Robert C. Lieberman is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Kenneth M. Roberts is the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government and Binenkorb Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University. David A. Bateman is an associate professor in the Government Department at Cornell University. Robert and Kenneth (along with Suzanne Mettler) coedited the book Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? David is a contributor to the volume. His chapter is “Elections, Polarization, and Democratic Resilience.”
So, the question is how do you respond to that? If you are the party that sees itself as being on the side of democracy and on the side of maintaining democratic norms and procedures and maintaining this kind of democratic accountability, how do you respond? Do you respond in kind? Do you respond with hardball tactics of your own?
- Why did polarization become so severe in the United States?
- When did pernicious polarization start in America?
- Is polarization the fault of just one party or both?
- Discussion on possible judicial reforms as a solution
- Can America overcome this episode of severe polarization?
About this time last year on January 6th, the United States faced the physical manifestation of decades of political polarization. America was no longer simply divided into political parties. It was divided into two realities. At the center of the conflict was the outgoing President, Donald Trump. But it’s a mistake in politics to focus too much on any one person. As Robert Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth Roberts write, “The trends that endanger American democracy are not the product of a single presidency; rather, they have been on the rise for decades and they threaten to persist well beyond the Trump administration.”
As we all reflect on the events from last year, I wanted to examine the state of polarization in American politics today. Robert Lieberman, Kenneth Roberts, and David Bateman are contributors to a new book called Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? This new volume does more than examine polarization. It considers how democracies survive despite it.
Our conversation considers the reasons for polarization in the United States, but also searches for solutions. Unfortunately, you’ll find there are no easy answers. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll find that our conversation goes well beyond the surface level complaints about polarization to consider the topic from multiple angles and perspectives.
But before we begin I want to take a moment to thank an Ashley Nichols from the Growing Democracy Podcast. In a recent review she described Democracy Paradox as “Engaging and Thought Provoking.” It’s exciting to receive a review from Ashley, because I really respect the Growing Democracy Podcast. They discuss politics from a variety of angles with other academics and even local politicians and community leaders. It’s among the podcasts I listen to so I can keep up on the latest ideas on democracy. So, thank you, Ashley. It’s greatly appreciated. But for now… this is my conversation with Robert Lieberman, Kenneth Roberts, and David Bateman…
Robert Lieberman, Kenneth Roberts and David Bateman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having us.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Well, Rob, it’s been a little while, but I’m excited to have you on the podcast again. The last time that we talked, we talked about the Four Threats and how we had all of these four threats converging in American politics to kind of create a dangerous recipe for democracy. But when we talked, the underlying threat, the one that exacerbated all of them was really polarization. And so, I was really excited that you brought together an edited volume that really focused on how polarization affects American politics. But when we think about polarization, it’s always a question in the back of my mind as to how polarization exactly started. So, let me pose this question to you. Did the polarization of American politics begin with the people or did it begin with its leaders?
It’s very hard to sort out where polarization started. Is this a bottom-up phenomenon or is this a top-down phenomenon? But one of the things that we’re trying to do in this book is to bring together scholars who focus on different dimensions of polarization. Some people think of polarization as primarily an elite phenomenon, a matter of ideological distance among members of Congress, for example, or as a problem of partisan competition among political elites. Whereas other people think about polarization as a broad-based popular phenomenon. The problem of social sorting that people are being divided into different, non-overlapping communities. And that the old picture of American society is one of cross-cutting cleavages has declined.
And we felt that it was important among other things that we bring together people from these different schools of thought about what polarization is and bring them into conversation with each other so that we can get a more rounded multi-dimensional picture of what polarization means. And that I think is one of the really important things that we’re trying to do in the book
Well, Kenneth, you’ve studied politics, especially in Latin America, but you have more of a comparative view on this. And one of the essays that really drew me in was looking at polarization, not just in the United States, but how it compares to polarization around the world. The idea of this concept of pernicious polarization that we see, not just in the United States, but elsewhere. So, I’d like to ask you a broader question on polarization itself. If you can help us understand the difference between what we describe as almost a healthy polarization and the more dangerous version for democracy, what we call a more pernicious polarization.
Yeah, thanks. I think this is an important question and certainly you see processes of polarization taking place in democratic regimes around the world. And in some cases, it’s been associated with processes of what we often call democratic backsliding or the erosion of democracy. And in the book, there’s a chapter by Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer that look at what they call pernicious polarization, which is essentially where polarization begins to feed on itself. And it becomes very difficult to have any sort of cross-cutting cleavages or to have intermediate positions between the contending sides.
And in particular, I would argue that where polarization really becomes pernicious is when it goes beyond simply ideological or programmatic differences to begin to affect the institutions and the functioning of the institutions. And in particular, where the actors begin to have major conflicts over the basic rules of the game that are designed to process and regulate political conflict. And so, I think it’s important to understand some polarization is arguably good for democracy. It allows political parties to take meaningfully different stands on the issues and to try to appeal to diverse constituencies within society. And for those of us who work on democracy in other parts of the world, we often talk about how it’s not healthy when all the political parties basically stand for the same thing and they’re not offering voters meaningfully different options.
