbolic, I think it is apt to characterize political polarization and bipartisan demonization as the primary obstacles to our government’s ability to address this nation’s long list of pressing but imminently addressable problems.  But until our leaders recognize that we have a problem, and generate both the political will and a genuine strategy to deal with it, we will remain where we are, putting off dealing with exploding budget deficits and melting polar ice caps for another day, while we lurk through alleys of unforced political gaffes and old youtube videos looking to score cheap political points. 
 
American politics needs an intervention.  We need domestic policy realism as much as foreign policy realism.

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Look how far we’ve come…apart

I have an essay in today's NYT on America's growing polarization. Marc Hetherington and I show what's happened over the last 50 years, not just in Congress but among citizens, in 3 simple graphs.The first one is below, from McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal. It shows that things were really polarized in the late 19th century, after the civil war, then they got much less polarized, but it's been a rapid climb upwards since the 1960s. We talk about why.

 

The next 2 graphs were made by Hetherington, and they are just as depressing. Click here to read the essay.

But we end on an optimistic note. There really are so many changes we could make to roll things back, perhaps to the level of polarization in the 1990s, which was much lower than it is today. But only if we push our leaders to make the changes. They will not make the changes themselves, because each change will probably favor one side or the other, so the disadvantaged side will fight like hell. But extreme pressure from outside, for a comprehensive package of reforms — a kind of good-government-Simpson-Bowles — might do it.

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Post-script: see Pete Ditto's call for "domestic realpolitik" to be realistic about how we're going to get things done.

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What drives polarization (by Timothy Ryan)

Guest post by Timothy Ryan, graduate student in political science at U. Michigan

Social scientists delight in few things more than when we can puncture a bit of prevailing wisdom, and the idea of a new political schism among American citizens presents a very tempting target. As political candidates sling invective, CNN frets about broken government, and Charles Murray bemoans a country “coming apart at the seams,” the idea that a sea change has occurred in citizens’ orientation toward politics seems ripe for scrutiny. Politics is inherently confrontational. Are things really different than in the past? How much of this talk of a grand cultural divide in America is just the parochialism of the present?
 
Most of it, according to political scientist Morris Fiorina. In a widely acclaimed book and numerous scholarly articles (such as this one), he and his collaborators examine several decades of survey data, looking for evidence that attitudes have become more polarized over time. They turn up a parade of flat trend lines that suggest the ideological character of the American public looks quite moderate and, well, more or less like it did forty years ago. The proportion of the electorate that calls itself “middle of the road” in terms of ideology? It’s down just one percentage point from 1972 to 2004. The proportions that identify as liberal or conservative? They’ve hardly changed. A seismic shift in the distribution of attitudes about spend/save issues? Not really. Social issues like abortion? Nope.
 
The lack of a “smoking gun” with respect to mass polarization has directed scholarly attention elsewhere. It is one reason researchers have hunted for institutional changes that might explain what seems to be more division and confrontation among our leaders. The idea here is that, if citizens haven’t changed in any pivotal ways, perhaps the highly cantankerous political climate stems from changes in how the “game” of politics is structured. In this vein, Sean Theriault directs our attention to the gerrymandering of congressional districts and how Congress uses procedural rules differently now than in the past. Alan Abramowitz and Markus Prior have written about declining voter turnout rates among moderates.
 
A few weeks ago, though, Marc Hetherington interjected a helpful reminder that there may be something to the idea that citizens have changed after all – if we think about it in a different way. He calls our attention not to ideological positioning or issue stances, but changes in how partisans feel about each other. Both Democrats and Republicans express much colder sentiments toward the other party than in the past, a trend called affective polarization. (“Affect” here taking its jargony psychological meaning: a rough synonym for feelings or emotions.)
 
The trend Hetherington notes gets even starker if we break it down by strength of partisanship, as I do below. It holds for strong partisans and weak ones alike. Journalists and scholars often think about polarization as a phenomenon where individuals become more extreme in their partisanship or ideology, yet the graphs below show how the country can become more polarized even if everyone’s political identity and views on the issues stay the same: we could hate each other more. Democrats or “extreme” Democrats, for instance, need not be more numerous for there to be more hostility toward Republicans. Partisans of the same stripe can express more animosity without being greater in number. And apparently they do.

The trend also speaks to one concern raised by polarization skeptics. Where wider schisms in attitudes toward individual people (e.g. approval of Presidents Bush and Obama) have been referenced as evidence of polarization, Fiorina and colleagues rejoin that what looks like polarization could really come from more extreme choices, rather than shifts in voters’ underlying character. (As Fiorina and Abrams write, “If President Bush had never invaded Iraq, we daresay that his approval ratings would look different [better] today even if Americans’ attitudes on the issues had not changed in the slightest.”) But because the affective polarization trend focuses on attitudes about groups, rather than an individual, and because it highlights a trend that has unfolded at a more or less steady pace for thirty years, it seems to capture something larger than the behavior of any particular person.
 
