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20200105 – Polarization


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The main idea of this book is to review recent sociological research on American political conditions and present massive prove that it is now in the state of deep polarization between traditional parties of Democrats and Republicans. Author provides statistics on polarization between various part of society: elite, including media, partisans of both parties, and general population. Author aims to convince that at least part of the cause for this is regional realignment between North, South, and West, but also wealthy ideological donors, a bit of gerrymandering, and a lot of Divergence and Sorting of population.


  1. Introduction

Here author briefly characterizes what is current polarization of American politics and discusses what he intends to presents in each chapter of this book.

  1. What Is Political Polarization?

What is the difference between partisanship and polarization? What Is the difference between mass and elite polarization? What is partisan sorting and is it different from polarization? What is belief constraint and ideological consistency; Who is polarized—the public or the politicians? Why is polarization bad? What have we learned?

In this chapter author defines polarization “as the increasing support for extreme political views relative to the support for centrist or moderate views. He contrasts it with partisanship which “is reflected as a strong bias in favor of one’s party and strong dislike or prejudice against other parties” and argues that this distinction in “how we understand and evaluate the performance of our political system.”
Author provides very clear graphic representation of polarized vs. centrist situation:

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  1. Are Partisan Elites Polarized?

How do we measure elite polarization! Why do you assume legislative voting occurs only on the liberal-conservative Are there other sources of data for measuring congressional polarization? Do roll-call ideal points really reflect congressional ideology! What issues divide Congress the most? Are both parties responsible for polarizations; Are state legislatures polarized? Are the courts polarized? And the media? What have we learned?

Here author discusses polarization of elites and how it could be measured. Mainly the measurement is based on votes and how many of them went in synch or out of synch with one’s party. Here is the graph demonstrating that we moved into highest polarized period since the New Deal:

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  1. Is the Public Polarized?

How is it even plausible that the public is not polarized? Is the public moderate? What is the evidence in favor of increased voter sorting? Why does it matter whether voters are sorted but not polarized? Is sorting a good thing or a bad thing? What issues are the public is sorted on? Is it the economy, stupid? Does polarization reflect a “culture war? What is affective polarization? What have we learned?

In this chapter author moves from elite to regular people:” Here we will see that the evidence is more mixed. It is true that there is much more disagreement on policy issues between voters who identify with the Democratic Party and those who identify with the Republican Party. But how to interpret that fact is open to considerable disagreement. Many scholars argue that it is indeed evidence that voters have polarized in the sense of adopting more extreme views. But other scholars are equally insistent that it reflects the fact that voters are simply better sorted into parties so that most conservative voters are now Republican and most liberal voters are now Democratic—something that was far from true in earlier eras.”

Here author offers some conclusions:

  • The first is that the partisan polarization or sorting of voters occurred considerably later than the polarization of the political elites and activists. This suggests that the polarization we observe from the elites is probably not a simple reaction to changes among the electorate. Indeed it is more plausible that the positions and partisanship of the voters are a reaction to the polarization of elected officials and other elite actors.
  • Second, despite the widely held belief that voters are polarized along a set of hot button social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, political scientists have routinely found that positions on economic and social welfare issues better predict the partisanship of voters. There are sharp disagreements, however, to the extent to which preferences on social welfare issues are in turn derived from differences in racial attitudes.

At the end of chapter author discusses how political views become part of people’s identity and what he calls “affective polarization”

  • Finally, I discuss the related concept of affective polarization that focuses on the increased salience of partisanship as a social identity. As a consequence of heightened party identification, citizens now show considerably more animus to supporters of the other party. I discuss the roles of ideological and policy polarization as well as the partisan sorting on other social identities in the rise of affective polarization.
  1. What Are the Causes of Polarization?

Why was polarization so low from the 1930s to the 1960s? Senate? Can the polarization of the late nineteenth century be compared to what we see today? What is the Southern Realignment and why did it happen! Why did southern whites move to the GOP? Why is congressional voting on racial issues no longer distinctive? Does economic inequality cause polarization? Do party leaders engineer polarization? Is the rising competition for congressional majorities to blame? Why don’t more moderates run for Congress? Is the media responsible for polarization! What about the emergence of the Internet and social media? Is the United States unique? What have we learned?