And so, some differentiation or polarization is good and democracy is set up to try to process that and to regulate the conflicts. And the problem really becomes when the two sides are so far apart where the level of animosity and distrust across the different sides become so extreme that they don’t recognize the legitimacy of the other actor and they begin to manipulate the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and to concentrate powers and to tilt the democratic playing field against the other side. That I would argue is when polarization really becomes pernicious. And I would argue that we have reached that stage in the United States when you begin to see real conflict over the institutions that are set up to try to manage the more regular kinds of competition and conflict that we have.
Yeah. But when I think of polarization within the United States, even though it’s framed in these ideological, , conversations, it seems like it’s less of an ideological polarization and more of an affective polarization, as they say. Shanto Iyengar and some other scholars wrote in a recent article called “Affect, Not Ideology,” “Principled dislike of the out-party makes up only a small component of inter-party affect. As we have suggested, the more plausible explanation of intensified inter-party animus lies in the rhetoric of political campaigns.” In other words, it’s not the actual issues that create this pernicious polarization. It’s oftentimes the feelings and the sense of identity behind who people are and how they think of themselves that creates this toxic polarization, if we will, when we think of polarization in the United States. David, is this the type of polarization that we oftentimes see?
So, I think the question is a great one, precisely because it gets to the complexity of polarization and how we should be thinking of it as a very complex phenomenon that may not look the same when we’re talking about sort of political leadership or elected politicians, interest groups, and mass publics. And so, just to go back to your question, your first question, did polarization of American politics begin with the people or their leaders. It’s a very important question, but it can kind of obscure something that I think is important. And that’s that in many ways Americans have always been polarized. There’s always been deep axes of difference, deep cleavages, deep animosities, deep dislikes.
What’s different about the contemporary era and what we think about in polarization is how those differences have become sort of organized around a political divide that does have substansive ideological and principled stakes, but the principled stakes don’t exhaust the difference. So, the political parties can be sort of highlighted as having real differences in their positions and growing differences. And in many ways that are quite extreme positions, especially on the right. And yet, that’s not what polarization means entirely. It’s an essential factor, part of it. But I think that in the United States, we are seeing this sort of pattern of different groups trying to get different ends. Right?
So, someone wants somebody to win office. Some want to achieve a policy agenda. Some want some type of sort of valorization of their particular status claims working together to achieve these. And sort of this is what drives the complexity of polarization in the United States is this mingling and this merger of these different facets. And that’s sort of what we mean when people say the reduction of these cross-cutting cleavages. It used to be the case that you would have one sort of set of polarization. That one polarized cleavage that was very intensely felt within the electorate within sort of the public. And yet, it sort of operated primarily within the same party.
And so, you can think of liberal Democrats, Northern Democrats, African American voters in the South and white voters in the south who for a period of time were in the same party despite high levels of animosity and antagonism. The reduction of those cross-cutting cleavages into something that’s more complex and gets more bifurcated. That is sort of one of the major themes of polarization in the US.
But at the same time, especially in the Democratic Party right now, we see a lot of polarization within that party itself. We have differences between the far left and more moderate Democrats fighting over types of issues and what the Democratic Party exactly stands for. I mean the Republican Party feels a lot more homogenous, but even there we have identity politics, kind of a Trumpian politics against a more libertarian leaning Republican Party at the same time. So, have those differences really disappeared or are they just not emphasized in the same way that they used to?
I think we can think about this in terms as a matter of degree. The differences haven’t disappeared in one sense, right? The Republican Party and the Democratic Party have always been internally heterogeneous and they remain internally heterogeneous. However, the Republican Party has always been less internally heterogeneous than the Democratic Party. And both of them are less internally heterogeneous today than probably any time in their history. So, that we can see that they have factions there is a distinction between sort of left-wing Democrats and liberal Democrats, but that distinction has always been there.
And you can think of sort of just the space in which they’re operating as being at least at an ideological level, relatively diminished. There are probably fewer disagreements within the Democratic caucus now than there were in 2000. That the variation has been reduced even though there remains this heterogeneity. So, I think we can think about these things in terms of both degree relative to a history that they’ve always been internally heterogeneous. And just the size of the country means that they’re going to remain internally heterogeneous, but that internal heterogeneity has shrunk for both parties.
I think that’s right. And I think it’s also the case that the internal heterogeneity of the parties is smaller than the distance between the parties which was also not true in the past. And that shapes the way the parties interact with each other. It shapes the way Congress operates and it creates this intense competition between the parties. One of the authors in the book, Frances Lee, has written a lot about the way in which partisan competition and close partisan competition drives the sense of difference between the parties that’s separate from ideological distance.
