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.