Has Polarization Killed the Conversation About Social Issues?

Some of the biggest questions in American politics are really questions about ideological disagreement and competition within parties. For the next couple of weeks, I plan to tackle some of these topics here, under the heading “peeking under the tent.” I’m hoping to get to some questions about primaries, factions and ideology, and about how changing intra-party politics affects the kinds of political debates we have. This last question is the topic of today’s post.

Is party polarization destroying the quality of political discourse? This seems to be an area where evidence supports the conventional wisdom. According to various scholars, the repercussions of our divisions include “political warfare,” “outrage,” and intense negativity.

Perhaps the damage to contemporary political discourse is not just in the words that are used, but also in the subjects that dominate political debate. Over the summer, questions about race and gender in American political life dominated the discussion among public intellectuals, journalists, and political activists. These conversations have been pretty much completely separate from the official political discourse, in which Republicans talk about how much they hate Obamacare and Democrats do things like encourage their Facebook followers to be the first to wish Hillary Clinton a happy birthday.

On the race side, we have the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the larger discussion about race and criminal justice. A few months ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote a controversial and important piece about redlining and residential segregation, its impact on the wealth of African-American families, and how this bears on the question of racial justice. As far as gender issues, the response to the tragic shooting in Santa Barbara, CA over Memorial Day weekend introduced the #yesallwomen hashtag and the ensuing debate about violence and harassment against women. Over the past year, the commentariat has ruminated on women in the workplace, including the kinds of policy solutions that would allow for better work-life balance for all. There are undoubtedly other examples of issues that dominated discourse among non-elected elites, but were met with silence from elected officials.

Let’s deal with the obvious first. Naturally, in an election year, savvy politicians are not going to take up thorny topics about sexual assault or race relations except to either offer unobjectionable platitudes or use those subjects as wedge issues to divide the other party. On the other hand, it does seem that in the middle of the last century, the political process actually sustained debate about civil rights, voting rights, and gender equality. Some of this debate was pretty horrifying by contemporary standards, but in several instances it actually produced major policy change. Why do questions about social equality seem so far outside mainstream political discourse now?

Different strains of political science offer different answers. Realignment theory suggests that the American political process is rarely able to respond to the central concerns of the electorate. When the electorate reaches a “boiling point,” realigning elections occur – momentous and consequential affairs like 1860 or 1932 (the story goes). In a very different vein, David Mayhew’s theory of Congress suggests that position-taking trumps actually making policy, for which members have to share credit. Contentious, complicated social issues are rarely good position-taking opportunities; politicians who have attempted it have often paid the consequences.

Another possible explanation is ideological sorting. Historically, some of the biggest issues have divided rather than distinguished the two parties. In the nineteenth century, westward expansion, the existence of a national bank, and even slavery were the subjects of intra-party splits. In the middle of the twentieth century, the parties were divided over many of the biggest issues of the day – civil rights, later, abortion and other gender/privacy/sexuality issues, as well as economic questions. As a result, the things that parties have to do as a matter of course – nominate candidates, write national platforms – regularly resulted in debates over these topics. Now that these differences are mostly between parties, rather than within parties, politicians have fewer incentives and opportunities to communicate about ideas that challenge the status quo. Furthermore, what Geoffrey Layman and Thomas Carsey identify as “conflict extension” plays a role here: for both elites and regular folks, partisanship now corresponds with positions on social, racial, and cultural issues.

The Ferguson situation illustrated the importance of intra-party conflict for social issues discourse. For a brief moment during the summer, there was heightened attention to how Rand Paul, a self-identified libertarian within the Republican Party, would respond. Some of that attention was pointed, but disagreements among Republicans about liberty and authority also provided an opening for discussion.

Events in Missouri also drew attention to mainstream politicians‘ tendency to shy away from tough social issues. The generally slow response from politicians, particularly the state’s senior Senator, Claire McCaskill, invited criticism that elected leaders don’t pay enough attention to racial injustice. The issue is complicated, and I’m highly sympathetic to the argument that this neglect is linked to power imbalances and problems with representation. But it is also part of a broader pattern that suggests a different set of incentives at work. When party identification can predict a huge range of issue positions, it makes the debate less likely to foster new understandings. It might also make it less likely to happen in the first place.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.