Lee Drutman, “How Much Longer Can This Era of Political Gridlock Last?” FiveThirtyEight, March 4, 2021 https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-longer-can-this-era-of-political-gridlock-last/.
History holds, at best, a half lesson here. This current period of partisan stalemate stands out in a few respects when we consider America’s long history with partisan conflict. For starters, the period we find ourselves in now is unique in that the national partisan balance of power is extremely close (with control of national government up for grabs in almost every cycle), even as most states and most voters are either solidly Democratic or Republican. What’s more, the national outcome often hinges on just a few swing states and districts. This period is also unique in the extent to which America is divided. Hatred toward the other party drives our politics. This produces a deeply polarizing and highly destructive form of partisan trench warfare that threatens to erode the very legitimacy of American democracy.
Rather, the simple lesson from history might be this: Our current extended period of closely contested national elections atop stable and persistently uncontested state and local elections is truly unprecedented.
The last time we encountered anything similar, American party politics were substantively different and the precursors of impending realignment far clearer. But today, the factors locking in continued closely-balanced hyper-partisan politics are much stronger. And absent a major change to the rules of our elections, no realignment lies in sight. Instead, deepening partisan trench warfare will only worsen fights over the basic rules of voting, undermining the shared legitimacy of elections on which democracy depends.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He’s the author of the book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”
Lee Drutman, “How Hatred Came to Dominate American Politics,” FiveThirtyEight, Oct. 5, 2020 https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-hatred-negative-partisanship-came-to-dominate-american-politics/.
This is hardly a new trend; in fact, it’s increasingly common among American voters. However, this level of hatred — which political scientists call “negative partisanship” — has reached levels that are not just bad for democracy, but are potentially destructive. And extreme partisan animosity is a prelude to democratic collapse.
It wasn’t always this bad, though. Forty years ago, when asked to rate how “favorable and warm” their opinion of each party was, the average Democrat and Republican said they felt OK-ish about the opposite party. But for four decades now, partisans have increasingly turned against each other in an escalating cycle of dislike and distrust — views of the other party are currently at an all-time low.
So how did we get to this point?
Broadly speaking, there are three trends that we can point to. The first is the steady nationalization of American politics. The second is the sorting of Democrats and Republicans along urban/rural and culturally liberal/culturally conservative lines, and the third is the increasingly narrow margins in national elections.
This brings us to the second trend that has contributed to the rise of negative partisanship: sorting. The ideologies of the party were less hard and fast 40 years ago. The Republican Party had a significant share of moderates and liberals, the inheritors of a tradition of moderate good-government Yankee republicanism that dated back to President Lincoln, and the Democratic Party once had a significant share of conservative populists from the South and the Great Plains.
In this sense, American politics operated more like a four-party system, with jumbled liberal and conservative coalitions within and across the two parties. Senators and representatives’ distinct geographic outlooks mattered more than their parties, with complex coalitions of urban liberals and rural conservatives in both parties. However, as our politics became increasingly nationalized, the political sorting of the parties accelerated. The civil rights movement is the most obvious example of this: Many in political science consider it the most significant issue (though far from the only issue) driving political sorting, as it changed the center of gravity in both parties.
Today, it’s simply harder for voters to hold a viewpoint that doesn’t align with their party. For instance, there are far fewer anti-abortion Democrats or abortion-rights Republicans now than 30 years ago because these kinds of stances are unwelcome in the party. Some voters changed their party to match their beliefs; others changed their beliefs to match their party. But ultimately, both shifts contributed to the parties taking clearer and more distinct stances on a growing number of social issues, which led to more and more voters adjusting their views to match their partisanship.
Political scientists have called this process “conflict extension.” The basic idea is that as more issues have become nationalized, partisan conflicts have broadened to absorb these issues. And as the parties have taken clearer national stances, particularly around cultural and identity-based issues, voters sort more clearly into parties based on these stances.