Tag Archives: polarization

No, the Presidency Has NOT Become More Difficult

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world.  Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

But what of Cillizza’s second claim? In part, both Cillizza and Ronald Brownstein, whose article here provides some of the evidence on which Cillizza bases his claim, rest much of their case about presidential weakness on the belief that America is an increasingly divided nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere,  however, the evidence that Americans are polarizing along ideological lines is weak – most of what analysts claim to be a growing ideological divide is more accurately described as party sorting. In short, there’s not much support for the claim that modern presidents are dealing with a more ideologically polarized public.

The more empirically valid charge is that modern presidents must deal with a very polarized Congress – the most partisan  polarized Congress since the 19th century. Both Cillizza and Brownstein argue that it is very difficult for presidents to get legislation passed through a Congress that is so deeply polarized along partisan lines. But the link between partisan polarization and legislative productivity is more complex than this simple narrative would have one believe. Nelson Polsby, in his classic work How Congress Evolves, describes how a cross-partisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans stymied the passage of liberal legislation from 1937 until the mid-1960’s. More generally, building on Polsby’s observation, studies show that too little polarization in Congress is as counterproductive to legislative productivity as is too much. This is because under conditions of limited partisan polarization, we often see great divisions within parties (see Polsby’s description of the Democrats during the era of the conservative coalition), and little difference across them – exactly the conditions that James MacGregor Burns complained about in his classic study of American political gridlock in the early 1960’s.  Evidence shows that legislative productivity under these conditions of weak polarization is as limited as under the deep polarization in Congress presidents confront today.

Moreover, there is other evidence one can cite that undercuts the premise of Cillizza’s and Brownstein’s argument. For instance, we might think that if the presidency was so much more difficult, presidents would find it harder to win reelection. However, our three most recent presidents – Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama – all successfully won reelection. In contrast, three of their four immediate predecessors: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush, did not. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson did not pursue a second full term in 1968 because of political opposition and declining support, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment, making Ronald Reagan the only one of those six previous presidents to serve two full terms. No wonder scholars complained of a “tethered” presidency at the start of Reagan’s first term!

Finally, consider the severity of the issues facing recent presidents. Yes, 9-11 ushered in the Age of Terrorism, and all the difficulty that entails for presidents’ efforts to fulfill their commander-in-chief functions. But the consequences of making a mistake in the fight against terrorism, while enormous, are arguably not any greater – and probably less significant – than what the post-World War II presidents confronted during the height of the Cold War. It is for this reason that Neustadt, in the final edition of his classic work which was issued as the Cold War came to a close, cautions against looking back on those years with rose-colored glasses. He writes, “From the multicentered, interdependent world now coming into being, environmentally endangered as it is, Presidents [and pundits!] may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad.” Although acknowledging that governing in this new age has its own set of difficulties, Neustadt reminds us that there are compensations for outliving the Cold War: “[T]he personal responsibility attached to nuclear weapons should become less burdensome for Presidents themselves, while contemplation of their mere humanity becomes less haunting for the rest of us. To me that seems a fair exchange.”

To me too. Yes, the presidency is difficult. But there’s little evidence that it is harder today than in previous presidencies during the post-World War II modern era.  Indeed, one might argue that the job has become slightly easier, although I doubt that is any solace to Barack Obama.

P.S. This post attracted its fair share of readers, so I’ll follow up with some additional discussion focused on recent evaluations by pundits of Obama’s presidency.  If you are interested in getting notifications of new presidential power posts, I post notices on twitter at: https://twitter.com/MattDickinson44

Or contact me at dickinso@middlebury.edu and I’ll put you on the anonymous distribution list.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein weights in on the issue here: http://bv.ms/1xbKij5

Will Open Primaries Reduce Polarization?

The New York Times printed this op ed by New York Senator Chuck Schumer yesterday, in which Schumer made the familiar claim that to reduce partisan polarization, we should open up party primaries to all voters, regardless of partisan affiliation. In particular, he cites with approval adopting a version of the “top-two primary system” in which “all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff.” That’s the system adopted in 2010 in California, in time for this summer’s nominating process there.

