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Polarization in American Politics

Polarization in American Politics

(p.295) 10 Polarization in American Politics
Network Propaganda
Yochai BenklerRobert FarisHal Roberts
Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the political science literature on polarization, showing that polarization in American politics long precedes the internet and results primarily from asymmetric political-elite-driven dynamics. This chapter first considers the polarization of political elites and the public before discussing how social identity begets party affiliation that helps explain why polarization can take on such deeply affective negative responses to partisans of the other party. The chapter shows that party elites, in particular elected representatives, have experienced significant party polarization in the sense that liberals and conservatives have mostly sorted themselves into Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and that the most visible component of this move was the realignment of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. The broader population, if it has polarized at all, has polarized affectively—in the way it feels about the other party—rather than ideologically, or the practical policy preferences it holds.

Keywords:   internet, polarization, political elites, social identity, party affiliation, party elites, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Republican Party

Polarization of Political Elites

In September 2017, a seven-term moderate Republican representative from Pennsylvania, Charlie Dent, indicated that he would not seek re-election. In his announcement, he decried the rancorous atmosphere in Washington afflicted by “increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos.”1 He was not alone. When LoBiondo Frank of New Jersey followed suit, he declared: “Regrettably, our nation is now consumed by increasing political polarization; there is no longer middle ground to honestly debate issues and put forward solutions.” Prior to the 2018 midterm elections, an unusually high number of incumbent Republican senators and representatives announced that they would retire from Congress rather than seek re-election.2 Polarization was not the only factor at play. Some were facing increasingly competitive elections and the possibility of losing the power and leverage of being part of the majority party. However, increasing polarization and acrimony in Congress was a frequently cited factor, accentuating the fact that this is a conspicuous and unfortunate aspect of political life in the United States today, even among those who have at times helped to further and deepen legislative polarization. And, as we will see here, political polarization in the United States appears to be asymmetric, and more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats.

Polarization in American politics is most reliably measured in the actions of elected officials and is almost certainly led by people who spend their time thinking about politics and acting within it rather than people who turn to politics episodically, usually in the run-up to elections. A particularly vivid way of demonstrating polarization is to generate network maps, based on congressional voting records, in which House representatives are the nodes and shared roll call (p.296) votes between pairs of representatives are the edges. In a 2015 paper, Clio Andris and her collaborators showed that the parties were well separated in the 1940s and 1950s, began a resorting process in the mid-1960s that lasted into the 1980s, and have been well separated again since the mid-1980s.3Figure 10.1 shows clearly the pattern over the entire post–World War II era. (p.297)

Polarization in American Politics

Figure 10.1 Partisanship in voting patterns in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1949–2011

The pattern will be immediately legible to anyone with a passing familiarity with American politics since the New Deal. The New Deal and the Fair Deal relied on a compromise between Northern Democrats, who emphasized economic security and poverty alleviation, and Southern Democrats, who supported these goals in principle but only if they were designed so as not to undermine the Southern Jim Crow racial caste system.4 The clearly observable mixing from the late 1960s to the late 1980s suggests that an important factor in the present pattern of polarization is the gradual working out of the competing forces of incumbency and party realignment caused by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bill Moyers quotes Lyndon Johnson as having told him, on the night he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a very long time.”5 Kevin Phillips’s 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was considered at the time the blueprint for Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.6 As Phillips put it,

The presidential election of 1968 marked a historic first occasion—the Negrophobe Deep South and modern Outer South simultaneously abandoned the Democratic Party. And before long, the conservative cycle thus begun ought to witness movement of congressional, state and local Southern Democrats into the ascending Republican Party.7

In his 1969 review of the book, the Times’s political reporter Warren Weaver Jr. characterized Phillips’s argument, “the Democratic Party . . . will consist largely of treacherous Yankees who forsook the Republican party over the past 30 years, Jews, Negros, some stubborn Scandinavians and the liberal establishment.” The “Southern” part of the strategy meant that “[f]ull racial polarization is an essential ingredient of Phillips’s political pragmatism.”8 Ignoring the incendiary language, part anachronism part animus, Phillips’s maps of the realignment and the basic predictions about the geographic segmentation and sorting of the two parties were remarkably prescient. The element missing from the analysis was that the New Left and the women’s movement would evoke in evangelicals a parallel backlash. That backlash complemented the white-identity pillar of the emerging Republican majority with the pillar of the newly politicized evangelical Christian movement that came into its own in 1979 when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.

