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Since the 1970s the American political system has undergone a dramatic increase in partisan polarization. By polarization, we mean that the parties are “far apart” from each other. This is largely, but not exclusively, a matter of policy views, although it may include important elements of identity-based tribalism. In a highly polarized environment, parties view one another as competing camps engaged in a battle where the stakes attached to victory or defeat are extremely high.
The COVID-19 pandemic that struck the United States in early 2020 amplified already-stark economic and political divisions and revealed a nation unprepared to launch an immediate public health and economic response. Whether it was the fragmentation of the American federal system, the glaring racial and class disparities in economic and health outcomes, or the weaknesses of America’s tattered safety net, the crisis brought America’s distinctive mix of multi-venue governance, limited social protections, weak labor power, and loosely regulated markets prominently – and often tragically – into display.
A striking feature of the American political economy is its fragmentation. The constitutionally protected role of the states and the localized quality of many crucial policies foster a political economy that is at once national – the rich world’s most extensive nation-spanning market – and sectional, with states or groups of states constituting distinct political economies that often have enormous scope of their own.
As this group met in Cambridge in late February 2020 to discuss revised chapters for this project, we did not know that a COVID-19 super-spreader event was unfolding less than three miles away – ironically, at the conference of a major bio-technology firm. By October, estimates suggested that the strains unleashed at that single event might have infected 300,000 Americans (Wines and Harmon 2020). Well before then, of course, it was clear that a world-historical calamity was unfolding before us.
This volume brings together leading political scientists to explore the distinctive features of the American political economy. The introductory chapter provides a comparatively informed framework for analyzing the interplay of markets and politics in the United States, focusing on three key factors: uniquely fragmented and decentralized political institutions; an interest group landscape characterized by weak labor organizations and powerful, parochial business groups; and an entrenched legacy of ethno-racial divisions embedded in both government and markets. Subsequent chapters look at the fundamental dynamics that result, including the place of the courts in multi-venue politics, the political economy of labor, sectional conflict within and across cities and regions, the consolidation of financial markets and corporate monopoly and monopsony power, and the ongoing rise of the knowledge economy. Together, the chapters provide a revealing new map of the politics of democratic capitalism in the United States.
The growing insecurity of American households is often seen as an exogenous economic change beyond political control. In this chapter, we argue instead that it is to a very large extent a result of endogenous political and policy developments. Moreover, we suggest that many, though certainly not all, of these developments are specific to the United States. In particular, we focus on three: (1) the erosion of America’s distinctive framework of social provision, which is uniquely reliant on private risk pooling by employers; (2) the weakness of social solidarity and resonance of racial (rather than class) appeals in our increasingly polarized society; and (3) the growing extremism of the Republican Party, enabled and propelled by its capacity to forge an uneasy “plutocratic-populist” coalition of upscale economic conservatives and downscale social conservatives. Understanding these three developments is essential to grasping not just how America insecurity arose but also whether it might yet be addressed.
A decade after a pointed critique of the discipline's retreat from the study of power (Moe 2005), evidence of a “power-free political science” is more widespread than ever. At least as it is practiced in the field of American politics – which plays a leading role in shaping the contours of the discipline as a whole – power and influence remain elusive, unhelpful, and marginalized concepts. When Americanists have gone looking for “power” – decisive political advantages for those with more resources – they mostly haven't found it. There is very little evidence showing that campaign contributions or lobbying systematically effect roll call votes in Congress (Schlozman, Verba, and Brady 2012). Stephen Ansolabehere, John de Figueiredo, and James Snyder provocatively asked, “Why is there so little money in American politics?” They found that although this was partly because donating raised big collective action problems, it was equally because money seemed to make little difference to electoral outcomes (Ansolabehere, de Figueiredo, and Snyder 2003). A broad and sophisticated study of lobbying from some of the leading scholars of interest groups recently reported that it could “find virtually no linkage between [group] resources and outcomes” (Baumgartner et al. 2009). Of course, the inability to find power in empirical research is especially puzzling given the extraordinary increase in economic inequality in the United States over the past generation.
