What Are the Real Fault Lines Dividing Americans?

The idea that America is “polarized” is now so accepted and entrenched that few feel it necessary to justify the claim. Our political divisions are important, and the plethora of scholarship they have rightly attracted varies in quality. Parchment Barriers: Political Polarization and the Limits of Constitutional Order, edited by Zachary Courser, Eric Helland, and Kenneth P. Miller, is the latest addition to the genre, and one of the stronger books on the subject. However, the book’s importance hinges on whether ideological polarization really exists in the United States.

Although political polarization is not a uniquely American phenomenon, it does seem to manifest differently in the United States than in other advanced democracies. Parchment Barriers suggests that America’s constitutional design, and the nation’s unique political institutions, in some ways ameliorate polarization but in other ways increase it.

The volume’s contributors examine these subjects by institution. George Thomas begins the work with an essay on James Madison’s vision of the Constitution, discussing the original intent of checks and balances, and how they should be utilized to achieve effective government. Others take up polarization in relation to Congress, the presidency, the judiciary, the administrative state, American federalism, and political parties. The book ends with Joseph M. Bessette’s qualified defense of polarization.

Every chapter provides valuable information and insights, but I particularly recommend Benjamin Kleinerman’s essay on the presidency. Kleinerman notes that we increasingly view the President as something akin to the head of a parliamentary democracy, with a mandate to pursue legislation. The administrative state’s growth furthermore gives the President authority to make important policies without congressional approval. As a result, the presidency is not just the ultimate prize in politics, but the sole obsession of political parties. According to Kleinerman, “The logic of partisanship in relation to a prize like the presidency requires commitment without compromise.” The parties’ zeal to gain and hold the White House makes bipartisan cooperation increasingly unlikely.

As the editors note in the Introduction, the book’s contributors “agree that polarization is now a defining feature of the nation’s politics and is placing strains on our institutions and political life.” The authors discuss polarization in Madisonian terms. Madison wrote of factions forming around opposing economic preferences; agrarian interests opposed to manufacturing interests, for example. It is taken for granted in this book that opposing interests drive polarization, and that factions form around different material concerns.

This Madisonian variety of polarization exists, of course, but political polarization in the United States in the 21st century is also much more complex—and, in some ways, bizarre—than Madison or his contemporaries could have ever anticipated.

The Differences Between the Two Parties Are More Ostensible Than Real

It is a stretch to say that the American electorate is ideologically polarized. There is far more consensus in American life than we often acknowledge. For better or for worse, most Americans endorse an economic system of welfare capitalism, leaving either socialism on the one hand or libertarianism on the other as political non-starters. Few of even the self-proclaimed socialists literally want the government to seize the means of production; most just want a larger welfare state. By the same token, few supposed economic conservatives genuinely want to abolish, or even seriously reform, Medicare or Social Security.

Several of the Parchment Barriers essayists argue that the public is increasingly polarized along ideological lines. Yet there is compelling evidence that few Americans possess a coherent ideology. The authors herein who acknowledge this lack do not explore it in any detail.

There is no doubt that huge number of Americans are angry about politics. However, attitudinal polarization is not the same thing as ideological polarization. We are faced with a curious situation where Republicans and Democrats in the electorate broadly agree on many issues, yet they hate each other anyway. Partisan politics has become a form of identity politics, and all battles—even symbolic or superficial battles—induce powerful emotions on the part of party identifiers.

One can reasonably make the case that, even if the rank-and-file members of the electorate are not polarized, polarization is present among political elites. Yet even this argument should not go unchallenged.

At the presidential level, we see a lot more continuity across administrations than we would anticipate, given the polarized attitudes toward recent Presidents—again, for better or worse. For all the conservative handwringing, the policy differences between President Obama and his immediate predecessor were primarily at the margins. Obama’s foreign policy vision was substantively like that of the neoconservatives. His signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was inspired by work originated by the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), and a similar policy had previously been enacted at the state level after being signed into law by a Republican Governor (Mitt Romney) of a predominantly Democratic state (Massachusetts). The ACA might have been bad policy, but it was no more left-wing than the decision by President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress to add prescription-drug coverage to Medicare.