Schumer’s impulse is understandable – in theory, by opening primaries, you allow independents and more moderate voters to participate in the nominating process, thus increasing the odds that more moderate candidates will be nominated to run in the general election. In contrast, under closed primaries dominated by party purists, logic suggests the tendency is to nominate the more ideologically extreme candidate, leaving moderate voters to choose from two extreme candidates in the general election. As Schumer puts it, “The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.”

While well intentioned, however, the problem with Schumer’s proposal is that there is little evidence suggesting open primaries will reduce polarization. Consider recent results in California. As former Middlebury College student Jaime Fuller noted in this Washington Post piece, the early evidence from the California experiment with the top two system are not encouraging for Schumer’s argument. She writes, “If you look at last month’s results, however, there aren’t many congressional races you can point to where moderates made the final round — even in those seven races where two members of the same party made the runoff.”

More generally political scientists have not found much evidence that tinkering with the primary voting rules has much impact on the level of polarization in legislatures (see here and here and  here). There seems to be three reasons why open primaries don’t seem, by themselves, to produce more moderate candidates. First, it remains the case that more extreme voters tend to participate in greater proportions even in open primaries. As I’ve noted many times before, political activism and more extreme views go hand-in-hand. Second, as Seth Masket points out, party activists, who tend to be more ideologically extreme, still control a variety of means, including endorsements, money and campaign expertise, which they can use to help their favored candidates get a leg up in the selection process. Third, it appears that in the California top-two election process, voters were not always able to distinguish the more ideologically moderate candidate running under a party label.

This does not mean the California experiment is a failure – it has only been in place for one and half election cycles, and it may yet produce a more moderate candidate field as voters, and candidates adjust to the new system. But for now, contrary to Schumer’s claim, open primaries do not seem to be the remedy, by themselves, to the hyper-partisanship afflicting our political system.

Schumer also cites a second factor that he believes has increased polarization: gerrymandering – the drawing of House district lines in ways that that enhance the reelection prospects of certain candidates. Again, however, the empirical evidence, which I’ve discussed previously, does not support Schumer’s claim.

If open primaries and “neutrally”-drawn districts are not going to reduce polarization, then what will? For reforms to work, they need to increase the participation of the more moderate voters in the nominating process. This Bipartisan Policy Study contains a number of recommendations for doing so. Among the electoral reforms, it suggests a common national primary day for all congressional nominating races and easing registration requirements and strengthening outreach to make it more likely that the less politically engaged will vote in primaries. Eliminating caucuses as a means of nominating candidates would also help. Even here, however, without additional institutional reforms, it is unclear just how much these incremental changes will reduce the level of partisan polarization in Congress. But without additional reforms like these,  open primaries aren’t likely to do the trick, contrary to what Schumer might believe.

UPDATE 7.23.14: Jonathan Bernstein takes on the Schumer proposal in this Bloomberg column and comes to the same conclusion: open primaries will not reduce polarization.

 

 

Sunday Shorts: Burns and Garner, Orszag and Fiorina

A mixed bag in today’s Sunday Shorts – we mourn the passing of two public figures, and note their presidential ties. And we (gently) take issue with a recent column by Peter Orszag who waded publicly into the political polarization debate.

Let me begin with the passing of the great presidential scholar James MacGregor Burns who taught for so many years at Williams College, one of our fellow NESCAC institutions. The New York Times obituary does a decent job (as much as any obituary can) capturing the important details of Burns’ life professional life. My students will be familiar with him through two excerpts, one dealing with FDR’s nomination in 1932 and the second about FDR’s ill-fated 1937 court-packing scheme, that I assign from the first volume of Burn’s wonderful study of Roosevelt, The Lion and the Fox. Others will know him for his pioneering study of leadership, particular his juxtaposition of transactional vs. transformational modes of leading.  But in 1964 Burns published another important book titled The Deadlock of Democracy: Four Party Politics in America, in which he argued that the American political system was stymied by the lack of unified political parties and weak presidential leadership. Because each party was internally divided, Congress lacked a working majority which prevented action on important national problems. Burns proposed a number of potential solutions, such as coterminous four-year terms for the President and members of the House. But the basic thrust of his argument is that to break the deadlock, we need strong, internally unified parties controlling both branches of government. Alas, Burns’ dream has come true in part – at least the strong party portion – but against the recurring backdrop of divided government. It is a reminder to be careful what we wish for.