Nor is the elusiveness of power just an empirical matter. More fundamentally, power doesn't really fit in the leading frameworks for studying American politics. These frameworks typically depict politics as fluid or “plastic.” Elections follow a Downsian logic; this cycle's loser adjusts and becomes the next cycle's winner. Take out incumbency, David Mayhew observes, and presidential elections over the past century or so have been essentially a coin toss between the two parties (Mayhew 2002). Legislatures are under the sway of Arrow's paradox of voting so that losers in any legislative struggle are well positioned to cycle back into the winner's position.
Until recently, institutionally minded scholars in the social sciences generally treated institutions as fixed. Whether defined as the rules of the political game, the standard operating procedures of bureaucracies, or the regularized norms guiding organizational behavior, institutions were associated with stability and were invoked as independent or intervening variables to explain persistent cross-national differences in outcomes. More recent work in the field, however, has attempted to provide greater insight into how institutions evolve and how institutional effects can change over time. Instead of seeing institutions as largely unchanging features of the political environment, these arguments seek to specify what kinds of institutional changes propelled by what kinds of social processes are most likely under what kinds of political configurations.
This chapter advances this more recent agenda, examining two important, common, and theoretically explicable processes through which institutional effects change over time, which we call “drift” and “conversion.” Drift occurs when institutions or policies are deliberately held in place while their context shifts in ways that alter their effects. A simple example is the US minimum wage, which is not indexed to inflation and thus declines in value as prices rise unless new federal legislation is enacted. Those wishing to effect change through drift need only prevent the updating of existing rules. Drift thus depends on how sensitive the effects of an institution are to its context, whether policies are designed in ways that foster updating in the face of changing circumstances, and whether it is easy or difficult to block such updating.
Conversion, by contrast, occurs when political actors are able to redirect institutions or policies toward purposes beyond their original intent. An example is the ability of corporations to use the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to hinder labor unions. Passed amid widespread concern about corporate collusion, the legislation was meant to break up business trusts that were “in restraint of trade.” Yet corporations managed to convince federal courts that union organizing was “in restraint of trade.”
The goal of this volume is to explore possible solutions to a host of problems associated with polarization. Effective prescription, however, hinges on accurate diagnosis. Far too many discussions of polarization are based on a flawed one: that polarization is broadly similar in degree and kind at both ends of the political spectrum. This claim that political polarization is symmetrical is false: polarization is mainly driven by a sharp retreat from moderation on the right side of the spectrum. This development has occurred across multiple dimensions, from voting patterns and intensity of preferences to concrete policy demands and willingness to use once-rare hardball tactics. Prescriptions that ignore or downplay this reality are very likely to be ineffective and may even make the real problems worse.
This chapter briefly summarizes the evidence that contemporary polarization is asymmetric, before turning to a slightly longer discussion of the mechanisms that generate and sustain this outcome. This discussion in turn provides the basis for identifying initiatives that might address the central and most corrosive aspect of our “polarized politics”: the ever greater extremism of the modern Republican Party.
POLARIZATION IS ASYMMETRIC
Although it is still not conventional to frame discussions of polarization as asymmetric, there is mounting evidence that the increasing distance between the two parties is primarily a consequence of the Republican Party's 35-year march to the right (Hacker and Pierson 2005; Mann and Ornstein 2012; Theriault 2013). As the creators of DW-Nominate scores, the core data that have been used to document rising elite polarization, recently put it, “We should be careful not to equate the two parties' roles in contemporary political polarization: the data are clear that this is a Republican-led phenomenon where very conservative Republicans have replaced moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats … Moreover, the rise of the ‘Tea Party’ will likely only move Congressional Republicans further away from the political center” (Hare, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2012).
Extensions of DW-Nominate to presidents and to vice-presidential candidates show the same pattern.