The polarization that followed the realignment of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party did not result in symmetric polarization between the parties. DW-NOMINATE, the academic standard for measuring (p.298) the partisan alignment of members of Congress, was pioneered by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal and later extended in collaborative work with Nolan McCarty.9 This technique leverages the voting behavior of members of Congress to quantitatively estimate their locations on the political spectrum. On a scale of 1.0 to –1.0 for conservative to liberal, the measure incorporates how often any given member votes with members from the other party as a measure of their ranking from centrist (0.0) to partisan (1.0, –1.0). Looking at all the roll call votes of all members of Congress who have ever served in the U.S. Congress, this approach is also able to record changes in partisanship over time, and in particular how far from the perfectly centrist position various members are. Because individual representatives are relatively stable in the degree to which they are conservative or liberal over a career, DW-NOMINATE uses the fact that various members of Congress overlap in tenure and compares how new members of one or the other party vote relative to already-serving members of that party to compare partisanship over time.

Looking at partisanship and polarization of members of Congress since the Gilded Age, from 1870 to 1900, it is quite clear that Republicans saw a long gradual shift toward more centrist views over the seven decades from the election of Teddy Roosevelt until 1968 (Figure 10.2). Northern Democrats shifted from being more moderate or centrist than Republicans on the eve of World War I, to being more liberal, or further from the perfect centrist position, than their Republican counterparts. This long-term move to the left ended in the mid-1950s. The issue positions associated with liberal and conservative political ideology have changed, but Northern Democrats’ voting patterns have remained remarkably consistent in their ideological position over the past six decades. Southern Democrats were the most polarized by this measure before World War I—that is, they were most likely not to vote with members from the other party. From World War I to the New Deal, Southern Democrats became the most centrist in the sense that they were the most likely to vote with Republicans. They occupied this position until 1968. Republicans then began to transition toward a caucus made up of members who took more consistently conservative positions, with a sharper swing beginning in 1977. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats began a long-term convergence with Northern Democrats, with smaller inflection points in 1991 and 1998, as electoral trends accelerated or decelerated the speed with which Southern Democrats were replaced by Southern Republicans. The remaining Southern Democrats were increasingly from majority-minority districts and voted squarely with the Northern Democrats. The Southern Democrats converged to the orientation of the Northern Democrats, who changed the (p.299) least over this period of time, arriving back at a DW-NOMINATE score of –0.4, where they had been since the mid-1950s. The Republicans continued to become increasingly conservative. By 2000, Republicans had become more conservative than Democrats were liberal, and on the eve of the 2016 election, Republicans were more conservative than they had been at any point since the Gilded Age. While DW-NOMINATE has become quite standard in political science, there remains a lively academic debate over the comparability of these scores, particularly over very long periods of American political history.10 Some are not, as we are, persuaded that DW-NOMINATE is the best available measure for tracking these changes.11 But given that Poole and Rosenthal have done this continuously since 1983, we think that the measures are robust at least for understanding patterns of polarization in the past half century.

Polarization in American Politics

Figure 10.2 Polarization in the U.S. Congress by Party, 1879–2015.