Here author moves to causes of polarization. He point out regional realignment when Democrats lost their Southern base. Author also “consider large-scale economic and social change as explanations as well as important developments in the media environment, including cable television, the Internet, and social media.”  Author also links it to the growth of inequality:

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The final point he makes here is that leadership of both parties push for polarization to enhance their position inside the party, while media actively promotes it because without polarization there is no story to tell. 

  1. How Does Electoral Law Affect Legislative Polarization?

How much does polarization reflect geographic sorting? Does gerrymandering cause polarization? Isn’t it possible that the effects of gerrymandering on the House carried over to the Senate? But isn’t gerrymandering responsible for a decline in electoral competitiveness? Are there other ways in which redistricting can impact polarization? Do partisan primaries cause polarization? Hasn’t California’s “Top-Two” system reduced polarization there? What role does campaign finance play in polarization? Would stronger parties reduce polarization? Would a different electoral system reduce polarization? What have we learned?

Here author analyses and then rejects the idea of institutional prompting of polarization despite changes in some features such as partisan primaries and gerrymandering. He suggests that it is rather wealthy ideological donors who push polarization up. He rather blames polarization on sorting and divergence – the situation presented in the graph below:

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  1. What Are the Consequences of Polarization for Public Policy and Governance?

Why does polarization impact congressional policymaking capacity? How do legislative parties turn polarization into gridlock? What about the filibuster and the presidential veto? Does polarization make Congress less productive? How has polarization affected the executive branch and the bureaucracy? Has the American judiciary and legal system changed as a result of polarization? How has polarization affected the balance of power between the national and state governments? Has polarization affected policymaking in the states? Has polarization increased the political power of the wealthy relative to others? Does polarization have a conservative bias? What have we learned?

Here author discusses “the impact of polarization on policy outcomes and governance. The focus is on how polarization has affected the level and quality of policymaking in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. “ Author believes that the problem is in Congress’ failure to legislate due to polarization which prevents its members from creating effective majorities. Author expresses hope that courts and presidents could pick up the slack, but he is afraid that it could benefit conservatives.

  1. Is the Trump Presidency a New Normal or More of the Same?

As any other person of seemingly liberal persuasion, author cannot avoid the Donald. Author notes that while Trump ran as populist, probably closer to traditional democratic politics than to GOP, he rules as pretty orthodox conservative. Author discusses Trump’s achievements in populating Supreme Court with 2 constitutionalists in mold of Federalist Society, which author seems to be unhappy about. While giving Trump some credit for legislative and judicial achievements, author expresses fear that Trumps popularity could lead to authoritarian change of type implemented by Hugo Chavez and Erdogan. He also concerned that Trump strong support of working class would be somehow detrimental to non-white people. As it is usual for currently popular among western elites racist / leftist stereotype of dividing people by race and inability to see that Trump success in creating jobs and improving economy is beneficial to all working class with non-whites probably benefiting even more than whites. At the end author expresses hope that “ The press, the civil service, the states, and the judiciary continue to place formidable checks on the president’s power. While the president’s co-partisans in Congress should have challenged him more publicly and investigated his administration more thoroughly, they declined to move on some of his legislative priorities, opened independent investigations into his campaign, and refused to provide him cover should he have decided to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Yet cloth can tatter only so long before it rips. The preservation of liberal democracy in the United States will eventually require overcoming our deep divisions in order to rekindle our faith in the virtues of compromise.“


This book is fine as a source of political statistics packed in a bunch of nice diagrams. However it does not look deeply into ideological causes of polarization, which in my opinion strongly linked to change not that much in ethnic mix of population as change in types and availability of jobs and correspondingly decent quality of life. This quality, while improving technologically and materially, greatly deteriorated psychologically due to elite moving manufacturing jobs out of country to China and other places where labor is cheap and environmental and other American regulations are non-existent. Combined with massive immigration of low skill illegal immigrants and, as well educated and much cheaper than Americans, legal immigrants from developing world, it squeezed middle and working class. The elite prospered, while many others suffered. It’s no wonder that these others start looking for a champion who would be fully on their side. After failing to find it either with Bushes or Clintons / Obamas, they practically dropped both parties and found the champion in Donald Trump, who with their help defeated elite of both parties, eventually remaking GOP to fit his vision. I think that idea that this Jeannie once out of bottle could be put back in is completely insensible and could lead to Jeannie being very upset and even violent against elite. It would be much better to negotiate way to restoration of psychological well-being of Americans of lower classes by all means necessary even if it includes limitation of immigration, regulatory enthusiasm, racist politics, and other things dear to American elite.


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