Posts Tagged ‘polarization’

Explaining Trump Some More

It’s over a year now, but academics, journalists, and political junkies still cannot get their fill–nor can I–of addressing the question, Why Trump? The obsession is understandable. Aside from the clear and present dangers his administration poses to the nation, there is the compelling puzzle of how so many Americans could vote for a man who…. well, whose own leading appointees call him an “idiot” and a “f**king moron.” As I wrote before, the social science question is not why he won. Trump’s electoral college victory can be blamed on many small incidentals (and, perhaps most deeply, on the Founding Fathers’ suspicion of popular democracy). The big question is why Trump did so much better than other also out-of-the-mainstream but less outlandish candidates like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ross Perot.

vote here


Discussion has largely focused on whether Trump’s special appeal to white working class (WWC) voters which helped him win the Republican nomination and then key swing states arose more from those voters’ economic anxieties or more from their cultural anxieties. Journalist German Lopez’s recent review in Vox of several studies leads him to conclude that “the evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked.” That “Trump! Trump! Trump!” has become a racial taunt underlines Lopez’s claim.

In response to such assertions, conservative columnist Ross Douthat reasonably responded that both motivations mattered and that economic concerns should not be dismissed as an important source of Trump’s appeal. Liberal columnist Kevin Drum responded that Trump’s racist support was no different than that of past GOP candidates and, anyway, it’s all besides the point, because his election is former FBI Director Comey’s fault. Neither Douthat’s nor Drum’s responses is compelling–nor is it compelling to reduce Trumps’ supporters to racists. Better understanding of the Trump phenomenon is both intellectually interesting and potentially important. So, I return to the topic of a post about a year old, “Explaining Trump,” only this time with much new data and debate to integrate.

As before, distinctions must be made, even after setting aside the question of why Trump won the electoral college. We must separately address the question of who became key Trump enthusiasts from the question of why he managed to get 46 percent of final vote (while Goldwater in ‘64 got only 38 percent, Wallace in ‘68 14 percent, and Perot in ‘92 19 percent).



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A deep, ideological component in the furious debate over “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)–as it was in the furious 2009-10 debates over the ACA’s passage, the 1993-94 failed Clinton health care plan, Johnson’s 1965 Medicare and Medicaid initiatives, and still earlier–is the opposition of two world views about health care.

On one side, health care is a right, just like equal protection of the law, free speech, and childhood education; it therefore must be in some fashion provided by government. (This is, for example, Bernie Sanders’ position.) On the other side, health care is a commodity individuals can choose to buy, just like clothes, housing, or iPhones, and therefore not a responsibility of government. (For two recent defenses of this position, see Shapiro and, more nuanced, Ponnuru.) The realpolitic of the current debate, of course, involves taxes, spending, vested interests, political promises, and a lot more than philosophy. But philosophical division is entwined in the long history of health care controversies.

FSA doc

Physician working with the Farm Security Administration, Missouri, 1939. (Source.)

Most Americans, like most citizens of western countries, say that “providing health care for the sick” should be “the government’s responsibility,” but Americans are less unified and insistent on that than are other westerners.[1] And we have the weakest public system of health care for the non-elderly in the West. That may be why Americans are much more likely than citizens of other affluent nations to report having in the previous year gone without medical treatment that they needed.[2]

Americans have generally leaned toward the “human right” position on health care–if not in those exact words–but in recent years party polarization has increasingly colored the recurrent debates. So has generational politics.


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More (on) Polarization

A recent New Yorker cartoon: A TV anchorman with two figures standing behind him, each in front of a wall map: “That was Brad with the Democratic weather. Now here’s Tammy with the Republican weather.”

At Trump Rally (source)

At Trump Rally (source)

It seems that political disputes have gotten almost that bad (and, of course, we are reminded of the arguments over climate change). I recently claimed that the key reason that Donald Trump, a woefully unfit candidate, received 46 percent of the popular vote (while in 1964 Barry Goldwater, an ideological outlier but a personally respected senator, received only 38.5% of the vote) is the polarization of recent decades. About nine of ten Republicans ended up voting for their party, whatever they felt about its standard-bearer.

Recent studies on polarization underline the surging emotional hostility between party partisans, those who care about politics. (Let us remember the 40 to 45 percent of eligible Americans who do not care enough to vote even in presidential elections are not engaged in this divisiveness.) And while it would seem that Republicans and Democrats live in alternative worlds with “alternative facts,” if not alternative weather, increasingly their differences are less about reality than about identity and the values and the emotions tied to those identities.


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Back about a decade or two, as polarization widened among America’s politicians and political activists, most analysts concluded from the initial flurry of research that the general public seemed exempt. Officeholders and activists were taking more extreme positions on hot-button issues like immigration and welfare, but Americans in general seemed to be largely in the middle and not that exercised. (That’s what I reported in this 2010 post.)

Well, there are new developments. For one, Americans started to express greater loyalty to their own party and greater hostility to the other party (see this 2012 post). And increasingly they seem to recast their social views, even their religious identifications, to line up with their political positions (see this 2013 post and this one).

A just-published study (pdf) by sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza adds to the evidence that polarization in the general public is increasing. It also has an interesting message about whether and how reality – in this case, the economic crash in late 2008 – affects Americans’ views on government policy. If the Great Depression brought support for the New Deal, should not the Great Recession bring support for a Newer Deal?

Below, I summarize Brooks and Manza’s findings about changes up through 2010 in Americans’ support for government action. And then I look at the changes after 2010, a look that complicates the story.


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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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