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Winning Ugly

IPFW Associate Professor Michael Wolf studies trends in political polarization (and yes, it’s getting worse)

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


If conventional wisdom is to be believed, there’s something about the negative tone of our modern political campaigns that turns all Americans into 1850s Southern Belles with a case of the vapors. Fanning ourselves frantically, we declare that we’ve never seen this level of nastiness in public discourse. Why, we wonder if we can find it in our hearts to support the sort of people who could stoop so low and act so vicious. To see our leaders behave so shamefully makes us despair for the future of the Republic.

That’s what we like to tell ourselves, at least. But according to the “Symposium on Political Civility” published in the July edition of PS: Political Science & Politics — an academic journal published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association (APSA) — the reality is a little different.
In the introduction to the issue, the authors concede that what constitutes civility often means different things in different contexts, and that contention and debate — sometimes very strong contention and debate — play an essential role in any democracy. But in what we’ll call our “current political climate,” incidents of political incivility often take on a particularly harsh tone that denigrates and demonizes the opposition. As a result, both “sides” adopt intractable positions that make the traditional give-and-take of political deal-making seemingly impossible. The different articles in the issue take a look at these trends from a variety of angles, including historic, and examine what sort of effect this might have on our political process.
Michael R. Wolf, Associate Professor of Political Science at IPFW, was one of several scholars who contributed to the symposium as co-editor and co-author. In the article “Incivility and Standing Firm: A Second Layer of Partisan Division” Wolf and his colleagues J. Cherie Strachen (Central Michigan University) and Daniel M. Shea (Allegheny College) looked at data gathered from three surveys conducted during the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, and the results are interesting.

Popular perception paints a picture of the American public bemoaning the incivility and ideological intractability shown by our political leaders. “There’s a conventional wisdom that it’s just these political leaders that are nasty to each other, and the public is looking on in horror,” Wolf says.

But the data Wolf and his colleagues analyzed shows that that conventional wisdom is more complicated than it seems. “What we’re showing is that a substantial portion of the public — not the whole public by any means, but a large number — is right there with (the elected officials),” Wolf explains.

In short, many of us may bemoan the lack of compromise in Congress. We may wish our leaders tried harder to find a common ground by which… well, the business of the nation might get done. We may even believe staunch ideological positions undermine the very foundation of our democracy. But when it comes right down to it, the findings of Wolf and his colleagues “support the claim that a substantial number of Americans not only have strong policy preferences, but also reject consensual politics.”

The survey participants were divided into three categories — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — and then those that identified as either Republican or Democrat were placed in one of three subcategories: “strong,” “weak” and “lean.” “This is the classic way that political science has measured what we refer to as party identification,” Wolf explains. “The person is asked whether they identify with one of the parties. If they say ‘yes,’ there’s a follow up, asking if your affiliation is ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. Those people who say they don’t identify with one of the parties are then asked if they tend to ‘lean’ towards one of the parties or not.”

Among the findings: most Republicans wanted politicians to stand firm on principle
rather than compromise, while most Democrats preferred politicians to compromise to get things done rather than stand firm on principle. But among those described as strong Democrats, 49.4% responded that they favored standing on principal rather than compromising, a greater percentage than strong Republicans (at 43.4%) who favored the same thing.

In all areas, those who favored principal over compromise were mobilized by perceptions of negative campaigning, even when they believed that negative political
campaigns are bad for democracy. Weaker Democrats and Independents said they were less likely to participate in campaigns they saw as negative.

And of course, it’s always the other guy’s fault — Republicans blame negativity on “liberal television commentators” and the Democratic Party; Democrats blame conservative talk radio and the Republican party.

Overall, there was also the perception that “this campaign” — once again, the surveys were taken during the run-up to the 2010 “midterm” elections — was the most negative participants had ever seen. It was an accurate observation, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, an organization that published two studies on political advertising during the 2010 campaigns.

Historically, the non-presidential election years — the midterms — have lower voter turnout, and those who do vote tend to be more politically committed. Wolf explains that the surveys didn’t ask whether the participants were registered or likely voters. “But what’s interesting is that since we didn’t filter that out, there’s a particular level of heat here,” Wolf says. “One aspect is that midterms themselves tend to be — as scholars say — more punitive. The electorate tends to view things critically. One element of the electorate is judging the president, but the president is not on the ballot, so there tends to be a more negative mood more often than a positive one. The second element, the positive voters, would be the president’s supporters, but since he’s not on the ballot, they tend not to vote as much. We ended up in the field surveying people in an especially negative year, so it might heighten our results a little.”

Of course, the know-it-all sitting next to you at the bar or the lunch counter will tell you that this hand wringing over incivility is a waste of time. This is just really politics as usual, exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle and our media-saturated age. And he has a point. “Is this a unique period? Studies definitely show it’s not,” Wolf says. “But these previous eras of ‘bad moods’ by the public, where negative politics occur, occur around very substantial points in American electoral history, what we call realigning elections — big change elections.”

Past eras may have had the same levels of contention, Wolf explains, but they also show a more dramatic rise and fall. “This period has been steady in its development, and seems to be sticking around,” he adds. “This polarization has been a slow developing polarization.”

Wolf says that according to many scholars, this sea-level like rise of political polarization began in the civil rights era of the 60s. Then, the political make-up of the south was mostly conservative Democrats while large swathes of the north were liberal (ish) Republicans. Those sections of the country continued to send Democrats or Republicans to the House and Senate for decades after the 60s, but gradually, voters began to identify more with the overall ideology of the opposing party — the South began to send fewer Democrats to Congress, and Northeast Republicans, unhappy with the tone their party was taking, began to lean more towards the Democratic party.

I’m summarizing a theory that Wolf explains is quite complicated, with factors that go far beyond the issues of the civil rights era (it’s also a theory that not all historians and political scientists agree with). But whatever the cause… “what you’ve seen in the last two decades is that we’ve almost run out of any moderate or conservative Democrats, and moderate or liberal Republicans,” Wolf says. “As a result, there’s no middle ground to naturally start compromise. So the polarization has followed that path, and reached deeper into a voting public that doesn’t punish politicians for not being civil and not compromising.” In fact, as we’ve all seen in recent elections, incivility and an uncompromising stance can be a smart political strategy, especially during the primaries.

As Wolf says, the overall level of polarization is trending upwards, but those looking for a dramatic “spike” in that overall upward trend will find it in the healthcare debate. “It was clear that the two parties had different positions, and it’s a big piece of legislation, so it brought the party separation to a head,” Wolf says. “Most of the interest groups were off the table. The interest groups that could have been caught in the middle — American Medical Association; the American Hospital Association; AARP — came out in favor of health care reform, so what was left was a real partisan battle. After that, there hasn’t been a real budget process in place.”

And this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. “The real driving aspect is that none of this stuff shows much potential for going away,” Wolf says. “Polarization is a continuing process. There’s fewer voters who are yet to make up their minds than in past years. While the 2010 elections might have really highlighted some of the dynamics we were studying, for the long term, it doesn’t look like there’s much to change the trend.”

Many polls suggest that it’s going to be a close race for whoever takes the Oval Office this November. But it might be more accurate to say that for the foreseeable future, they’re all going to be close races. “Maybe things will clear for one reason or another,” Wolf says of this year’s presidential elections. “Maybe one party will control all the branches again, or supporters will accept the results of the election as an indicator of the public mandate, but I doubt it. It’s been a slow change to get to this point, but that also means it’s not going to drop very quickly either.”

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