I never met Burns. But when I contemplated jumping from a major research university to a smaller liberal arts college, I looked around to see whether there were any presidential scholars still publishing regularly in a small college environment. Happily, Burns came immediately to mind. When I found out that he never left Williams during blueberry picking season, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. May you rest in peace, Professor Burns.

In the same week that Burns died, Peter Orszag, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office and later Obama’s first OMB director, published this Bloomberg column arguing that part of the blame for the political division in our nation’s Capitol lies with us, the voters. I don’t have the time (nor space) in the Sunday shorts section to give Orszag’s argument its due, but I do want to take time to clarify two potentially misleading points he makes. First, as evidence of growing polarization, he cites (as does everyone!) the recent Pew survey finding that partisans’ views of the opposing party are growing increasingly negative. But, of course, that finding is consistent with party sorting, rather than ideological polarization. If the opposing party is increasingly dominated by a more ideologically uniform view, it makes sense that it will be viewed with more suspicion by those in the opposing party – even if there has been no real aggregate increase in ideological polarization. It is just that the Democratic party has become more uniformly liberal, and the Republican’s more uniformly conservative – the definition of party sorting. If I lean slightly liberal, I would grow increasingly skeptical of a Republican party that has shed its more liberal members. But as I’ve noted before, there’s been no overall increase in the number of liberals (or Democrats) or conservatives (or Republicans) in the last two decades.

Second, Orszag takes Morris Fiorina to task for suggesting that “politicians are disconnected from the people.” In fact, Orszag argues, the evidence is that increasingly Republican representatives are catering to the needs of Republican voters in their district, and Democrats are responding likewise to their Democratic constituents. Rather than a disconnect, then, as Fiorina argues in his book by that name, Orszag believes the link between elected officials and partisans is growing stronger. But this is a misreading of Fiorina’s argument. What Orszag describes is in fact entirely consistent with Fiorina’s description of party sorting – as parties become more ideologically homogenous, it stands to reason that you nominate and elect more liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Instead, the real “disconnect” Fiorina writes about is between what elected officials produce acting collectively – say, legislation coming from Congress or, more accurately, NOT coming (cue Burns!)  – and what the general public wants. But don’t take my word for it – here’s what Fiorina wrote in Disconnect: “As the parties have become more internally homogenous and more distinct from each other (Democrats more liberal, Republicans more conservative), it is probable that dyadic or microrepresentation – the correspondence between the positions and actions of an elected official and the legal jurisdiction that elects him or her – has become easier and more accurate, whereas collective or macrorepresentation – the correspondence between what representative institutions produce and the entire public wants – has deteriorated.” In short, the evidence Orszag cites exactly supports Fiorina’s argument about a strengthening of partisan-oriented dyadic representation at the microlevel. The real disconnect that worries Fiorina is between what those officials do collectively in Congress and what the general public wants. Nothing Orszag cites contradicts Fiorina’s main point.

And finally, I note with sadness the passing of the legendary James Garner whose movie and television credits are too numerous to cite here. Garner, as you know, played a range of memorable characters (cue Rockford Files theme song.) But one of his more forgettable roles came in this 1996 film My Fellow Americans, in which Garner played an ex-president, along with his fellow ex-president Jack Lemmon. Here they reminisce about what they miss most about being president:

Have a great Sunday!

Sorted, Not Polarized: Why The Distinction Matters

When it comes to writing about polarization in American, who can blame journalists for expressing confusion? The Washington Post’s Dan Balz is the latest reporter to grapple with conflicting evidence and, perhaps more importantly, conflicting interpretation of the evidence by political scientists. In this recent article Balz discusses the results of a new study conducted by the Program for Consultation at the University of Maryland that shows there is little difference in the policy views of citizens in “red” and “blue” congressional districts.  (Their findings mirror those of Fiorina, Abrams and Pope in their Culture Wars?) In the same article, however, Balz also quotes political scientist Alan Abramowitz’s take on other data that Abramowitz suggests shows Americans are in fact deeply polarized.

