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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Dems Leverage Political Polarization?

From “America Has Split, and It’s Now in ‘Very Dangerous Territory’” by New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall:

In “The Ideological Nationalization of Partisan Subconstituencies in the American States,” Devin Caughey, James Dunham and Christopher Warshaw challenge “the reigning consensus that polarization in Congress has proceeded much more rapidly and extensively than polarization in the mass public.”

Instead, Caughey and his co-authors show

a surprisingly close correspondence between mass and elite trends. Specifically, we find that: (1) ideological divergence between Democrats and Republicans has widened dramatically within each domain, just as it has in Congress; (2) ideological variation across senators’ partisan subconstituencies is now explained almost completely by party rather than state, closely tracking trends in the Senate; and (3) economic, racial and social liberalism have become highly correlated across partisan subconstituencies, just as they have across members of Congress.

Caughey, Dunham and Warshaw describe the growing partisan salience of racial and social issues since the 1950s:

The explanatory power of party on racial issues increased hugely over this period and that of state correspondingly declined. We refer to this process as the “ideological nationalization” of partisan subconstituencies.

In the late 1950s, they continue,

party explained almost no variance in racial conservatism in either arena. Over the next half century, the Senate and public time series rise in tandem.” Contrary to the claim that racial realignment had run its course by 1980, they add, “our data indicate that differences between the parties continued to widen through the end of the 20th century, in the Senate as well as in the mass public. By the 2000s, party explained about 80 percent of the variance in senators’ racial conservatism and nearly 100 percent of the variance in the mass public.

The three authors argue that there are a number of consequences of “the ideological nationalization of the United States party system.” For one, “it has limited the two parties’ abilities to tailor their positions to local conditions. Moreover, it has led to greater geographic concentration of the parties’ respective support coalitions.”

The result, they note,

is the growing percentage of states with two senators from the same party, which increased from 50 percent in 1980 to over 70 percent in 2018. Today, across all offices, conservative states are largely dominated by Republicans, whereas the opposite is true of liberal states. The ideological nationalization of the party system thus seems to have undermined party competition at the state level.

As a result of these trends, Warshaw wrote me in an email,

It’s going to be very difficult to reverse the growing partisan polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the mass public. I think this will continue to give ideological extremists an advantage in both parties’ primaries. It also means that the pool of people that run for office is increasingly extreme.

In the long term, Warshaw continued,

there are a host of worrying possible consequences of growing partisan polarization among both elites and the public. It will probably reduce partisans’ willingness to vote for the out-party. This could dampen voters’ willingness to hold candidates accountable for poor performance and to vote across party lines to select higher-quality candidates. This will probably further increase the importance of primaries as a mechanism for candidate selection.

Looking over the contemporary political landscape, there appear to be no major or effective movements to counter polarization. As the McCoy-Press report shows, only 16 of the 52 countries that reached levels of pernicious polarization succeeded in achieving depolarization and in “a significant number of instances later repolarized to pernicious levels. The progress toward depolarization in seven of 16 episodes was later undone.”

As Edsall concludes, “That does not suggest a favorable prognosis for the United States.”

As polarization hardens, so does party self-identification. Yet recent elections indicate that there is a substantial number of persuadable and swing voters the Democrats can win under favorable conditions, such as the ‘Trump fatigue’ we saw in the 2020 election and the 2021 run-off election in Georgia. But Trump fatigue won’t help much in the midterm elections this year. The challenge for Dems now is to identify and focus on persuadable and swing voters and connect Democratic candidates with them in a positive way. It won’t be easy. But it’s not like Republicans have anything substantial to offer these voters.

There is not enough time to repair the Democratic ‘brand’ for the midterms. But, with more message discipline focusing on GOP obstruction and gridlock, it should be possible to take the Republican brand down a notch or two – and minimize midterm damage for Democrats.

One comment on “Can Dems Leverage Political Polarization?

  1. Martin Lawford on

    If Staff is correct that “There is not enough time to repair the Democratic ‘brand’ for the midterms”, then the next best thing would be to do some long term thinking, to improve the Democratic brand for 2024 and beyond. We need to convince the American voters that “Democrat” means much more than “not Republican.”


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