James Campbell: Just how polarized are our politics?

campbellThe United States of today is a divided nation, with two sides resting on opposite ends of a political spectrum.  James Campbell’s new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America provides a new and historically grounded perspective on the polarization of America, systematically documenting exactly how and why the current divide came to be. James Campbell recently answered some questions about his book, what exactly has lead to such bitter disputes in the American system, and what this has meant throughout political history.

What is political polarization?

JC: Polarization concerns the level and organization of political conflict in society generally or between groups such as the political parties. Political differences can vary in severity and their relation to one another: cross-cutting or reinforcing. A high level of polarization is one in which there are substantial differences in political perspectives on a wide range of issues organized along an ideological spectrum. Polarization intensifies rather than diffuses conflict. It establishes an “us versus them” politics and it is always the same “us” at odds with the same “them.” High levels of polarization are the basis for bitter disputes, making political compromises more difficult to achieve.

What are Americans polarized about?

JC: The short answer is government. The extent and use of governmental powers is the underlying and organizing subject that causes two sides to be set up for most issues in American politics. It is the great divider setting up quite consistently “us versus them” sides in disputes about public policy. Those with liberal political inclinations tend to be more inclined to see problems as public in nature and best solved by the use of government powers and programs. Conservatives tend to take a more restrained or “last resort” view of the use of government. Views about government and individual responsibilities unify liberals and conservatives against each other.

Why is polarization even an issue? Don’t we know that Americans are polarized?

JC: Most political observers believe that the public and the parties are polarized, but many social scientists doubt that the public is highly polarized. Reviews of survey data of public opinion indicate that extreme views on issue questions are no more likely today than they were 40 years ago. This leads some to believe that polarization of the public is a myth. They suspect that activists and the political parties are polarized, but that the general public is predominantly moderate and not ideological. My research, however, presents evidence that the public is highly polarized, has been so for some time, and has become more so in recent decades. The political parties used to do a poor job representing these polarized views. The realigned parties of the last couple of decades, for better or worse, now represent and accentuate those polarized views.

How can Americans be ideologically polarized when research indicates that they are not very politically sophisticated or informed?

JC: There is no doubt that most Americans are not highly informed about politics or very sophisticated in their political thinking. This does not mean, however, that they cannot be ideological in the sense that they have some fundamental perspectives or values they apply to politics. Pretty much everybody has a sense about what they think is politically right or wrong and that is, at its core, what ideology is about. Unfortunately early studies of political thinking labeled the highest level of political conceptualization as ideological. But ideologies can be based on vastly different levels of political thought, from philosophies to gut instincts. If nothing else, knee-jerk liberals and wing-nut conservatives are both ideological.

How do you know that Americans are highly polarized?

JC: Good question. I examined the extent and change of polarization in the public using three types of evidence. The first was the direct evidence of how people identify their ideological perspectives–liberal, moderate, conservative, or they don’t know. The second type of evidence was the reported attitudes of the public on various public policy issues. In a sense, this is indirect evidence, since attitudes on the issues may reflect an underlying sense of political values and perspectives. The third type of evidence was circumstantial evidence. It is widely accepted that the political parties in government have become more polarized in recent decades. Assuming that this is the case, a largely moderate public would be expected to react to this change in the parties differently than a highly polarized public. A polarized public would likely respond better to more polarized parties than would a largely moderate public. The analysis of all three types of evidence supported the same set of conclusions: the American public was fairly well polarized in the 1970s and has become more so since then.

Did polarized politics develop from the top-down or from the bottom-up? Did political leaders and activists cause the public to become more polarized or did the public lead the way?

JC: The conventional view has been that the increase in polarization was a top-down process. The idea is that leaders are more sophisticated and attentive to political issues and, therefore, ahead of the curve when it comes to political change. At least in this instance, I found the opposite to be the case. The increased polarization of our political system was instigated by the increased polarization of the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The polarization of leaders lagged that if the public. Leaders are more attentive to political change, but elected leaders also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and the tools (incumbency advantages) to help them do so. The lack of a viable Republican Party in the South also impeded a good deal of leadership change until the early 1990s. The public was not so encumbered. The increase in polarization, at least initially, was a bottom-up process.

James Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of such works as The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote and The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. His most recent book is Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.