But it has to do with this sort of competitiveness which leads to what she calls teamsmanship. And in her chapter in the book, she shows the way these cross-cutting cleavages that David was describing have declined in Congress in ways that have affected the effectiveness and efficacy of Congress as a lawmaking institution.
Rob, I want to ask you because you’ve really gone back, especially in the Four Threats book, but some of your other research as well to understand the history of American politics and to a large degree how polarization changed over time. We take for granted that polarization today is very toxic in the United States, but we also take for granted that it hasn’t always been as toxic. When did political polarization become so toxic in the United States? When did that happen?
In the most recent episode, I think you can probably trace it back to the 1970s, 1980s as the post-war era of prosperity began to wane. The rise of Newt Gingrich as a leader of the Republican Party certainly played a role in the sharpness of the distinction between the parties. And that era, I think, and the actions of leaders like Gingrich drove a wedge between the parties that has snowballed to some degree to this day. In the book, there’s an essay by Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler that outlined some of the ways in which polarization has changed.
And they highlight the notion that polarization doesn’t mean the same thing in every era of American history. That the ways that we’ve been describing polarization, ideological distance, competition as affective or social polarization, are supported by what they call meso-level institutions. The way in which interest groups and state level parties and the media can either contain polarization to make it this kind of healthy polarization that Ken was describing a little while ago or can inflame it in a way that moves it more toward the pernicious kind of polarization. So, that history and the way in which polarization means different things at different times is a really important theme of the book.
If I could just add onto that, Justin. I think, you know, to come back to what Rob was saying about this key period in the seventies and eighties and then clearly intensifying with Gingrich’s leadership in Congress in the 1990s. But in some ways, this is the playing out of the basic realignments of the US party system that takes place as a result of the Civil Rights Movement in the fifties and sixties. And then the conservative counter mobilization against that and so what you get then with the realignment of the South from the Democratic camp into the Republican camp.
And what that does is aligns the cultural conservatives with the economic conservatives in the same political party whereas previously the two parties really did have cross-cutting cleavages and they overlapped in the center. You had liberal Republicans and you had very conservative Democrats. But with this realignment of the party system as part of the mobilization and then the counter mobilization against the social movements in the 1960s, you get a real parting of the waters and so gradually that begins to affect the macro-level functioning of the institutions.
Of course, in the 1950s and in the 1940s, when you had the old system, the old party structure, it wasn’t necessarily all peaches and roses. I mean, there are some serious problems with the way how American governance worked. There’s a classic book called Master of the Senate that talks about Lyndon Johnson’s life during the exact period where he was in the Senate. And it does a phenomenal job of detailing how the divides within the Senate, the fact that the south would oftentimes partner with Republican Senators in the Midwest to be able to kill Civil Rights legislation and to kill a lot of different types of legislation. So, that Lyndon Johnson became such a strong character in the Senate because he was able to navigate and get things done.
But before him not a lot of stuff actually did get done in the United States Senate. And I’m going through a long mention regarding this, because one of the institutions that’s incredibly important for any democracy is going to be the legislature and making sure that it performs well, that it succeeds. And in the book, Kenneth and Robert along with Suzanne, in your initial essay, you write, “Congress may still remain the most resilient of the national institutions to democratic erosion.” At the same time, Congress hasn’t always done the best job throughout its history. It’s oftentimes been one of the institutions that Americans trust least and oftentimes fails to deliver results. I’d like to know more about how Congress is really going to be the place that holds down democracy when so few Americans actually find that they trust it at all.
The question of Congress’s role in either making polarization worse or restraining it is actually really interesting. I mean, at some level, and this is one of the things that Frances Lee highlights in her chapter in the book, Congress remains moderately functional. Look at just the last couple of years. Congress passed in a bipartisan way two pretty large Covid relief packages. One in 2020 and one in 2021. It passed a major infrastructure bill earlier this year. There’s still a reasonable chance that it will pass the Build Back Better Biden Administration package, although that wouldn’t be bipartisan if and when it happens.
So, at one level Congress is still doing what it’s always done. But also, and, your Lyndon Johnson example reminds us of this, it’s also an institution that in some ways resists democratization. The Senate is a really disproportional institution. It privileges depopulated places. It gives extra representation to rural places. The filibuster similarly allows minorities to block the will of the majority. And the structure of Congress impedes the performance of what we call in the introduction, vertical accountability, the sort of ability of governing institutions to reflect the will of the voters. And that’s one of the things that can get in the way of democracy and help erode democracy. When people on either side of a political divide don’t perceive the government as being functional, as responding to social problems, that can make democratic accountability and democratic resilience the real problems.
Yeah, I think Congress has this sort of weird role and that it is simultaneously, depending on how you understand the danger to democracy in United States right now, it’s simultaneously the institution that is most important and doing the best job in a way of impeding threats to democratization. I think it’s actually doing a relatively good job on that. And you can see on a variety of issues that the Trump Administration, for instance, would send something to Congress and Congress would just do nothing about it.