These patterns suggest a basic underlying dynamic that is tied to the three pillars of the present Republican coalition. First, the white-identity pillar, the intentional product of the Southern Strategy that was so clearly represented in the tenor of the immigration coverage we described in Chapter 4. Second, the pillar of evangelical Christians, who have been a mainstay of the Republican party since the election of 1980, and whose politicization was driven by a backlash against the politics of the 1960s, the sexual revolution, and the (p.300) destabilization of the traditional patriarchal family structure by the Women’s Movement. And the third, the emergence of organized business in the 1970s, and the deep strategic turnaround that American businesses undertook in response to a series of political losses in the 1960s, particularly under the auspices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson documented in Winner-Take-All-Politics, political contributions by this movement followed very different patterns for Republicans and Democrats. The former received sustained, party-building and movement-building contributions; the latter received primarily rewards for individuals who were reliable allies rather than for the party as a whole.12 The first two pillars of the Republican coalition—white identity and political evangelicism—are defined in terms of social identity, rather than practical needs, and are therefore particularly amenable to the organization of a party based on a shared ideology, rather than shared interests. The third, business-oriented pillar is more results-focused, but the results it sought were deregulation and tax reduction—that is, reduced state capacity. The veto-rich American legislative system made developing a strategy based on ideological purity—and the gridlock likely to result—congruent with that goal. Grover Norquist’s tax pledge, initiated in 1985, is the quintessential example of taking the most practical of political questions—how much money to raise and spend—and turning it into an ideological litmus test with a single right answer: “no new taxes.” As Matthew Grossman and David Hopkins argued in Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, the Republican Party can therefore function as a party committed to ideological purity,13 punishing moderates who try to compromise to get things done with contested primaries and lost funding. By contrast, the Democratic Party has a long pattern of interest-group coalition politics. It therefore focuses on delivering to its various constituent interest groups the policy outcomes that keep them in the tent. This focus on results means that Democrats value half loaves, whereas Republicans often interpret a half loaf as a full betrayal. Representatives faced with such asymmetric responses among their supporters and funders are likely to adapt their behavior, and the resulting asymmetric patterns of behavior are perfectly consistent with these different incentive structures set up by the two major parties in American politics.

Polarization of the Public

Given the evident and growing partisan divide in Congress, it is natural to surmise that this is accompanied by and fueled by rising polarization of the (p.301) public. However, despite broad agreement among scholars and political observers that elite polarization is a reality, there is less consensus about whether the electorate is as highly polarized, or has been polarizing at all. The fact that voters are sending representatives to Congress that are acting in increasingly partisan ways is not by itself enough to establish that the mass public is similarly polarizing or that elite polarization is rooted in mass polarization.14 This pattern of voting more extreme representatives into office could simply be the result of there being fewer moderate candidates to attract the votes of moderates. As the differences in party candidates grow over time, centrist voters are left with more extreme options that do not reflect their moderate views. According to this view, voters are not the instigators of elite polarization but passive victims of the forces of elite polarization, which leave them fewer and fewer centrist options. Independent voters or voters that lean slightly to the right or left would have to choose between staunch liberals or conservatives.

There are many conceptions of polarization and many of the disagreements among scholars stem from different definitions and measures of polarization.15 There are many ways in which the electorate on the left and right may pull apart. There are policy differences across a range of economic and social topics from taxation and trade policy to guns, abortion, and minority rights. Politics is also deeply personal, and partisans tend to dislike one another.

Among those who study polarization of the broader public, there is wide consensus on two key points. First, voters are better sorted than in the past. Democrats now more reliably identify as liberal while Republicans now more consistently identify as conservative. The southern realignment among voters is a big part of this, but increased ideological-partisan sorting has occurred across the country.16 The correlation of party and self-reported ideology has increased from 0.28 in 1972 to 0.58 in 2012.17 Since fewer people who identify as Democrats now hold conservative views and fewer people who identify as Republicans hold liberal views, this sorting process has led to less overlap in the political orientation and attitudes of the parties and greater homogeneity within parties. However, political sorting does not necessarily entail diverging views on issues. Sorting can in principle produce more homogenous parties without voters taking on more extreme positions on particular issues. The process of political sorting could simply be reshuffling voters into more coherent groups where party identities and opinions are more homogenous. A second point of consensus is that voters who are most active politically are more polarized. In the words of Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders: “The most interested, informed, and active citizens are much (p.302) more polarized in their political views.”18 Activists, however, constitute a small minority of the public. If defined by those who work on campaigns, they make up about 5 percent of the eligible electorate. The number is higher if based on the number who contribute to campaigns: about 10 percent of the electorate.19

There is less consensus about what has happened to the majority of Americans who are not highly engaged partisans of either party and are not as polarized as the most engaged citizens. Morris Fiorina and his coauthors have been the leading academic voices expressing skepticism over ideological polarization of the broader public.20 Their principal argument is that while the political elite and political activists have been growing apart ideologically, the large majority of the public have had and continue to hold moderate positions on the issues. Long-term trends of two likely signals of polarization—strong identification with one of the parties and strong identification with conservative or liberal ideology—do not reveal a clear pattern of polarization. In periodic surveys conducted over many years, the proportions of the electorate that respond as strong liberals, conservatives, Democrats, or Republicans have not increased significantly over the past several decades.21 Alan Abramowitz and his coauthors offer a different interpretation of the available data and report that the number of ideological moderates has been declining. Drawing on American National Election Studies data, they make the case that the number of political moderates is shrinking, as evidenced by a growing proportion of survey respondents that report strong partisan identities.22