Another possibility that Fiorina (and, in a different way, Matthew Levendusky) note remains. They draw an important distinction between polarization – an increasing schism in attitudes – and “sorting.” In the past, the argument goes, there were a fair number of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Nowadays, party labels and policy positions are much more in sync. Thus, Republicans and Democrats have not become more distant. It is just that these labels better coincide with ideological cleavages that were always there.
 
I don’t think sorting explains affective polarization – at least not fully. For attitudes toward ideologies to do the heavy lifting – for Democrats’ dislike of Republicans to increase because the word “Republican” is a better proxy for “conservative” than in the past – we would expect Democrats’ feelings toward conservatives to be even more negative than their feelings toward Republicans. (Similarly, we would expect Republicans’ feelings toward liberals to be more negative than their feelings toward Democrats.)
 
But they aren’t. The figure below shows how partisans evaluate the more distant ideology (that is, how Democrats evaluate conservatives and how Republicans evaluate liberals) over time. What is noteworthy in comparing this figure to the one above is that, in recent history, the ideologies tend to “run ahead” of the parties associated with them. For instance, strong Democrats exhibit disdain for Republicans, rating them only about 25 degrees in 2008. But they were much warmer toward conservatives, placing them above the 50-degree midpoint. Similarly, strong Republicans place Democrats at the 30-degree mark, but liberals higher, at nearly 40 degrees. The evidence here suggests that Democrats hate Republicans despite feeling somewhat warmer toward their ideology, not because the Republican label predicts conservatism better now than in the past – a pattern that seems to cast partisanship as the driving force. Moreover, the trend lines are relatively flat. If affective polarization emerged because (as “sorting” hypotheses might suggest), the people who really hate conservatives are gravitating toward the “Strong Democrat” label, we would expect, for instance, strong Democrats to exhibit less warmth toward conservatives over time. But they don’t.


 
The “sorting” idea suggests that partisans like each other less because they are more ideologically distant. Is it possible that the relationship is actually reversed – that citizens have become more ideologically distant because they like the other team less? Counterintuitive though that might seem, there is a lot of evidence that partisan ties can guide thinking about policy in this way. (For one example of many, see Geoffrey L. Cohen’s article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs.”) In this perspective, increased affinity for one’s own party or dislike for the opposition could cause ideological homogeneity, rather than the other way around.
 
The idea is tentative, but leads to some interesting questions: What, if not policy opinions, undergirds affinity for one’s own party and dislike of the opposition? Have there been systemic changes that might have widened the gulf in recent years? And perhaps most constructive, how might things change? Are there ways to talk and think about politics that might lead citizens to see the opposition in a friendlier light?
 
Timothy J. Ryan is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at the University of Michigan. His dissertation investigates how public opinion influences the likelihood of political compromise.

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Polarization Means Dislike and Distrust, Not Just Policy Divergence

Earlier this year my family decided to add a dog to the household.  A lovely woman whose aging knees were a bit overmatched by the rigors of puppy-parenting was searching for a good family to adopt her dog, Riley.  As my wife, Suzanne, prepared to pick Riley up, she decided it would be best to peel the Obama bumper sticker off her car.  Without knowing anything about the dog owner’s politics, Suzanne worried that she might not want to give her beloved Riley to a Democrat because many in our dark red county perceive that Democrats are not good people. 
 
Recent survey results suggest Suzanne might have been right to peel the sticker off before picking up the dog.  The American National Election Study has been asking people since the 1970s to place different groups on what they call feeling thermometers.  People can rate groups they like as high as 100 degrees and groups they do not like as low as 0 degrees.  As the graph below shows, Democrats’ feelings about Republicans and Republicans’ feelings about Democrats have grown much more negative of late.  During the Reagan years, the average score that a Republican rated the Democratic party was 45 degrees, and the average score that a Democrat rated the Republican party was 44 degrees.  In the Bush II years, those average scores had plummeted to near freezing temperatures, 36 and 33 degrees.  To put those scores in perspective, the average score that all Americans gave to “illegal immigrants” – no one’s favorite group – during this period was 40 degrees, significantly warmer than partisans’ ratings of the opposite party.
 

 
When scholars talk about polarization, policy disagreements have received most of the attention.  As evidence of polarization, they are looking for a picture of opinion in the electorate that looks like the picture below.  It would require the distribution of opinions to be what social scientists call “bimodal” (two humps) with most opinions clustering toward the extremes and very little overlap.
 

 
That kind of analysis is a rigged game.  Since a high percentage of Americans don't care about politics, responses to policy items will inevitably cluster toward the middle, reflecting the public’s lack of understanding.   Moreover, even well informed partisans do not want to think about themselves as ideologically extreme.  Rather it is those on the other side who, in their minds, are extreme.  Hence analysis of policy preferences will continue to produce significant overlap and muted differences between the parties.  To be sure, there is somewhat more distance and less overlap between partisans today than a few decades ago, but separation remains very far from complete
 
But let’s step back and think about exactly what polarization is, and why we should care about it.  At the heart of polarization is when people believe that those on the other side are bad people with dangerous ideas.  When people believe that, compromise is impossible.  You don't make compromises with the devil.  You don't look for common ground.  Instead you do whatever is necessary to minimize the danger that the other side presents.  That means all political measures are in play.  Partisans, both elites and masses, can shade the truth or change the rules without feeling too badly.  Argument quality ceases to matter.  In a polarized system, anything required to stop the other side can be justified.  Such feelings won’t show up in an analysis of policy preferences.
 