And so, in so far as the threat comes from efforts of sort of executive aggrandizement, the ability to sort of use the full powers of the federal government to pursue undemocratic goals, Congress is at its best because Congress is at his best sometimes when it does nothing. And so, if it does nothing, well, nothing happens in many ways. It might lead to sort of increase in executive power. Although there’s some discussion about that, especially in Doug Criner’s article. But like Congress doing nothing can be a real bulwark for democratic institutions.
At the same time, however it means because Congress can do so little and at least in a certain degree, it cannot produce the type of major structural changes to the society or the political economy of the country that might actually respond to polarization. So, Congress is very good at sustaining a functional level of keeping the government running or passing some big changes, but nothing that sort of responds to the ideological demands or the sort of policy demands within the country which leaves everyone sort of who’s making those demands whether on the right or the left or on the center saying, ‘Well, Congress is dysfunctional.’ And so, it persists. It embeds this disappointment in Congress.
There’s another aspect which Congress can be left unaccountable, because Congress can’t act really on its own. It needs the president. And it’s difficult enough for Congress to act on its own given the divisions between the chamber and given the filibuster that Congress has this limited capacity to act without supermajorities. Members of Congress can always sort of take positions that they think will sort of help them electorally that they don’t actually intend to pursue and that they don’t think that they need to pursue. And this generates and then sort of further entrenches this notion that Congress is not functional and that the government is not functional. This lack of responsibility on Congress’ part can be sort of a major contributor to the decline of democratic trust.
But I think when it comes down to it, it depends a lot on how you perceive the danger. If the danger is one in which the best thing to be done is to stop action, that might be happening. Then Congress is doing a great job at that. If the danger is not one that needs to be met with paralysis, but that needs to be met with action, whether through efforts to sort of protect voting rights, efforts to re-secure the social stability and the social foundations of civic life. If that’s what Congress needs to be doing, then Congress is going to fail at that and it’s going to fail more times than not. So, it might be a bulwark, but it’s also kind of a trap because it doesn’t allow us to get out of it.
Let me ask you a follow-up on that. So, Joe Biden is now the President and he has made a concerted effort to try to involve Congress. And, of course, we all recognize that his predecessor, Donald Trump, in terms of polarization, he exacerbated it. He made it far worse. But Joe Biden was supposed to come in and help diminish that sense of polarization. Help roll it back. Turn down the temperature, if you will, in the room. Has Joe Biden succeeded in that? Has he diminished or has he actually exacerbated polarization in America through his Presidency?
I don’t want to say that he’s diminished or exacerbated it, but I think it’s also in a way too early to tell. But it’s also sort of a very, very difficult standard. Imagine you’re playing soccer with a friend and the friend decides to pick up the ball and sort of run with it. There’s not much you can do to stop that. And so, there’s not much you can do. If polarization is the same type of moving away from norms, moving away from rules and when one side starts to do it, there’s not much you can do individually to stop them. You can pick up the ball and run with it yourself, but you can’t do much to diminish it.
So, I think that is sort of a bit of a difficult standard to ask the President, especially within a polarized structure, within a polarized context to do much about reducing polarization. I don’t think Presidents have that capacity.
Well, let me bring up a different institution for everybody. The judiciary is an institution that has been really at the center of backsliding episodes around the world. We look at Poland and Hungary. Those are two countries where the conversations about backsliding began with assaults on the judiciary itself. Thomas Keck, I think, wrote one of the most brilliant articles that I’ve come across regarding judicial reform. And in it, he writes, “If the survival of the constitutional order is at stake, norm breaking may be justified,” and he goes on to argue for judicial reform, including court packing as a necessary step to revitalize democracy in the United States.
I want to bring Kenneth in to the conversation on this one, because with his background on comparative politics, I think it helps to be able to think about what democracies can do when they feel like there’s been an assault in the judiciary. How do people step in and deal with changes in the judiciary when they believe in democracy? Is the best thing to do nothing, to respect their independence, or is it necessary for us to become more involved and to change things once again? So, Kenneth, what are your thoughts on Thomas’ article and the possibilities for judicial reform in America? Is that a good idea or do you foresee some problems based on your experience with other countries?
Yeah, I think looking at other countries and the experience is a daunting one. If you look at places like Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, and you realize that any executive leader who’s looking to concentrate powers and undermine checks and balances, the judiciary is always going to be major target. I mean, typically it involves having a legislative majority or super majority that allows you to pass new legislation, but oftentimes it means going after the judiciary as well. And I reflect upon this sometimes in the United States where we have, of course, a long tradition of believing and assuming that the judiciary is an independent branch of government. And on paper it is. But you step back and you realize, okay, Supreme court justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
And so, the composition of the federal judiciary itself is heavenly conditioned by what is taking place in the executive and legislative branches. And if you’ve got a strong, disciplined political party with an agenda that it wants to impose, if they control the executive and the legislature, they can easily pack the courts as well. And so, this is something that I think we have to take seriously. And looking around the world and understanding how it takes place and recognizing at least the potential for it in the United States. And clearly the judiciary has become a real flashpoint within the polarization process.
