Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

What Makes Us Politic


(Photo: cowardlion/Shutterstock)

What the Decline of Partisanship Would Look Like

• April 28, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: cowardlion/Shutterstock)

Our current Republican-Democrat divide is so durable because it lines up with the conservative-liberal divide. To undermine that would require a major shift in today’s ideological coalitions.

It may be tough to imagine, but political parties don’t always grow further apart. Occasionally, depolarization happens.

The graph below shows the distance between the major parties in Congress since 1879, courtesy of Voteview. There has clearly been a profound trend toward greater polarization since the 1940s, and we’ve reached the point today where we seem to have the most polarized House of Representatives and Senate in history. These trends show no signs of abating. Yet polarization was also very high in the late 1800s, and it collapsed. There really was a period of bipartisanship in the mid-20th century.


Similarly, as Boris Shor has shown, while most state legislatures have grown more polarized in the last two decades, 16 of the 99 state legislative chambers have actually depolarized during this time period, including the Wyoming House and the Ohio Senate.

These examples of depolarization, while intriguing, have unfortunately convinced a great many would-be reformers that reversing polarization is easy, and that some tinkering with election laws can bring about dramatic changes in the way elected officials behave. For the most part, that’s just not true. In this paper I did for Brookings recently, I reviewed several of the more popular ideas for reducing partisanship in legislatures, from open primaries to redistricting reform to campaign finance restrictions. Almost none of the reforms I examined showed any promise for mitigating partisanship, and for those that did, the effects were marginal at best.

Perhaps tinkering around the edges of polarization is enough. But serious shifts in the direction of polarization tend to be the result of massive historical forces rather than clever ballot reforms. Partisanship collapsed in Congress in the early 20th century due to the rise of the Progressive movement (which drew from both major parties) and the fact that the Democratic Party was becoming the more liberal party even while its most loyal supporters—southern whites—remained some of the most conservative voters in the nation. With each major party containing strong liberal and conservative elements, it was difficult to identify major differences between the two.

Perhaps tinkering around the edges of polarization is enough. But serious shifts in the direction of polarization tend to be the result of massive historical forces rather than clever ballot reforms.

This was not the sort of transformation of a party system that anyone consciously engineered. Indeed, it would have been hard to conceive of such a plan in advance or enact it once conceived. To the extent that individuals or groups were trying to guide the parties of that time, it was because they had particular policy objectives, such as putting the federal government in charge of improving life for racial minorities or protecting the rights of labor union members. Just reducing partisanship for its own sake has rarely been a serious policy objective.

Could we see some sort of historical party shift today that might undermine polarization? This is something Hans Noel speculates about towards the end of his new book Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America. As Noel notes, what makes our current Republican-Democrat partisan divide so durable is that it neatly lines up with the conservative-liberal ideological divide. This confluence of party and ideology is relatively new in American history. To undermine the party divide, he suggests, we’d need to see a shift in today’s ideological coalitions.

Perhaps libertarianism could be a source of this. That is, maybe those disturbed by the recent NSA spying revelations and the use of drones to kill Americans without due process could form some sort of an alliance with those who want to restrain federal intervention in the economy. Perhaps this wouldn’t make for enough people to become a major party by itself, but it could become pivotal enough in elections to force some sort of realignment. Perhaps they could attract activists who care about other issues as well, and maybe even exploit current fissures in the Republican Party to form a formidable third party.

I am doubtful (as is Noel) that this will amount to much. Libertarianism has rarely shown an ability to attract a large percentage of the population; to the typical voter, for every libertarian stance that seems appealing another seems completely repugnant. And the current system has demonstrated itself to be remarkably durable and resistant to such appeals. Yet if we are to see a substantial change in the direction of partisanship in this country, it will need to come from some sort of shift or the emergence of a new issue that undermines the current ideological divide. Short of that, we’re just tinkering around the edges, and things can still get a whole lot more partisan than they currently are.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.