Both Fiorina and Abramowitz express concern about the negative implications of growing partisanship among political elites. They differ, however, in the role of the public in this growing divide. For Fiorina, the majority of American voters are not the instigators of political polarization and are not well served by the divisive political system created by elites. In their 2012 book Disconnect, Fiorina and Abrams write:23

In America today, there is a disconnect between an unrepresentative political class and the citizenry it purports to represent. The political process today not only is less representative than it was a generation ago and less supported by the citizenry, but the outcomes of that process are at a minimum no better. The present disconnect is cause for concern and not something that can be discounted as either normal or unimportant.

(p.303) For Abramowitz, the American public plays a more significant role in the disconnect and hence bears more of the responsibility as well:

There are large differences in outlook between Democrats and Republicans, between red state voters and blue state voters, and between religious voters and secular voters. The high level of ideological polarization evident among political elites in the United States reflects real divisions within the American electorate.24

Recent work challenges the notion that voters are more moderate than their elected officials while also drawing into question the definition and measure of what constitutes a political moderate. Based on voter surveys, David Broockman finds not only that many voters hold a mix of conservative and liberal positions but also that many voters also hold extreme positions on issues.25 On immigration, for example, approximately one-quarter of those surveyed supported a ban on immigration until the border is fully secured and were in favor of deporting all undocumented immigrants. He concludes that the opinions of the public are not in fact more moderate than those taken by elected representatives. By a common measure of ideology, those that favor a mix of liberal and conservative policies would be classified as moderate regardless of the extremity of their views on the individual policies. Once the extremity of views on particular issues is taken into account, Broockman shows that the electorate appears substantially less moderate. He also observes that while highly knowledgeable and engaged American voters tend to have more ideologically consistent views, they do not generally hold more extreme views on specific issues.

Elite Polarization and Political Identity: Do Leaders Matter?

The literature we have surveyed to this point makes two things clear. First, political elites have polarized asymmetrically. Congressional Republicans have become continuously more conservative and ideologically pure over the past 50 years, while congressional Democrats have converged to the degree of partisanship that has characterized Northern Democrats since the mid-1950s. Second, while partisan activists have polarized, it is much less clear whether the majority of the population has similarly polarized. The remaining question is how polarization among elites and activists is likely to affect the (p.304) majority of the population that does not pay as much attention to politics on a regular basis.

Long-standing research in political science rejects the idea that voters choose candidates who most closely match their opinions on policy issues. In a seminal 1964 paper, Philip Converse provided an early empirical foundation for a premise that is now widely accepted, at least among political scientists: a large majority of Americans do not have consistent and reliable ideological beliefs. Converse found that only about one in six could “assign the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ correctly to the parties and say something sensible about what the terms meant.”26 These findings have been replicated many times over the past five decades. In recent work, Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe replicated much of Converse’s seminal study. They found that the basic description of voter attitudes and behavior articulated many decades ago has changed only modestly.27 They found that for most people, self-reported ideology had no influence over opinions on a wide range of topics, including immigration, affirmative action, gun control, health policy, foreign aid, tax policy, and social security. There were two exceptions: abortion and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) rights. However, once the authors control for religious beliefs, the impact of ideology on these topics disappeared as well. Following in this line, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels dismantle what they describe as the “folk theory” of democracy: the idea that people have informed policy preferences and then vote for candidates that best match their policy preferences, which in turn promotes elected officials that serve the interests of their electorate. Instead, they conclude that voters are mostly disinterested in politics, ill-informed about political matters, and likely to make their voting choices based on a set of factors that have no relationship to the proposed agenda and competence of their favored candidate.28

