The Deeper Issue Behind Political Polarization

Since the Clinton presidency, the pundits have regularly lamented the “polarization” of politics that divides the parties ideologically and allegedly results in legislative gridlock. Why such developments are necessarily problematic is more assumed than explained, but a recent study by Kyle Dodson of the University of California (at Merced) finds that increased polarization has its pluses: the engagement of the rank-and-file reflected in an “impressive rebound” in voter turnout since 1988. Analyzing data from the 1988 to 2004 presidential elections of the National Election Studies (NES), Dodson quantifies the relationship between “party polarization” and voting patterns, finding that the impacts of all four of his measures of party polarization on voter turnout are quite large and statistically significant (p<.001 for three measures; p<.01 for one measure), even when controlled for demographic and other political factors. Additional tests found that the effects are not contingent on election year or the social strata of voters and remain significant even when controlled for prior politicalization. Summarizing his study, the social scientist observes: “The most striking source of turnout change is the rise of party polarization. Changes in party polarization account for almost 80 percent of the post-1988 turnout rebound—four times the contribution of the control variables. . . . The rise of polarized politics has transformed key parts of voters’ calculus, making political involvement both more straightforward and more compelling than in the past.” While revealing the upside of party polarization, Dodson’s study does not address factors that drive political conflict. But an examination of the 2004 presidential election by a team of social scientists led by Monica Prasad of Northwestern University suggests that moral and cultural issues that transcend strictly political, policy, or economic matters may have a lot to do wit
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