Whatever form of public opinion we choose to examine instead of policy preferences should capture these characteristics and be relatively easy for political experts and non-experts alike to make sense of.  How much people trust the government has potential.  People do not have to be experts to know how much they trust something.  Most people have a lot of experience with forming judgments of trustworthiness of others in their everyday lives.  Trust in government is just an extension of a familiar task.  Moreover, scholars have shown that political trust is a very meaningful attitude, strongly linked to how much people want the government to do at any given point in time.  This is especially true when a government policy requires people to make a sacrifice.  For people to make sacrifices for others, they have to trust the institutions that will carry out the policies to treat them fairly.
 
In 2010, I included a trust in government question on a survey.  It asked “how much of the time do you trust the government to do what is right:  just about always, most of the time, some of the time, or never.”  In the graph below, I have broken down the distribution of responses by party.  By the traditional definition of polarization (bimodal distribution with peaks toward the poles), we see far too much overlap to suggest polarization.  Indeed, 58 percent of Democrats say they trust the government only “some of the time”.  From the traditional perspective, then, the story would be over.  No polarization. 
 

 
But, wait a minute.  When we consider what polarization really means, might it not be significant that fully 52 percent of Republicans say they never trust the government in Washington to do what is right?  And a mere 2 percent say they trust government even “most of the time”.  Has there ever been a time in the history of polling when this has been the case?  (The answer is not even remotely so). This is evidence of polarization of the sort I described above.  It says that one side is completely unwilling to even consider engaging the other side’s ideas.  People do not make compromises with those whom they find completely untrustworthy.
 
One could object to my interpretation of these results by suggesting that they merely reflect the GOP’s long standing antipathy toward government.  Except that isn’t true.  In the graph below, I break down the amount of trust in government by party and presidential administration going back to Lyndon Johnson’s presidency when the trust question started to be asked regularly by the American National Election Study.  It shows that Republicans have often trusted the government to do what is right quite a lot.  Indeed Republicans have consistently expressed more trust than Democrats when Republicans have occupied the White House.  In fact, during George W. Bush’s presidency, when the GOP also mostly enjoyed majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans in the electorate trusted the government more than any time since the 1960s when pretty much everyone trusted the government.  Republicans in the Bush years trusted the government more than they did during the Reagan years.
 

 
What is perhaps most striking about this graph is just how wide the Republicans’ swings are, especially lately.  Since trust collapsed after Vietnam and Watergate, Democrats’ average trust scores have fluctuated within a relatively narrow 10 percentage point band between 30 and 40 percent.  For Republicans, that band is nearly five times as wide.  In fact, trust in government among Republicans dropped an incredible 50 percentage points between the Bush II years, when their party controlled government, to the first two years of the Obama administration, with Democrats firmly in control.   
 
Also remarkable is how much the gap has grown between Republicans’ and Democrats’ trust in government at given points in time.  Of course, there has always been a tendency for people to trust government more when their side has been  in office, but the differences have generally not been that large.  The average party difference during the first six presidencies in the time series was about 9 percentage points.  That party difference nearly doubled to 17.75 points in the George W. Bush years, and then tripled to 28 points during Obama’s first term.  Something fundamental has changed.  Never big fans of being governed by Democrats, Republicans are now completely rejecting the notion.
 
Why is this important for the debate about polarization?  These data may help explain why the federal government all but ground to a halt in 2010.  Gridlock does not require Republicans and Democrats to disagree fundamentally about specific policies.  Indeed, in his recent New Yorker piece, Ezra Klein ably notes just how many policies Democrats pursued in Obama’s first term (e.g. individual health care mandate, cap and trade) that were very recently Republican ideas.  Furthermore Ronald Reagan himself was something of a Keynesian in his approach to reviving a flagging economy in the early 1980s, and George W. Bush had no fear of deficit spending either.  More important than specific policy disagreements is how one side regards the other.  Do they dislike them?  Do they distrust them?
 
The design of American political institutions requires compromise.  Compromise requires both sides to make sacrifices.  That is, for public consensus to emerge and to motivate policy change, a sizable number of conservatives or liberals must be willing to sacrifice their general ideological principles to allow their ideological opponents leeway to pursue their policy goals.  Those who trust government more are most willing to make such sacrifices.  With next to no Republicans willing to make such sacrifices these days, it makes the country far more difficult to govern. .  That captures the essence of polarization and helps us understand why Washington is so dysfunctional today.

- Marc Hetherington, Vanderbilt University

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