I think the chapter by Thomas Keck in the book is a very thoughtful and engaging one. It’s a provocative piece and he is arguing that to defend democratic norms and procedures themselves, we may have to think outside the box in terms of what is acceptable for reforming the judiciary. And he talks about a number of different kinds of reforms. Not simply court packing, but he talks about processes, for example, where there would be term limits for federal judges and for Supreme Court justices, reforms where a President would get to nominate two justices within a four-year term and then you would balance it out over time rather than having lifetime appointments.
So, he talked about a number of reforms that are certainly under debate in the United States. I think they need to be under debate in the United States. The current structure of the Supreme court, I think, lends itself to exacerbating polarization rather than diminishing it. And I think these are reforms that need to be taken very seriously in American democracy.
I haven’t come up with a final decision on how I completely feel about Thomas Keck’s ideas for reform, because I worry that making those reforms becomes yet another step in terms of Interfering with the judicial system itself. Somer and McCoy had a chapter in your book, but they also had an amazing article in another journal called, “Déjà vu? Polarization and Endangered Democracies in the 21st Century,” where they write, “In an attempt to defend ‘democracy’ against the ‘undemocratic others,’ people may begin to undertake actions or employ discourses that end up undermining democracy and advancing authoritarianism, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”
So, I’d like to bring Rob into the discussion again here, because one of the things that’s on my mind is whether the Democrats risk the possibility of over-correcting for their fear of Republicans to actually take steps that effectively become undemocratic whether it’s on paper or whether it’s simply perceived that way that ends up creating bigger problems by trying to ostensibly fix those problems in the first place.
That’s exactly the dilemma that is at the heart of certainly Tom Keck’s chapter on the courts which starts out with a definition of something that we call constitutional hardball. The best example of this revolving around the judiciary specifically is the Merrick Garland nomination to the Supreme Court in Obama’s last year when the Republicans simply just refused to consider the nomination and it died, just because they could. They had the votes. Which was a violation of a longstanding sort of understanding or norm about how even under conditions of divided government, about how Supreme Court nominations are handled.
So, the question is how do you respond to that? If you are the party that sees itself as being on the side of democracy and on the side of maintaining democratic norms and procedures and maintaining this kind of democratic accountability, how do you respond? Do you respond in kind? Do you respond with hardball tactics of your own, which on the one hand might counteract the hard ball tactics of the other side and you can see them as trying to save democracy from these noxious activities on the other side, but also might create this downward cascade of anti-democratic behavior?
That’s exactly the dilemma that the courts pose. Should we try and manipulate the way the courts are constructed or the way judges are chosen in order to counteract the court packing behavior of the Republicans or, does the democracy enhancing properties of that move outweigh the democracy undermining constitutional hardball tactics? So, balancing those two sides of this is a really hard problem and that’s one of the great things about Keck’s chapter is that he really grapples with that dilemma.
I think that this is really the fundamental dilemma. There is no good response to anti-democratic behavior and when a party becomes anti-democratic, there’s just no right way to respond or no singular right way that you can say that this is the appropriate response. One of the things that comes out of both Keck’s chapter as well as some work that’s been done by Julia Azari is this notion, not simply of constitutional hardball, but anti-hardball hardball, of efforts that violate the norms, that change procedures precisely in order to take certain things off the table and to de-politicize them. So, one way of interpreting the court packing effort by the Democrats would be to try to change the rules.
Another would be the court has already been packed and has already been targeted by an antidemocratic movement for a while and that this would be a response to that. Julia Azari, however, also highlights that, you know, when it comes down to questions of norms and procedures, we should not necessarily sort of put too much weight on the norms themselves, but on the values. Right? And that really what it comes down to is the question of what are the values of institutions of democracy that we think are essential and how do you sustain those values? And breaking norms to sustain those values might be essential. You shouldn’t break norms just sort of casually, but doing so in order to sustain the values themselves should be the prioritized question.
So, David, in your answer, it just reminded me one of the things that I struggle on this podcast when I talk about American politics is the fact that there’s oftentimes an assumption that the Republican party has become undemocratic. That they are if not totally to blame, they’re at least more to blame and listeners who listen to podcasts about democracy, like a common complaint that they have is that there’s an ideological bias towards the Democrats or a partisan bias rather towards the Democrats. So, I’d like to ask you upfront here. Is American polarization, is it an asymmetric form of polarization? Is political polarization solely the fault of the Republican party or is there truly blame on both sides?