President Trump has likewise been less disruptive than many people feared (or hoped). If you disregard the President’s Twitter feed and his verbal jousting with the media, the Trump administration’s actual policies have been mostly consistent with what one would expect from any Republican President.

The claim that Congress is more polarized than ever is typically based on trends in party-unity scores. Kathryn Pearson’s chapter on Congress in this book relies heavily on data concerning party unity.  The data, while accurate, might not be as substantively important as many claim. DW-NOMINATE data are based solely on congressional voting patterns, and while they do show that both parties are increasingly cohesive, they tell us nothing about the actual significance of the bills being voted on. Greater party discipline does not prove that the parties have become more ideologically distant from one another.

Congressional Sound and Fury

We might also question the degree to which ideological grandstanding on the part of members of Congress signifies a true intention to implement major policies. As we learned following President Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, congressional Republicans never had an actual healthcare plan of their own.

We take it for granted that the GOP would, if it enjoyed massive majorities in Congress and control of the presidency, implement the economic policies of a conservative purist. I am not sure this is true. Public opinion polls consistently show that doctrinaire economic conservatism is not popular, and the Republican leadership surely knows this. Other than the perennial call for tax cuts, the GOP has not made a serious push for a major economic policy innovation since 2005, when President Bush’s attempt to partially privatize Social Security was a political disaster.

Congressional Republicans like to lambaste their Democratic opponents for blocking their agenda (and vice versa), but if either party were given a free hand, I question how radical either would be when it came to most policy questions. In other words, checks and balances, and their associated gridlock, give parties a convenient excuse when the few genuine ideologues in their respective bases complain that elected officials have not pushed a more ambitious agenda.

The anger in American life, though perhaps overblown by the media, surely exists. Yet America’s livid multitudes do not resemble rational, Madisonian factions. Partisan politics are founded upon tribal loyalties as well as material interests, and our most bitter political disagreements are often more symbolic than substantive.

In defending polarization, Bessette points out that Abraham Lincoln chose to polarize the nation on slavery rather than allow the possibility of a long-term compromise, and he lauds Lincoln for doing so. Bessette suggests that we today may face a similar choice between compromise and polarization, and that sometimes polarization is the moral choice. Yet this seems to exaggerate the stakes of today’s policy battles.

What Is the Discord Really About?

Although the fury many American feel about politics is real, and perhaps more palpable than any time since before the Civil War, is it really rooted in policy disputes on a par with the question of slavery? This is obviously a subjective question, but the matters that generate so much heat in American politics—rules about bathroom usage for the transgendered, for example—seem, to me at least, comparatively trivial.

As noted in this volume, long before polarization was the primary complaint about American politics, E.E. Schattschneider and other political scientists lamented the lack of clear dividing lines in American politics. What we call polarized parties, Schattschneider called “responsible parties.” The Parchment Barriers essayists suggest that Schattschneider’s goal has been attained, perhaps too well. I remain unconvinced. Do millions of American partisans genuinely despise the people in the opposing political camp? Unquestionably. Are Republicans and Democrats ideologically distant political forces, demanding radically different policy visions? I think the answer to that question is less obvious.

We are polarized, but not in the manner that earlier political theorists could have foreseen. For all his wisdom, I am not sure Madison can give us much guidance as we navigate 21st century American politics. Parchment Barriers has many virtues, and its contributors have many important insights, but it neglects some of the more curious and challenging aspects of American polarization, which limits its usefulness as a guide for possible reforms.

Reader Discussion

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on March 18, 2019 at 09:18:12 am

A couple of things.

First, is it really the proper job of the parties to just follow public opinion--in the form of opinion polls--rather than lead it? Maybe the Republicans, to take one of Hawley's examples, ought to be doing more to advocate for economically conservative policies, the way the Democrats do for progressive policies. Of course, in so doing, the media--a progressive apparatus--will accuse the Republicans of being "polarizing."

