Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is US Politics Really More Partisan Than Ever?

. Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Matt Yglesias writes: 

Historically, the United States has been dominated by an ideology of non-partisanship driven by precisely the suspicion that the interests of a party or faction are not those of the country. And for most of America’s history, when parties were largely non-ideological, this made a ton of sense. A non-ideological party, after all, is basically just an interlocking web of patronage networks and party machines. If a Democrat is in the White House, then Tammany Hall gets to reward its supporters by handing out federal jobs in New York City. The machine couldn’t care less what the president thinks about “the issues” (unless the issue is civil service reform) it just wants a president who recognizes his affiliation with the machine.

Karl Smith agrees, and is working on spinning this line of thinking into a broader argument about republican democracy's role in the future of governance.

But I think this is completely wrong. This isn't my area of expertise -- I've tried to enlist one of my grad student colleagues for a guest-post, but he's busy so that can't happen until next week -- but my understanding of the relevant political science literature is that there is a sweet spot during which American politics is less-partisan*. That sweet spot was immediately following WWII, basically the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Before that the parties were divided by the New Deal and intervention/isolationism in Europe. After that the parties were divided by race and social reform. The current party alignment isn't much different from the early 1970s, when the religious right aligned with the GOP, southern Democrats switched to the GOP, and liberal northern Republicans switched to the Democratic party.

But more fundamentally it's just really hard for me to buy an argument that rests on the assumption that the current political environment is more nasty or divisive than it's ever been. Given the history of political competition and instability in this country -- literally from its moment of inception -- today's political environment doesn't seem out of the norm. In fact, things might be more civil now than at most points in US history.

In any case, US politics has always been about competing interests. Whether those are transformed into ideology more or less now than before is thus not all that interesting of a question to me. It's asking about the window-dressing, not the structure of the building.

*I'm not sure partisanship is the best proxy for "ideological parties", but I think that's what Yglesias and Smith are really driving at anyway.

UPDATE: Michael Flynn has a great post (better than mine) looking at the same dynamics I'm concerned with but focusing on foreign policy. And as Phil Arena points out in comments here, Brendan Nyhan (and others) have covered this ground much better than I can. Here's one good example.


Phil Arena said...

Brendan Nyhan has had a bunch of good posts on this, making the same argument you sketched out.

Is US Politics Really More Partisan Than Ever?




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