I think that those are sort of two distinct questions. It is fundamentally an asymmetric polarization. And I think that there’s broad consensus that there is a process of asymmetric polarization and that in so far as there is sort of an agent to blame, it’ll be agents associated with the broader interest groups and meso institutions within sort of the Republican Party network. Is there blame on both sides? Both sides feel this desire or recognize this competitive need to distinguish themselves from the other and both sides engage in the process of distinguishing themselves from the other. It’s not something that’s simply one side does entirely of its own.
The threat, however, to democratic institutions is almost exclusively, I think, coming from the Republican side now and it’s a difficult thing to say precisely because one does want in this profession to appear nonpartisan, nonideological. But I think it would be hard to sustain an honest and frank assessment of the sort of structure of American democracy now and the threats to it without at least recognizing that fact. There’s the other question of blame though, right? We can emphasize specific individuals, Newt Gingrich. We can emphasize specific institutions and interest groups and so on.
I think, you know, there’s value in doing so, but I think one of the things that doing that can obscure is there were some sort of important structural changes to the character of American politics to come out of the 1960s and 1970s. And the parties were going to respond to those and they were going to respond by trying to win elections and trying to sort of mobilize new bases. It’s not so much a question of like this person started it all or this interest group kicked the whole thing off. Rather a set of choices that were made that were very rational and reasonable choices within a democratic context that have led to this situation.
So, when we think about polarization and we get away from the specific parties, the specific people, we get back to those institutions and the American government is supposed to have institutions that can rise above these problems. No matter what anybody thinks about the American constitution, the virtues and the failures. It has lasted an incredibly long time which does speak to something in the recipe that has been able to work despite all of the faults, all the challenges, all of the problems that have emerged throughout its history.
But in your book, in the chapter from Mccoy and Somer, they write, “The institutions that should be a bulwark against the pernicious logic of polarization thus become a mechanism of deepening polarization.” I’d like to bring Kenneth in because he understands how different institutions exist in Latin America, especially, but throughout the world. Kenneth, can you explain a little bit about how the institutions in the United States have exacerbated pernicious polarization when really they should be toning down the polarization? They were designed to limit the polarization that exists today.
Yeah, I think this is a very important question and something as basic, for example, as the electoral system where we have plurality elections and what we call winner-take-all elections which doesn’t automatically produce a two-party system. But it certainly lends itself to a two-party system in comparison to where you have proportional representation elections in the European tradition and you’re more likely to get multi-party systems. And in theory, in political science, we study how multipartyism is supposed to lend itself to polarization. Two party systems with plurality elections are supposed to force the parties to compete for what we call the median voter in the center. And it’s supposed to create patterns of competition to draw parties to moderate positions in the center. And indeed, that seemed to be the case in the United States through the 1950s or so.
And so again, this points to the importance of this realignment that begins to take place in the sixties and seventies because of the mobilization and then the counter mobilization at that time period. But I would argue that today the two-party system and the plurality elections, especially when the plurality elections take place in a context of extreme gerrymandering and primary elections where you have an activation, not just in the primary elections, but in broader social and political dynamics. Activation at the grassroots of activist groups on the different sides.
And so, in the current context the plurality elections in a two-party system are actually, rather than forcing the parties to compete in the center, it’s driving the parties to the polls. And the gerrymandering reinforces that because it creates safe seats. And so, if you’re in a Republican district, you don’t really have to compete for votes in the center. You compete against other Republicans and you try to mobilize the grassroots, which are often more towards the pole rather than towards the center. And primary elections often will have the same kind of effect.
So, indeed reforms that were undertaken in the 1970s to try to democratize the political parties through primary elections in part as a response to all the discontent of the 1960s which you end up seeing are ways in which that may be reinforcing the polarizing dynamics. So, these are just a couple of examples of where you see that process at work.
If I can just jump in, in the book, I will refer again to the Pierson and Schickler chapter who take up this question and add to what Ken just said, the idea that there are certain kinds of what they call meso-institutions. Sort of mid-level institutions, interest groups, that rather than reinforce cross-cutting cleavages tend to nationalize conflict and divide people along ideological lines. State political parties, state party organizations which at one time were relatively independent and would create this sense of heterogeneity within national party labels.
State parties are now increasingly homogeneous and aligned together along the same ideological lines and a media environment that encourages people to divide themselves. It gives people entirely different information channels depending on their ideological or partisan affiliation. So, they show the way over time this institutional universe in the United States has tended to reinforce and create this sort of downward spiral of polarization.
At the same time, when we talk about institutions, it’s easy to get caught up and think if we just rework the institutions, everything goes back to normal or we can fix the problem just by tinkering with the way that these are designed. David has an interesting line in the book. He writes in his chapter, “A coin toss could select a leader. We generally expect more than that of elections.” And he’s talking specifically about elections, but I think that we could put that to all kinds of institutions, all kinds of examples, that we expect more from our institutions.
But we could also reverse that because people aren’t just being controlled and designed by these institutions, forced to behave in certain ways. People do have some sort of choice even within these political systems, even within our electoral system. People have the ability to vote different ways if they really want to. So, David, I want to throw your quote back at you and ask you, rather than speaking about elections, should we also expect more from the electorate?
