Friday, June 14, 2019

How Polarization Leads to Disjunction-- There Must Be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Party


For the symposium on Sanford Levinson and Jack M. Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

In my last post I argued that regime change will occur with or without transformative leadership on the order of Jackson or Lincoln. In this post, I take up two important questions posed by Corey Robin.

First, how can a new dominant party system emerge under conditions of high polarization? Robin argues that polarization "is antithetical to the idea of disjunction, to the scrambling of the electorate and defections of party politicians that we see under disjunctive regimes." Polarization keeps the Republicans together so they don't split apart and create an opening for a new dominant party.

Second, Robin points out, reconstructions from the left have been led by powerful social movements like anti-slavery and labor.  What are we to make of the fact that the Democrats don’t seem to be a social movement party?

As to the first point, it’s important to understand that asymmetric polarization—whereby the Republican party has moved decisively to the right while the Democrats have moved only slightly to the left—has helped cause the breakup of the contemporary Republican Party, not prevented it. But how can that be, if, as Robin argues, polarization binds party members every more tightly to each other?

When we look for signs of a coalition’s demise, we generally look for fights within the party's existing base. These fights are a bad sign for the coalition’s health. But the reason why they are a bad sign is that they may eventually cause people to leave the party. Fights are a symptom of collapse—but the actual collapse is losing relative numbers of voters vis a vis the ascending coalition.

Basically, there are two ways for a collation to lose members: one is defection to the new coalition. The other is the inability to reproduce the coalition in the next generation.  An example of the first phenomenon is Reagan Democrats leaving the New Deal Coalition and signing on to the Reagan coalition. An example of the second phenomenon is young baby boomers and Gen X’ers deciding that they like the Republicans better and voting Republican most of their adult lives.

Pronounced asymmetric polarization does not cause messy breakups of the kind that happened within the Democratic Party in the 1970s. Instead, polarization (ironically) makes defection less salient, because the people who stay agree with each other and more. Even more important, assymmetric polarization makes it increasingly difficult for the coalition to reproduce itself in the next generation. In a depolarized politics, defection may be as important to the end of a coalition as the failure of the party to reproduce its coalition in the next generation. In a polarized politics, my guess is that failure to reproduce is the more important phenomenon.

Quiet defections vs noisy defections: Begin with defection. When people see that the party is ever more ideologically blinkered and impervious to reality, it causes them to think that it’s not even worth fighting for the soul of the party, and they just leave the party. This makes defection less salient than in situations in which there is a dramatic ongoing struggle. That is, we get "quiet" rather than "noisy" defections.

College educated voters and professionals, who used to be a crucial part of the traditional Republican party in the middle of the twentieth century, have been leaving the party for some time now. They have left relatively quietly. And if you think about it, in a party increasingly dominated by conservative media, talk radio, and Fox News, they would not get a chance to air their grievances all that much anyway.  (Who was the primary talking head in the Fox News prime-time lineup standing up for educated professionals and moderate Republicanism? Hannity, Limbaugh, and O’Reilly appealed to working class whites and repeatedly denounced elite culture.)

Increasing polarization--and the media strategy that accompanied it-- likely dampened the voices of people who ultimately left the party. Perhaps more to the point, given the media strategy and the move to conservative identity politics, defection wasn't all that serious a problem. The Republican Party has traded in professionals and college graduates for working-class whites, and because there are many more working-class whites than college educated whites, the loss is hardly noticeable. Indeed, if the party can attract enough white-working class voters into the party, it may be a very good bargain.  That, it seems, has been the point of the party’s flirtation with a politics organized around white identity, Christian identity, and perpetual grievance.

Reproduction of the coalition over time: However, and far more important, a party’s coalition has to reproduce itself over time in order to stay viable nationally. That means that a successful political party is not only a coalition of interest groups, but also a coalition of generations. There have to be lots of young Republicans constantly joining the party as well as old Republicans, or the party withers away.

To be blunt, asymmetric polarization has poisoned this process of generational replacement. As David Brooks noted in a recent column, most young people really seem to hate the Republican party. They hate it precisely because it has polarized.  So instead of a fight within the party—the familiar scenario of a coalition that breaks apart— young people just don’t show up in the first place.

If we view disjunction through the lens of the Republican Party in the 1930s or the Democratic Party in the 1980s, we are likely to be misled.  Those disjunctions occurred in relatively non-polarized times. Polarization, however, creates its own distinctive form of coalitional breakdown, whose mechanisms are a bit different. 

To paraphrase Paul Simon, there must be fifty ways to leave your party—or never join it in the first place.

What about the fact that the Democrats are not a social movement party?  Here, I think that Corey Robin is right when he says that we are moving toward “a purely political reconstruction, shorn of the social movements that helped make previous left reconstructions what they were.” But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a new dominant party. It just means that the new regime will not have the same kind of transformative energy.

Yet if we separate regime change from reconstructive presidential leadership and a social movement party, what do we have left? We continue to have the rise and fall of governing coalitions. We continue to have a new dominant party-- most likely the Democrats. The president will still appoint the federal judiciary, and still control the federal bureaucracy. Constitutional change will continue apace in the federal courts. The bureaucracy will still engage in interstitial lawmaking.

But legislative reforms will occur more slowly. The Democrats will have to regain the Senate and get rid of the filibuster, because it makes no sense in a polarized politics with parliamentary style parties.  For this reason, I do not expect a flurry of legislative reforms in the beginning of the next regime, as happened in the 1930s.

The result may be only modest, slow change, which will often be frustrating. Skowronek predicts that presidential leadership styles will become more similar to each other. The President’s job will increasingly become artful policy management in the face of institutional constraints. Presidents may have only limited options to change the system. Politics may offer only opportunities for pragmatic adjustments, compromises, and policy kludges.  Of course, if, heaven forbid, we face a serious crisis or emergency, or a war on our own soil, that will change the opportunities for transformative leadership significantly.

Eventually accumulated impediments will fall away, decay, or be overthrown. Opportunities for reconstructive leadership may someday emerge again. (Once again, crisis and emergency may create these opportunities.) A social movement may yet arise and take over the Democratic Party.  But all that is still in the future. In the early years of the regime, at least, we should not expect the second coming of FDR.

If you are an economic egalitarian hoping for substantial change, this account is likely to leave you deeply dissatisfied. The best you may be able to hope for is a series of Obama-like reforms. That is not nothing—but it is not the New Deal.

Another way to understand our current situation is to look at the likely configuration of the political parties in the coming regime. That is the subject of the next installment.

Posts in this series:

1. Escaping Dysfunction
2. Cycle of Presidents or Cycle of Regimes?
3. How Polarization Leads to Disjunction-- There Must be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Party
4. The New Party Configuration
5. The Limits of a Cosmopolitan Party
6. How Constitutional Rot Ends


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