Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Women in Politics 1780-2014

As many Americans anticipate the likely nomination by a major party of a woman for president – the New Republic cover of July 14 calls Hillary Clinton “Inevitable” – it is worth pausing to reflect on how women’s participation in politics has changed over the course of American history. In eras before Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi, participating in politics was not only nearly impossible for women but was also considered a violation of what it meant to be a woman.

A just-published article in the Journal of the Early Republic by Emily J. Arendt illustrates the stark contrast between then and now. Arendt tells the story of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, “the first female voluntary association in the United States,” formed in 1780 to assist Continental soldiers. The domestic nature of its work and awestruck reaction observers had to activist women underlines the era’s low expectations for women’s participation in civic life. Those low expectations lasted – despite the notoriety of early feminists – well into the twentieth century, making the last half-century a sharp historical departure for women in politics.


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Political power in America has dispersed and democratized over the last 200-plus years. Where once only white men could vote and hold office, and in some states, only property-holding Christian ones at that, now just about every citizen 18 years or older can. Although actual political power is not and has never been shared in any way close to this ideal model, it is shared more than in the days of planter and merchant domination. Democracy’s expansion, however, was not ceaseless; there have been periods of shrinkage – notably the decades around 1900. We appear to be living through another retreat. Money plays a key role in both episodes, though differently now than it did before.


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Extremely Local

So many people seem to be into being “local” these days. We are urged to shop locally, to eat locally, to act locally (even if we still think globally). This is a new enthusiasm of the left. The ideological right has always tilted local — opposed to the “cosmopolitan.” Americans have generally focused on the local anyway. Just pick up almost any newspaper (aside from that two or three that have tried to be national papers) and see what grabs the headlines.

American political ideas have long reinforced what some might consider people’s “natural” attention to the local community. More strikingly, American political structure reinforces this localism — with some dubious consequences.

This is the topic of my July/August 2013 column in the Boston Review here.

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Back in the day – roughly the third quarter of the 20th century – observers of American politics debated the wisdom of what seemed to be a Tweedledee-Tweedledum party system. Some thought it was pretty good. In the 1960s, political scientist Robert E. Lane hailed an emerging “politics of consensus in an age of affluence.” Government by agreement and expertise would replace divisive, ideological politics.[1] Famed political columnist James Reston explicitly endorsed Tweedledee-Tweedledum parties that disputed only the details of the emerging welfare state. He counseled Republicans that their best route to success was “not by moving to the right and exaggerating the differences” with the Democrats, but by showing that they “can administer [liberal policies] more efficiently.”[2]

Others thought the similarity in positions was terrible for democracy. Conservatives demanded A Choice, Not an Echo. Leftists bemoaned a “choice of a tweedledee as against a tweedledum” and liberals’ timidity to go to a third party. [3] In 1950, the American Political Science Association complained (pdf) that the parties’ differences were too poorly defined against one another and that they were insufficiently cohesive. Beware of what you ask for.

As is well-known, the political positions of the two parties have divided sharply since those days. This animation

[3] shows visually how members of the House separated out on a left-right dimension from roughly 1950 to 2000. Most of the shift has been due to the GOP moving right, exactly opposite to James Reston’s recommendation. Early analyses of this ideological polarization stressed that it seemed to be exclusive to politicians and the politically active, that average Americans were not drawn into this ideological fight. Recent work suggests that, while average Americans have still not gotten more ideological, they have become more tightly loyal to their parties as the parties have become more distinct. Party identification has almost become almost tribal. (See this earlier post.) Three new studies underline the power of party loyalty.


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Salt Lake Tribune

Two hot-button social issues seem to be moving to some sort of political resolution rather quickly. Their stories tell us something about the nature of attitudes Americans hold on such topics and also about the nature of American politics. One issue is gay marriage. It appears that, whether de jure or de facto, most gays will be able to marry or to “marry” relatively soon. This outcome seems to be driven in great measure by strong shifts in public opinion. According to the General Social Survey, the percentage of American adults agreeing that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry” rose from 11percent in 1988 to 49 percent in 2012, a strikingly rapid shift in public opinion.  Although young people and more liberal Americans are leading the cultural shift, this rush to accept gay couples is evident virtually across the board. (A recent Pew study shows the same.) Politicians are now tripping over one another to declare that they have “evolved” on this issue.

The other issue concerns undocumented immigrants. Most Washington observers are saying, as of this moment, that some reform is likely to come to fruition this spring. This political development, however, does not seem to be riding on a rushing wave of popular support.