An alternative to the well-informed rational voter theory is that individuals are driven primarily by partisan identity. This model, frequently known as the Michigan model, was developed by political scientists in the 1950s and articulated in the 1960 classic The American Voter. The core premises of this model are that voters inherit a partisan identity early in life from their family and social environment, and that this affiliation, typically with the Democratic Party or Republican Party, shapes political values and perceptions of political affairs. The essence of this model, that for most voters the foundations of political thinking and decisions are social, has held up well over the years.29 Americans organize opinions on politics and current affairs around their attitudes toward social groups.30 Kinder and Kalmoe also find (p.305) that party identification is more stable over time than ideological affiliation and that this is rooted in social ties: “public opinion arises primarily from the attachments and antipathies of group life.” Voters apparently establish their party affiliation first and then adapt their views of issues and ideology to align with party. They estimate that those who base political perspectives on group identity—the ideological innocents—outnumber voters with strong ideological and issue-based opinions by a factor of 5 to 1. This distance between ideology and affiliation is not an impediment for political engagement. Partisanship presents more opportunities for citizens to express their affiliation and take action, whether by voting, working for a campaign, attending rallies, or contributing to campaigns. “Parties are material realities in a way that ideologies are not.”31

The key role of partisan affiliation in determining the views and actions of the electorate through a top-down process is clearly evident in the responsiveness of partisans to political leaders. Voters take cues from political elites on questions of policy. They tend to first choose their favored leaders, and then adopt the political views and stances of the leaders.32 This phenomenon was demonstrated in an innovative study carried out with the cooperation of state legislators. Working with researchers, legislators sent out issue positions to constituents but with randomly assigned content, some with extensive justification and others with little background. They found in subsequent surveys that voters frequently adopted the positions of legislators even when little justification for the positions was provided. Moreover, legislators were not viewed more negatively when the position statements were in opposition to voter positions. Voters require little convincing to adopt new policy positions, and where the positions of elected officials conflict with voter positions, voters are willing to look beyond that.33 A study carried out in the wake of the 2016 election took advantage of Donald Trump’s “ideological schizophrenia” to assess the influence of political leaders on voter opinion.34 They found that “low-knowledge respondents, strong Republicans, Trump-approving respondents, and self-described conservatives are the most likely to behave like party loyalists and simply accept the Trump cue—in either direction.” When Trump promoted a conservative position, his supporters agreed. When Trump adopted a more liberal position, they agreed.

Partisan responses to the cues of the political leaders applies also to the positions taken by leaders from the opposite side. The response of Democrats to the positions staked out by Trump are a good example of this. Among Democrats there was a marked shift in political values on topics where Trump took strong controversial positions. There was an increase, from 50 percent (p.306) to 64 percent, in the percentage of Democrats who believe that immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talent.35 Similarly, there was a large increase from 2015 to 2017 among Democratic survey respondents who view racial discrimination as the main impediment to Blacks “getting ahead.”

The implication of the work on the plasticity of voters’ policy preferences and their responsiveness to cues from leaders of parties—parties they adopt as a matter of identity—is that patterns of polarization among political leaders can affect patterns of polarization in the public. It means that leaders have considerable latitude to define what it means to be a Republican or Democrat, or what it means to be conservative or liberal. It is whatever they say it is. In ideological terms, partisanship is more flexible and less prescriptive. In the 2016 election, this explains how Trump was able to reset party doctrine on issues such as trade and Russia while still holding a vast majority of the GOP vote. But it also offers a transmission mechanism for the well-measured asymmetric polarization among elected representatives to the broader population of party identifiers.

From Social Identity to Affective Polarization

The fact that social identity begets party affiliation helps explain not only why leaders can induce populations to shift positions over time but also why polarization can take on such deeply affective negative responses to partisans of the other party.36 Expressive partisanship has a strong emotional component that provides a stronger driver for engagement and activism compared to involvement based on intellectual grounds.37 People choose sides and become emotionally invested in promoting their side and opposing the other side. These group bonds then determine opinions on issues and the interpretation of political events. As Lilliana Mason writes, political sorting creates a stronger overlap in social identities that exacerbates polarization. Increasing partisan and ideological alignment results in greater partisan bias, activism, and anger. “Partisan identities have become increasingly aligned with religious and racial identities. Republicans tend toward Christian and white identities, and Democrats tend toward non-religious and non-white identities. With these highly aligned identities, people tend to be more sensitive to threats from outsiders, reacting with higher levels of anger than those with cross-cutting identities.”38 Even without any change in the underlying distribution of issue opinions, sorting can fuel greater enmity toward the opposing party and inspire more activism. “The effect is an electorate whose members are more (p.307) biased and angry than their issue positions alone can explain.”39 And ethnic identity has come to play a particularly large role in this dynamic. Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam show how the definition of in-groups and out-groups based on ethnic background exerts an influence on political attitudes across a range of issues, including immigration, social support programs, and policies to counteract terrorism.40

