Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Difference Between Polarization and Party Sorting...

Discussions of contemporary American politics tend to center around the issue of polarization and the notion that Americans are deeply divided over a host of issues. This deep division is driving our elected officials to eschew cooperation and compromise. There is a robust debate among political scientist regarding the true nature of polarization in American.  An ongoing series by the Monkey Cage blog is exploring the issue of polarization and providing an avenue for very diverse and often contradictory perspectives.

One of the areas of disagreement concerns the depth of polarization in America. On one side of the argument, political scientists such as Alan Abramowitz contend that the mass electorate is deeply polarized and the deep polarization evident in Congress and many state legislatures is reflective of voter preferences. On the other side of the argument, political scientists like Morris Fiorina argue polarization is largely an elite-driven phenomenon. Fiorina contends the American public is no more polarized today than it was four decades ago. Rather, political elites - those most active in politics - have redefined the priorities of the two political parties such that they now endorse diametrically opposed agendas on a host of policy questions. Given the stark contrast between the two parties, Americans have sorted more neatly among the opposing camps. The Democratic party was once home to many conservative voters and the Republican party included more moderate and liberal voters among its coalition. As political activists took the Democratic party to the left and the Republican party to the right, liberal, moderate, and conservative voters reacted by sorting into the party that most closely matched their preferences.

So how is this not polarization? First, consider the arguments offered by Abramowitz. He argues that the distance between Democrats and Republicans on key policy questions are evidence of a polarized public.  I'll use the example of attitudes regarding abortion to illustrate his argument. The following graph compares the attitudes of self identified Democrats and Republicans regarding the legality of abortion in 1980 and in 2008. The blue bar represents a liberal attitude (legal in all cases), the green bar a conservative attitude (illegal in all cases), and the red bar is a moderate position (legal in some cases).The data for 1980 reveal something interesting - 34 years ago, there was precious little difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding abortion. Roughly equal portions of each party opposed or supported abortion rights.

Figure One

But by 2008, we see a more familiar distribution of opinions. Democrats are now clearly the party of abortion rights and Republicans the party of abortion restriction. Members of the two parties are polarized on the issue of abortion - so clearly we would expect our elected officials to mirror this mass polarization and refuse to compromise on abortion.

But does the abortion question actually reveal a polarized electorate? Does it truly demonstrate polarization at the mass level rather than the elite level? Consider Figure Two. In Figure Two I am presenting the same data presented in Figure One, except for a single difference, instead of dividing the public into Democrats and Republicans I considered them collectively. What a difference that choice makes - and the difference is the difference between polarization and party sorting. The data in Figure Two make one thing very clear, the electorate is no more polarized today on the issue of abortion than it was in 1980.

Figure Two

So how do we explain the polarization between identified Democrats and Republicans, given little has changed among the two groups when considered collectively? We explain it by looking to the actions taken by political elites.

In 1972, abortion rights advocates pushed to have a plank added to the Democratic Party Platform defending the legality of abortion. The push failed. In 1976, party activists were able to insert the first supportive abortion language into the platform, but it was a mild statement: "We fully recognize the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion. We feel, however, that it is undesirable to attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decision in this area."  In 1980, activists were able to expand the statement of support a bit more: "We fully recognize the religious and ethical concerns which many Americans have about abortion. We also recognize the belief of many Americans that a woman has a right to choose whether and when to have a child. The Democratic Party supports the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion rights as the law of the land and opposes any constitutional amendment to restrict or overturn that decision." Again, hardly a polarizing stance. Over time, the language became more bold, 1988: that the fundamental right of reproductive choice should be guaranteed regardless of ability to pay... 2008: The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.

Changes were taken place in the Republican platform as well. The party's 1976 platform barely mentioned abortion other than endorsing "a position on abortion that values human life." In 1980, Republican activist make a more clear statement, while also recognizing differences of opinion: "While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children. We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers' dollars for abortion." By 2008, there could be no doubt regarding the Republican party's position on abortion: "We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it... We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life. We have made progress. The Supreme Court has upheld prohibitions against the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion. States are now permitted to extend health-care coverage to children before birth. And the Born Alive Infants Protection Act has become law; this law ensures that infants who are born alive during an abortion receive all treatment and care that is provided to all newborn infants and are not neglected and left to die. We must protect girls from exploitation and statutory rape through a parental notification requirement. We all have a moral obligation to assist, not to penalize, women struggling with the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy. At its core, abortion is a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life. Women deserve better than abortion. Every effort should be made to work with women considering abortion to enable and empower them to choose life."

Over the course of three decades, party activist worked to define a Democratic and Republican party position regarding abortion that suited their preferences. These activists represent a decidedly small segment of the population, but exert tremendous influence over the direction of each party. As the differences between the two parties regarding abortion became ever more clear, voters responded by more neatly sorting into the two camps. The electorate is no more divided on the issue of abortion today than it was 30 years ago - but the two political parties are much more divided and that division defines contemporary politics and discourse.