But it is not just the conflicting interpretation of data that journalists must deal with – it is also the loose use of the term polarization itself that contributes to the problem. In common usage, polarization refers to the divergence of political attitudes toward ideological extremes, or a sharp division of a population or group into opposing factions. Understandably, when stories proclaim that Americans’ political views are increasingly polarized, most readers believe this means Americans must be dividing into two camps based on increasingly divergent political views. So, we must be seeing an increase in conservatives and in liberals, and a decrease in those holding more centrist views. (And, in fact, this seems to be what Professor Abramowitz, among others, believes is happening.)

However, as I have discussed in several posts, most of the evidence used to support this claim does not show a process of polarization, as commonly understood. Instead, it shows a process of party sorting. To understand the difference, consider these two graphs taken from a recent paper by Sam Abrams and Mo Fiorina that discusses polarization and sorting. This first graph illustrates what most people think of when they hear the term political polarization. It shows the elimination from Time 1 to Time 2 in the number of moderates, as well as non-liberals in the Democratic Party and non-conservatives in the Republican Party. The end result is an increase in the number of liberals and conservatives, and the disappearance of moderates, consistent with what many people understand polarization to mean.

Fiorina polarizationNow, consider graph 2. Here the total number of moderates does not change from Time 1 to Time 2, but both parties purge themselves (through conversion and migration) of most of those who are out of step with the party’s dominant ideology (although some moderate leaners remain in each party). However, there is no increase in the total number of liberals or conservatives – indeed, in the aggregate, the distribution of political ideology hasn’t changed at all. All that has occurred is a better sorting of party affiliation with ideology, so that the Democratic Party has become more uniformly liberal and the Republican more uniformly conservative.

Fiorina party sorting

Which is more consistent with what has actually happened in the United States? You decide. Here is a chart, again from Abrams and Fiorina, showing the change in the distribution of partisan affiliation, based on American National Election Studies surveys,  since 1952. As you can see, if there is any long-term movement, it is in the slight increase in the number of self-described independents and those leaning independent.

PartisanstableHow about changes in ideology over time? Again, as the following chart shows, we see very little movement in those calling themselves liberals, moderates and conservatives.

ideologystableBoth sets of data, then, are consistent with what Fiorina (and others) have described as party sorting, rather than political polarization. Nonetheless, some colleagues in the profession suggest that party sorting is itself simply another version of polarization. The argument is that even if the parties, or the number of liberals and conservatives, have not grown larger at the expense of the moderate middle, the center of ideological gravity in each party has certainly shifted toward the extremes. So we have seen a process of partisan polarization, albeit not the kind that comports with what many laypeople understand polarization to mean.

I am uncomfortable with this broader use of the term polarization for several reasons. First, most laypeople, including journalists, don’t always appreciate the differences in the two processes – when they see the phrase polarization, they assume it means a general movement within the public toward the ideological extremes at the expense of the center. (It doesn’t help that stories often drop the adjective partisan when describing polarization.) It bears repeating that there has been no real growth in the number of Democrats or Republicans, which some might argue should be happening based on the term partisan polarization. Second, encompassing different processes under the single term robs polarization of some of its analytical bite. If the processes are different, we ought to acknowledge that by using different terminology. It is confusing enough for journalists and laypeople to hear social scientists give different interpretations based on the same set of data. We shouldn’t further muddy the waters by using the same term to describe very different processes. (Otherwise we should expect more stories with the headlines similar to “We’re Not That Polarized. Oh Yes, We Are”.) If journalists are going to rely on social scientists for guidance on these issues, we need to strive for clarity and precision in terminology. Finally, the implications of a growth in party sorting are much different than those emanating from increased political polarization. To use one example, if the public is more polarized, then it becomes harder to blame Congress for partisan gridlock, since they are simply mirroring broader divisions within their constituencies. But if the views of red state and blue state denizens are not so divergent on major issues, as the survey Balz cites suggests, then we must look elsewhere to place the blame.

In my view, polarization and sorting are two different processes, and we ought to recognize this. We can start by retitling Balz’s story: “We’re Not That Polarized. But We Are Better Sorted. And the Distinction Matters.”