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The Left’s Religion Problem


Nun, Ministers, and Rabbis March in 1965 (Source)

Churches are meddling in politics. Ministers are leading social movements, backing and attacking candidates, campaigning from the pulpit.

That was the complaint in the 1950s and ’60s, when clergy pushed for civil rights legislation, nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from Vietnam.  . .  . In 1964 conservative journalist David Lawrence pushed back: “To preach a sermon . . . calculated to have an effect on the current Presidential campaign . . . raises a question of propriety if the principle of separation of church and state is to be maintained.”

Today, however, religion is associated strongly with the right. The transformation is evident not only in headlines, but also in white Americans’ behavior.

The rest of the post appears as this column in the Boston Review.

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Saturday mail delivery may in the near future be a thing of the past. All the more surprising that Americans once had not only Saturday delivery but Sunday mail delivery as well.

1890s Post Office (USPS)

The century-long struggle that ended postal service on the Sabbath, a campaign to protect both the Lord’s Day and American workers from the ceaseless demands of commerce,  illuminates the complex political alliances and conflicts among churches, business, and organized labor in American history. Protestantism’s political alliances used to be quite different than they are today.


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The Verdict on Class and Voting

Guest post by Michael Hout*

Early in 2012, sociologist Michael Hout addressed, in a guest post on this blog, the assertion that the Republican party had become the party of the white working-class. He pointed out that, while the GOP had gained adherents across all classes in the last few decades, its supporters remained distinctively upper- rather than lower status. “You can see it in the polls; you can see it in the policies.”  With the 2012 results in, we can now see it in the votes.

Class issues stood out more in the 2012 presidential election than in previous ones, even more than in 2008. The campaigns invoked, as always, issues of all sorts, but seldom in American politics are the issues of class so prominent as they were this year.


Governor Romney’s personal wealth and how he accumulated it were issues that fellow Republicans raised during the primaries. Once Romney was the nominee, President Obama’s campaign defined Romney as a member of the “one-percent” — among the handful of Americans so rich they prosper while others struggle. A clandestine video surfaced in which Governor Romney identified 47 percent of Americans who “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Seconds later on the same video he said, “My job is not to worry about them.” The challenger’s remarks allowed the President to add “uncaring” to the charge of unfair privileges.


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Election Day is tomorrow. It’s been a tough year for the democratic ethos, what with billions of dollars of often anonymous money thrown into the campaigns. Yet, if there is one sign that, underneath it all, the heart of democracy faintly beats, it is this: pandering.

Barack Obama storms into big rallies, smiling and laughing and revving up the crowd, acting like the life of the party. You know he’d rather be squirreled up at home surfing his iPad or watching Sports Center. Mitt Romney emotes his concern for the unemployed and declares that he will save Medicare and Social Security just weeks after declaring himself a “severe conservative.”

Iowa State Fair (source)

These men are pandering. To whom are they pandering? To the voters, especially to the undecided voters, that small percentage who are usually ill-informed and uninterested.

That these looming figures – one the commander of a death-star military, the other a multimillionaire maker and breaker of company towns – must pander to the whims of 20-something dropouts and befuddled seniors tells us something. Putin does not have to do that; Ayatollah Khomeini does not; whoever succeeds to the party leadership in China will not; even the techno-politicians who become presidents of France rarely need to. But American presidents, for nearly two centuries, have served the panderocracy.


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As the heat of the presidential contest rises, we become more sensitive to the animosities between party activists: Obama is a European socialist; Romney is a greedy exploiter. It seems that Americans have become increasingly and more bitterly divided in their politics. Yet, researchers over the last decade or so have found that this impression of growing polarization is false in one way, though true in another.

On the issues, even most of the divisive ones such as abortion or the “safety net,” Americans have not, it seems, become more divided. Positions have stayed pretty constant or, at least, not gotten more vitriolic. But Americans have become more divided and more vitriolic on party politics. Republican and Democrat partisans have lined up on opposite sides of issues more consistently, ideologically,  and vehemently than was true for a few generations. (See this earlier post.) (Update: See this 2014 post and subsequent ones on The Monkey Cage blog for a summary of what political scientists know about polarization. See this 2014 Pew report on trends in polarization.)

A newly published study (abstract, paper gated) by Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar and two colleagues in Public Opinion Quarterly further clarifies this dynamic. The take-away message may be that the increase in political partisanship is perhaps better described as blood sports than as deep ideology.


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