I think we can always hope for more from the electorate and there’s no reason not to sort of encourage more from the electorate. But I think that placing too much responsibility on the electorate can sort of be a mistake itself. But on the one hand, a lot of the cleavages, out of the sort of antagonisms, a lot of the preferences, all the various things that get sort of roped up into polarization these exist within the electorate. Right? They might be more extreme at the political elite level, but political leaders are responding to real opportunities there. Right? They are looking for ways to invoke, when the Republican Party moved towards the Southern strategy in the south trying to sort of mobilize white antagonism. There was a reason for that. There was sort of an electoral reason and it’d be nice to get rid of that.
So, yeah, we could expect more and hope more from the electorate at the same time. However, voters make choices within highly constrained situations. The United States voters choose one party or the other. They may or may not choose within a primary in which they have very little knowledge of who these people are. The ability to aggregate those choices into a definite statement of we’re going to turn away from polarization requires a heroic level of belief in what the electorate can do on its own. If we’re going to sort of change what the electorate is producing in terms of polarization, we need to change the types of institutions that generate the choices that they’re given.
So, I think that if we just leave it to a disaggregated electorate, it will continue to make the choices that sort of reflect its values, reflect its identity, reflect its preferences, priorities, whatever the choices they’re making. But those are precisely the twists that have gone into this. So, you need to, in some sense, rework the institutions so they’re producing different choices. This might involve sort of trying to move away from a two-party system, so that there’s just more opportunities for finding your particular niche and you find that niche and that niche that has to sort of work out a coalitional structure of government at a national level or something like that.
That would involve asking nothing new on the part of the electorate, but would have very likely immediate consequences on dampening polarization. The flip side, of course, at the institutions is that we can’t get those, because we can’t do a lot of these reforms precisely because the institutions themselves were designed, as you said, designed to impede action in many ways more than to facilitate action.
So, Rob, the last time that we talked your book was called the Four Threats and it was written during the middle of the Trump era. It came out near the end of the Trump presidency. This book has a very different title, Democratic Resilience. It has a much more optimistic title. It might not feel that way for listeners because we’ve been focused on the negative aspects of political polarization, but Democratic Resilience implies that we can overcome political polarization. Have recent political events changed your outlook on the trajectory of American politics?
I think, if anything, recent events have reinforced for me the sense in which the challenges of American democracy go beyond any individual leader or administration or presidency. Suzanne and I were quite adamant in the Four Threats that the crisis of American democracy and the Trump era is not a product of Trump. That it reflects these forces and institutional arrangements that predated Trump and will probably outlast him. And I think the Biden presidency supports that view.
One of the things we wanted to do in this project that led to this book is to think, as you say, a little bit more positively about, not just what is it that makes democracies wither and die, but, you know, the title of our introductory chapter is “How Democracies Endure.” What sort of internal resources to democratic systems have either at the elite level in institutions or at the mass level among the public that enable them to withstand the kind of onslaught of polarization that we’ve been describing? It’s still a pretty bleak story on the whole. This is not a pretty picture of contemporary American democracy in this book.
But I think there are some threads in the chapters about the ways in which we might be able to begin to counteract the death spiral of polarization that we’ve been describing in our conversation, the kind of court reforms that Ken was talking about earlier when he was talking about Tom Keck’s chapter or, you know, the way that Congress tends to sort of stabilize things a little bit in Francis Lee’s chapter that David was talking about. So, I don’t think we’re anticipating a rapid turnaround, but I think there are ways in which we can take a different kind of look at the processes and institutions of American politics that might point the way forward.
So, Rob, you’ve mentioned that there are some things that we can really do, but it also assumes that we’ve got the political will to be able to do it . The danger of polarization is that the country is no longer able to act together to accomplish those feats, to be able to make substantive change happen before democracy falls apart. One of the writers in the book, Philip Rocco, writes, “Polarization may not only drive democratic erosion. It may preclude efforts to reverse it.” It’s a very bleak line and I’m not trying to say that that’s the theme of the book. You’ve already pointed out that there’s a lot of room for optimism, but I’d like to hear from Kenneth and David. Has polarization gone beyond the point of no return? Can American democracy overcome severe polarization?
Let me just say, I don’t think it’s reached a point of no return and there are, you know, efforts within the volume, a number of chapters that they do talk about different things that can be done. Whether they’re institutional reforms along the lines of what we’ve been talking about or simply the importance of a resilient, civil society and the role of citizens themselves, not just in the voting booth, but there’s a chapter by Theda Skocpol and her coauthors. It talks about the social actors, different civic networks, and the ways in which they have tried to preserve or protect democratic norms and practices. And so, there certainly are sources of resiliency in American democracy.