It is hardly news that in-group/out-group dynamics involve as much negative response to the out-group as it does positive response to the in-group. Utilizing survey data, Miller and Conover demonstrate that “stronger partisan identities, more than ideological identities or preferences, are associated with a greater sense of partisan hostility—specifically, party rivalry and anger.”41 They report that those with the strongest partisan identities maintain the most hostile and uncivil attitudes and that they are also the most likely to vote. These dynamics readily explain the extraordinary passion and enthusiasm of Trump political rallies, which was both a point of pride for the campaign and a shock for many, particularly the unmistakable rage of many Trump supporters. Anger and outrage has always played a motivating and instrumental role in political mobilization, but the emotionally charged atmosphere of the 2016 campaign reached levels not seen in the United States in many years. And the anger and frustration palpable in demonstrations of “The Resistance” since inauguration day is hardly the stuff of rational democratic discourse, any more than Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” was an invitation to pragmatic dialog. But the 2016 election was simply the working out of the much longer trend of growing animosity and distrust between liberals and conservatives. This partisan hostility, referred to as affective polarization, has risen sharply over the past two decades. According to Pew Research Center survey data, the number of Republicans that view Democrats unfavorably has risen from 74 percent in 1994 to 91 percent in 2016. Democrats that view Republicans unfavorably has increased from 59 percent to 86 percent over the same time period. In surveys carried in 2014, Pew researchers found that 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats responded that the opposing party’s policy agenda “threaten the nation’s well-being.”42

Based on survey data that includes “thermometer” ratings of in-groups and out-groups, Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes described a significant chilling of feelings for the other party among Republicans and Democrats. Over the past several decades, these ratings of the out-party have declined 15 points on a 100-point scale, while in-group feelings have been stable. Surprisingly, perhaps, partisan affective responses are stronger in the data Iyengar, Sood and Lelkes analyze than are affective responses to race (p.308) or religion, a finding that Iyengar and Sean Westwood confirmed in a series of studies specifically focused on comparing racial to partisan animosity.43 Consistent with the asymmetric partisanship literature, they also find that while the negative affective response has increased significantly across the partisan divide, it has increased more for Republicans than for Democrats. In 1960, practically no Democrats or Republicans reported that they would be “somewhat or very unhappy” if their child married a member of the other party. By 2010, one-third of Democrats and one-half of Republicans responded that they would have that response to their child marrying a member of the opposite party.44 In more recent work, Iyengar and Westwood moderated that finding by testing it across a wider range of measures, finding that negative out-group affect was high among Democrats and Republicans broadly speaking to a roughly similar extent, although they did find that when comparing Democrats and Republicans who were “strongly partisan . . . outparty animus is significantly higher among Republicans.”45

Abramowitz and Steven Webster use the term “negative partisanship” to highlight the fact that the growing hostility voters feel toward the other party is not matched by a stronger affinity for their own party: “A growing proportion of Americans dislike the opposing party more than they like their own party.” They hypothesize:

The rise of negative partisanship in the American electorate appears to be part of a vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing elite and mass behavior. Confrontational politics in Washington and in many state capitols is causing Democratic and Republican voters to develop increasingly negative views of the opposing party and to vote along party lines from the top of the ticket to the bottom. Negative views of the opposing party among voters, in turn, encourage political elites to adopt a confrontational approach to governing. Given these mutually reinforcing patterns of elite and mass behavior, negative partisanship is likely to remain an important feature of American politics for the foreseeable future.46