Over the past several decades, liberal and conservative activists have worked to redefine the political parties in their ideological images. On a host of issue ranging from health care, taxation, welfare spending, abortion, and same sex marriage the parties are increasingly defined by their stark contrasts with one another. But this stark contrast is an elite and activist driven process, one that the electorate must then adapt to and contend with.

Without question, the resultant party sorting contributes to the polarization process by reinforcing the Us v. Them nature of contemporary party politics. But if elites and activists were to stop promoting division, if they were to stop creating a zero sum political game, then the electorate would no longer be compelled to choose a side. There's a reason why the party coalitions of 2008 represented in Figure One are no longer able to forge the compromises that their counterparts did in 1980 - and the reason is elite driven.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Should an 88 Year Old Man Lose His Home Over a $720 Sewer Bill? I Say No (and with your help, so might the General Assembly).

Update: Members of the St. Mary's County delegation to the General Assembly will be meeting to discuss legislative changes to MetCom's tax lien authority.  Please keep making calls and sending emails!

Original Post
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, an 88 year old man in St. Mary's County, named Combs Toney, was faced with the possible loss of the home he had lived in since the age of 5. Mr. Toney's home was never connected to our public water and sewer operated by a quasi-governmental utility - MetCom. Even though Mr. Toney was never connected to the public water/sewer and had his own well and an inspected and properly functioning septic tank, but because of his proximity to the public lines he was required to pay for monthly service. Mr. Toney paid his "bill" for many years. But his retirement income became tight after his wife became ill and required in-home dialysis (which she still receives). Something had to give, so Mr. Toney decided that he would no longer pay MetCom for a service he didn't receive. But MetCom has a power that few other utilities have - MetCom has the power to impose a tax lien on someones home for lack of payment. As Mr. Toney's bills accrued, MetCom imposed the tax lien and was taking his house to public auction. The sum total of his overdue bills? $719. MetCom refused to consider Mr. Toney's circumstances and argued they were required by law to impose the lien. He was 88 and facing the loss of his home, a home where his wife was receiving dialysis. Mr. Toney's bill has since been paid, but only through January 31st. At which time his bills will once again accrue and a tax sale threat could return.

I am asking people to take action and prevent this from happening to others. I need people to contact the Democratic members of the General Assembly from St. Mary's County and urge them to introduce legislation that would restrict or eliminate MetCom's power to impose tax liens. They should rely on the same bill collection practices of other utilities such as electric or phone.  If you are so inclined, would you consider contacting Del. John Bohanan, 1-800-492-7122, ext. 3227,,  or Johnny Wood, 1-800-492-7122, ext. 3170,, or Senator Roy Dyson, 1-800-492-7122, ext. 3673,, and ask them to introduce a bill that would restrict or eliminate MetCom’s power to impose tax liens? Otherwise this will happen again, either to Mr. Toney or to someone else.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Maryland Needs to Embrace the Natural Gas Economy

Those who think we are on the cusp of a green energy revolution should read the latest issue of Scientific American. Professor Vaclav Smir, in an article titled "The Slow Rise of Solar and Wind, notes that all global energy transitions have taken 50-60 years, with the pace slowing, not increasing over time. He estimates we are 50-75 years away from renewable sources achieving a meaningful market share of energy production - especially in a world with roughly $20 trillion invested in infrastructure to support the fossil fuel system. He found that since 1980, the best return on federal investment has come not from renewables but from work on horizontal drilling and fracking shale deposits.

We cannot spend the next 3 generations burning ever more coal, it is a dirty and dangerous fuel source and a major contributor to global CO2 increases. People need to see natural gas for the crucial and beneficial stopgap that it is. Our nation's steady transition to natural gas in recent years resulted in U.S. CO2 emissions falling to their lowest levels in 20 years

The more we replace coal with gas, the better off we are. In MD, the Western part of the state sits atop one of the largest known shale gas deposits - the Marcellus Shale. But while other states are busy extracting gas from the shale beneath their states, Maryland dithers. Many want to ban hydraulic fracking in the state - convinced that a green energy revolution is right around the corner. What they're really doing is perpetuating the use of coal. We need to stop playing politics with the Western MD shale deposits and start extracting the natural gas.

And then we need to allow a new liquefied natural gas export facility in Sourthern MD at Cove Point (quite literally my back yard) so that we can export our natural gas to nations that might otherwise be burning coal. In the last decade, China has invested $500 million in New coal fired power plants to produce 300 gigawatts of new energy. According to Smil, that's more than the combined fossil fuel generating capacity of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK! There can be no question but that natural gas is the better and the greener alternative. But for a country to rely on gas instead of coal, gas must be available and the supply reliable. We can make that happen. So why is Maryland standing in the way?