But I think part of what the piece by Rocco is getting at is because of the polarization, it’s very difficult to do some of the kinds of institutional reforms that we’ve talked about that would be helpful, getting rid of the extreme gerrymandering, balancing the court, et cetera. So, to the extent that it requires new legislation to do that, it’s very difficult to demobilize and the super majorities you would get in the context of severe, representative disproportionality. So, are there some real challenges when it comes to institutional reform? At the end of the day for me, the most important part, I think, is just citizens need to be prepared and capable of recognizing anti-democratic behavior and sanction it.
And that means, first and foremost, you don’t vote for actors who revealed themselves to be undemocratic, who revealed themselves to be clearly working at cross purposes with the core values of our democratic heritage. And this is one of the key things. I think the difference I would argue between the 1970s with Watergate and today, you know, when the smoking gun finally came out in Watergate. Significant parts of the Republican party defended the democratic regime and brought down Richard Nixon. I would certainly argue that the effort to steal the last presidential election and then certainly the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, if that’s not a smoking gun for antidemocratic behavior, I don’t know what is. I mean short of a military coup, stealing an election is about as far as you can go in providing a smoking gun.
What worries me the most is that none of that has disqualified Trump or the people around him or his part of the Republican Party. That kind of behavior has to become disqualifying, if you’re going to defend a democratic regime. Instead, the Republican Party has rallied around his leadership and that brand of politics. Because it goes way beyond Donald Trump that is what worries me the most as we go forward. But I think the American citizenry has to be capable of standing up and drawing the line and wherever you stand on the issues, and as I said, democracy is about disagreements. You have democracy to process those disagreements on the issues, but then it requires that the different actors agree on what are the proper rules of the game for processing those conflicts. That is I fear breaking down in American democracy. And that’s what worries me most.
I strongly agree with every element of that. I think that perhaps the most worrisome sign since the election of Biden has been the doubling down on the notion that the election of Biden was a steal itself. And so, we were asked to believe that the actions of members trying to invalidate the election and members of Congress trying to invalidate the election of Biden with a mob outside that that was appropriate. But the real steal was the victory in the first place. And I think that when you have that type of fundamental sort of denial of reality then it becomes very difficult to imagine how you’re going to have to get out of that. I think the volume as a whole offers a lot of grounds for optimism.
I might be a little bit more on the pessimistic side in part, because I think that anti-democratic threats need to be either defeated or accommodated. Historically in America they have been accommodated. Right? The Jim Crow South was an accommodation to a particular anti-democratic threat that said, ‘Here it is. You have no democracy in the South.’ So, there’s a history of accommodating antidemocratic threats in the United States. They’re not great. But defeating an anti-democratic threat would requires successive defeats of that threat at the polls making it clear for whoever possibly can take charge of that institution that they either need to change tactics or they’ll continue to lose.
And that seems wholly impossible to envision in the current United States at least at the moment. And in part, I think the reason for that is polarization has made it such that winning parties can’t reshape the electoral terrain, reshapes the sort of popularity, the positions, they can barely get what they want done. What they can get done is done in a way that pleases nobody and they can’t do the types of institutional changes through Congress such as voting rights reform that would actually allow them to create a more pro-democratic bias towards the democratic party as in a small D democratic party. And that’s the real trap, I think, that Rocco very much emphasizes the issue that is most troubling is that polarization has made it so that it’s going to be difficult to respond, not impossible, but difficult to respond.
I think I would highlight here the chapter in the book by Matt Barreto and Chris Parker which is about the Trump vote as an example of what they call reactionary conservatism. This is building on earlier work that they’ve done on the Tea Party Movement. They show how the Trump campaign particularly in 2016 sort of inflamed white, especially reactionary impulse among Republican voters and did the opposite, particularly among voters of color, among black voters.
And this highlights a thread that’s run through the conversation that we haven’t made explicit. And that is the role of race and racial antagonism and racial resentment in exacerbating the difference between the parties on polarization between Democrats and Republicans. And Barreto and Parker make the argument that if there is a bulwark in the electorate against this kind of anti-democratic behavior among white politicians, it’s among voters of color. And I think that highlights a really important challenge for American democracy. And that is how do you create a real multi-racial democracy without the kind of Jim Crow accommodations that David was describing a minute ago?
Thank you so much for joining me today. I really did actually love the book, Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? There are so many impressive scholars who wrote chapters within this book. I mean, big name scholars beyond just yourselves, Theda Skocpol, , Paul Pierson, obviously Suzanne Mettler. I mean, they’re names that we’ve mentioned throughout this conversation, but it’s such an impressive collection of ideas and thoughts that bring a lot of perspectives together and it’s an impressive work. Thank you so much for putting it together. Thank you so much for writing it.
Well, thank you for having us, Justin.
Thanks and a pleasure to talk with you about the book.
Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? by Suzanne Mettler, Robert C. Lieberman, and Kenneth M. Roberts
Follow Robert C. Lieberman on Twitter @r_lieberman
Follow David Bateman on Twitter @DavidAlexBatema
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