Polarization Before Considering Media Dynamics

Before we turn to considering media and political communications, let us evaluate where we are. There is very good evidence that party elites, and elected representatives in particular, have experienced significant party polarization in the sense that liberals and conservatives have mostly sorted (p.309) themselves into Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and that the most visible component of this move was the realignment of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. It is also clear that this movement was asymmetric and that since 1968 Republicans have continuously moved to the right, while Democrats have converged more or less to the location of Northern Democrats in the mid-1950s. It is clear that party activists, ranging in number between 5 percent and 10 percent of the voting population, have similarly polarized in their positions. And it is quite clear that the broader population, if it has polarized at all, has polarized affectively—in the way it feels about the other party—rather than programmatically, or the practical policy preferences it holds. The long-term and regional trajectory of these patterns strongly argues against the internet being a prime driver of polarization. Part of the story relates to the gradual sorting of the parties by ethnic identity—with Democrats relying more heavily on nonwhite voters, and Republicans relying overwhelmingly on non-Hispanic white voters. For both sides the roots of this dynamic are in the 1960s—the success of the civil rights movement and the successful harnessing of the white backlash by the Republican Party, and the response to demographic changes that followed the adoption in 1965 of a much more open immigration policy. Another part of the story reflects the response of religious Americans, particularly Christians, and among them particularly evangelicals, to the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, such that today evangelicals are a critical pillar of the Republican coalition. These dynamics initially manifested in the centrality of abortion, and more recently LGBTQ rights, as a party-identity litmus test. Yet another part of the story reflects growing economic inequality and insecurity, and the successful harnessing of identity concerns and ideological purity by the pro-business wing of the Republican Party to divert attention from the practical effects of its sustained political campaign against unions, regulation, taxation, and redistribution.

There is, in other words, plenty at work before we start to consider partisan media generally, and the internet and social media in particular. And as we turn now to consider media, we have to keep in mind how the media ecosystem interacts with these long-standing structural shifts in the shape of polarization and partisanship in America. As the preceding 10 chapters already tell in great detail, there is little surprise in store in the next chapter. Yes, media matters. Our observations of the past three years online and our review of the recent media history of the United States both suggest that right-wing media has been performing different roles for (p.310) Republicans than left-wing media has played for Democrats. We observe in the real world the pattern we outlined in Chapter 3 as the propaganda feedback loop. The asymmetry, and the feedback loop it triggered, has its roots in talk radio since 1988 and in Fox News since 1996. And Fox, in particular, continues to play a more important role in the process than the internet.


(1.) Congressman Charlie Dent, “Dent Statement on Decision Not to Seek 8th Term,” Congressman Charlie Dent, September 8, 2017,

(2.) “List of U.S. Congress Incumbents Who Are Not Running for Re-Election in 2018—Ballotpedia,” Ballotpedia, accessed April 4, 2018,

(3.) Clio Andris et al., “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives,” PLOS ONE 10, no. 4 (April 21, 2015),

(4.) Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York; London: W.W. Norton, 2006).

(5.) Bill D. Moyers, Moyers Oon America: A Journalist and His Times (New York: Anchor Books, 2005).

(6.) Warren Weaver Jr., “The Emerging Republican Majority,” The New York Times, September 21, 1969,; James Boyd, “Nixon’s Southern Strategy,” The New York Times, May 17, 1970,

(7.) Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, James Madison Library in American Politics Series (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

(9.) Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006),

(10.) “Introduction,” Studies in American Political Development 30, no. 2 (2016): 95–96,

(11.) Nolan McCarty, “In Defense of DW-NOMINATE,” Studies in American Political Development 30, no. 2 (October 2016): 172–184,

(12.) Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

(13.) Matthew Grossmann and David A. Hopkins, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(14.) Morris P. Fiorina, “Has the American Public Polarized?,” Hoover Institution Essays on Contemporary American Politics 2 (September 2016): 1–24; Marc J. Hetherington, “Putting Polarization in Perspective,” British Journal of Political Science 39, no. 2 (2009): 413–448; Matthew Levendusky, The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and How Conservatives Became Republicans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(15.) Yphtach Lelkes, “Mass Polarization: Manifestations and Measurements,” Public Opinion Quarterly 80, no. S1 (January 1, 2016): 392–410,

(18.) Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle L. Saunders, “Is Polarization a Myth?,” The Journal of Politics 70, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 542–555,

(20.) Fiorina, Morris P., Samuel J. Abrams, and Jeremy Pope. Culture war?: The Myth of a Polarized America. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

(21.) American National Election Studies, “Data Center,”

(23.) Fiorina, Morris P., and Samuel J. Abrams. Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics. Vol. 11 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

(24.) Abramowitz, Alan I., and Kyle L. Saunders. “Is polarization a myth?.” The Journal of Politics 70, no. 2 (2008): 542–555.

(25.) David E. Broockman, David E. “Approaches to studying policy representation.,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 41, no. 1 (2016): 181–215.

(26.) Philip E. Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Critical Review 18, no. 1–3 (1964): 1–74,

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