What is political polarization? Why did it happen and why does it persist? Most scholars and analysts have considered these questions together, assuming that the nature, its root causes, and the forces that have allowed it to deepen and persist are all proximate, if not identical.

Most conceptualizations of polarization, as Hans pointed out last week, involve either voters or legislators. The definitions that rely on DW-NOMINATE scores focus on how far apart – and “internally cohesive” – the parties have become in Congress. Public opinion measures sometimes capture disagreement, but also suggest a qualitatively different definition: polarization is about how much we dislike each other.

By either definition, however, polarization seems to have not only emerged and persisted, but deepened. The first transition point in the polarization story seems to bubble up around 1980. An era of Democratic dominance gave way to a new Republican President and the first Republican-controlled chamber since 1954. The weight of the 1960s bore down on a political system that now needed to address a new range of social and cultural issues – abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, new forms of racial politics, etc.

But while 1980 seems to be a critical transition point, the early twenty-first century seems to have produced yet another turn. and others identify the period between the 2000 and 2004 elections as a significant turning point. The gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown, with the period between 2000 and 2004 a significant inflection point. In my recent book, I find that presidential mandate rhetoric also follows this trend. As I mentioned, the sorting literature does a pretty good job telling us why the party system made the transition that it did c. 1980. But that situation doesn’t come anywhere near our current situation, with birth certificates and symbolic votes to repeal Obamacare and growing disapproval for inter-party marriage.

This is where the focus on voters and legislators, on the relationship between citizens and representatives, starts to get into an intractable chicken-and-egg mess. Are voters a bunch of sheep and jerks? Are politicians pandering hucksters? Well, ok, maybe. But we still don’t know why this would be truer in 2005 than it was in 1995 or 1985.

There are three ideas that can help move past the infinite loop between voters and Congress to understand the change over time: the ability of presidents to alter the political landscape in both large and small ways; the role of contingent events; and the way that different developments can reinforce each other.

Let’s start with contingency and the presidency. In the earlier part of what my fellow Mischief Richard astutely labels the era of the “partisan presidency,” Reagan and the first Bush both contended with divided government, and their policy agendas – and accomplishments – reflect that. George W. Bush enjoyed a long period of Republican control in Congress, and while this didn’t always result in policy victory for the administration, it allowed for the consolidation of an agenda around conservative economic ideas (tax cuts, privatization), social conservatism (particularly the emphasis on same-sex marriage), and the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. These issues gave liberals something to organize around, and some of the last moderate New England Republicans lost their seats in the context of this set of debates. Similarly, Obama’s brief period of unified government (with a substantial seat margin) allowed for the contentious passage of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA has clearly shaped the tenor of partisan conflict since its passage – the contraception mandate, the individual mandate, death panels. To expand on the counterfactual scenario, the presidencies of Bush and Obama’s rivals (McCain, 2000, Gore, McCain 2008, Clinton, or venturing deeply into counterfactual territory, Edwards) would have likely emphasized different priorities and done things differently. In 2004, would a McCain administration have supported a traditional marriage amendment? Would Clinton or Edwards have pushed for healthcare reform right away, or focused on jobs and the economy? It’s impossible to know for sure. And these differences might not have created any less polarization, but the resulting polarization might well have been qualitatively different. These specific choices have reinforced division around cultural issues and around the role of government in American life.

Furthermore, in the twenty-first century, individual presidents have come to symbolize different aspects of the 1960s cultural conflict. This started with Bill Clinton, who embodied the moral relativism that some voters considered among the worst repercussions of the social change from that era. Bush, with his certainty and black-and-white moral frames, represented the opposite view. To his opponents, the Bush presidency embodied anti-intellectualism and intolerance. Obama exemplifies a changing, multi-cultural, which has prompted intense backlash among some voters. These presidential effects are difficult to measure, generalize, or replicate. There are far more data limitations than with studying public opinion or roll call votes. But we can contemplate observable implications even with limited data. The power of these symbols, and their ability to build on – and magnify – existing conflict over policy, values, and identity helps to explain what we observe in the early years of the twenty-first century. The symbolic, personal, and emotional aspects of the presidency – the parts that pose challenges for systematic analysis – are nevertheless consistent with some of the apparent qualitative changes in polarized public attitudes.

Finally, partisanship and declining trust in government have become mutually reinforcing. In my research, I find that mistrust of governing institutions (I focus on the presidency, although I think we can all agree that Congress has not been immune to this) emerged around the same time that the parties began to sort ideologically in response to the collapse of the New Deal coalition and the rise of cultural issues on the agenda. These began – in the late 1960s – as distinct phenomena. But as time went on, they became intertwined. A general lack of reverence and respect for the office of the presidency – not without good reason after Watergate and Vietnam – have merged with party polarization to create an environment in which presidents tend to be divisive, rather than uniting figures. They also tend, as I argue in the book, to rely more on language that appeals to their supporters and their campaign promises, which does little to alleviate the problem. In turn, these developments shape the incentives of individual members of Congress, who have increasingly little reason to collaborate across party lines.

Although scholarship on voting behavior and legislative choice has produced many insights on polarization, these are not the only schools of thought with something to say on the subject. Polarization is also a story about change over time, and ideas like contingency, disruption, and reinforcement can help us understand more about that process.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.