Second, Hobbes is probably a better guide to factions than Madison. In describing the various causes of political dissension, Hobbes ranks ideology ahead of economic interest. Hobbes better understood human psychology, living in a time of exceptional polarization himself.

Third, regarding Hawley's description of slavery as a policy dispute: I think Jaffa was correct to call out the fact that what really fired the Southerners was not the prospect of eventual economic decline of the slave system but the fact that they were being subjected to the relentless public disapproval of the North. I mean, even had all of the new US territories been admitted only as free states, it would have taken decades, perhaps a century, before the confinement of slavery to the existing slave states resulted in a material impact on the slaveholders' economic "interests." So that prospect, being so far off, was not likely to have been able to motivate the degree of Southern hostility necessary for them to commence war against the North. The psychic effects of relentless and immoderate disapproval--which is what our politics are all about today--are the real foundation of our polarization and why those more conventional policy scribblers who don't know how to frame any issue other than in conventional economic class/interest terms are constantly missing the mark.

Finally, as far as broad agreement among the political parties or public as to fundamental policy (i.e., economic interest) matters--the same could be said of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and Social Democrats. The issue today is one of political dominance, for its own sake. That we are all social welfarists now--which was the policy, economic interest goal of so many 19th and early 20th century socialists--means nothing. The goal is nothing, the movement is everything, said Bernstein. The economic interest understanding of politics is like phrenology; it has a certain intuitive appeal and lends itself to treatment according to a kind of scientific/rational method. But ultimately it failed as knowledge.

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on March 18, 2019 at 22:19:51 pm

Polarization - Political Parties (Rep/Dem): "...it is increasingly clear that the challenges confronting governance in the US are not a passing storm. As revealed in an eye-opening project on Governance in an Emerging World, based at the Hoover Institution and led by former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, profound long-term changes are testing all forms of government." See https://www.the-american-interest.com (Larry Diamond - perhaps the real fault lines).

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on March 22, 2019 at 12:54:30 pm

"... sometimes polarization is the moral choice. Yet this seems to exaggerate the stakes of today’s policy battles. ...matters that generate so much heat in American politics—rules about bathroom usage for the transgendered, for example—seem, to me at least, comparatively trivial."

And not a word about the American holocaust of abortion. Over 60 million dead, a depletion of population with moral, social, economic disastrous effects and not a word. Yet, this is the real fault line in American politics, the real basis of polarization.

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Steve Fitzgerald
on April 07, 2019 at 16:19:00 pm

Having read this collection myself, I can't help but think that the writer of this review missed what was valuable in it because he wanted to focus on his own claims.
One example: there is an enormous Constitutional difference between Obamacare's individual mandate and Bush's prescription drug plan, yet Hawley says one is "no more left wing" than the other. I understand Hawley's tack on polarization; it's remarkably similar to what Mo Fiorna argued in the book "Culture War", that there is no polarization in the electorate. But Hawley is even less even less convincing than Fiorina, because he refuses to acknowledge polarization among the "amateur democrats" in Washington. Sure, party unity score doesn't demonstrate polarization in itself, but I'll mention two things that do: the failure to pass as many significant bills and the unbelievable battles over confirmation of judges we've had. Most Congress scholars are saying "Congress is Broken" these days because of those things, and they are caused by nothing other than polarization.
And despite what Hawley says, the stakes are high today- we're dealing with life and death issues, moral sanity and moral insanity. But by default, when Conservatives back down or are seduced by the notion that they ought to act back away from their ideals to act more like "professionals," they are the losers, because Liberal policies are already in place and in operation through the bureaucracy.
None of that makes sense to public-choice influenced students of Congress such as Mo Fiorina (they think they just want reelection, and have no ideas about the public good), but the truth of my remarks (or any number of others who study "the actual bills being voted on"- for example, see below) might demonstrate the limits of their methodology


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CJ Wolfe
on April 07, 2019 at 16:22:48 pm

I agree Steve. You might enjoy this book by a recently deceased, very good man I knew named Jeffrey Bell:

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CJ Wolfe

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