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.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

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By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

Amy Binder: The Provocative Politics of the Republican Party

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by Amy Binder

Not so long ago, you might have been surprised to learn that conservative college students held events specifically designed to provoke, not illuminate, their liberal and moderate peers, faculty, and administrators. During Catch an Illegal Alien Day, students who pose as undocumented immigrants are imprisoned when caught by other students posing as border guards. At the Global Warming Beach Party, students mock the science of climate change with suntan oil and beer. At Affirmative Action Bake Sales, conservative student organizers charge white customers more for their cookies and cupcakes than they do black or Latino students—a fitting analogy, according to event organizers, of the harms visited upon white students by affirmative action policies.

But organize these events conservative students did, with the financial assistance and play-by-play handbooks produced by the Young America’s Foundation, a well-funded conservative organization that supports right-leaning students. The “provocative style” of these events that I and my co-author Kate Wood wrote about in our PUP book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives is not meant to reach out to liberals and moderates or to persuade them of conservative positions on immigration, environmental degradation, or race. Rather, the style is meant to enrage liberals on their campus, prod them into aggresively confronting event organizers, and then accuse the liberals who have been inflamed of being biased and intolerant toward them. We found that the provocative style is much less likely to take hold on campuses where there is a palpable sense of closeness and community (such as at a private elite university) and much more likely to be used at larger institutions where students are more anonymous to one another and their professors.

While you might have been surprised to learn about this campus style in years past, the only surprising thing about the provocative style today is that eight years ago it was students who were engaging in it, not the Republican party’s rank and file and torch bearers. In the time since we collected our data, this coarsening style has come to dominate the GOP. Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, members of the Tea Party ridiculed the president as a jungle bunny, witch doctor, and Muslim Marxist. In 2013, Congressional Republicans shut down the government trying to defund the president’s Affordable Care Act and, in 2016, most Senate Republicans refuse to even meet with Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

This year’s election cycle is the apotheosis of provocation. Donald Trump calls Mexican immigrants “rapists,” Syrian refugees “terrorists,” and has successfully drawn his opponents into slugfests about everything from penis size to the attractiveness of their wives. Even while Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers, and other establishment leaders and funders bemoan the fallen state of their party, voters turn out in droves to hear Trump rail on his opponents and their “stupid,” “loser” policies. Today, we are witnessing the ability of the provocative style—sometimes merely obstructionist, sometimes purely aggressive—to drown out deliberative policy discourse. This has been happening for years—not just this election season, as the Romneys of the world would have us believe—and it begs us to see what lessons we can learn from college campuses.

First, we can see that style, not substance, is mainly what is at issue here. In this primary season, unprecedented provocation is driving huge numbers of die-hard Trump supporters to back him no matter what he says, substantively. They love how he says what he says, not what he says which, after all, can change from speech to speech. Many observers have also noted that when you strip away variances in style, the stated policy differences between Trump and his Republican detractors are not so vast—such as on abortion, climate change, and immigration. But Trump’s voters prefer Trump’s style over Cruz’s and the other competitors who have since left the race. All of this is to say that we have under-estimated the power of style vs. substance in politics for far too long. We saw this on college campuses 8 years ago.

Second, it’s important to think about the links between college-age politics and the way people will participate in electoral and institutional politics later in life. I don’t have the longitudinal data to make causal claims about the students we interviewed in our book, but if campuses are incubators for political action, as our study shows, university leaders would do well to minimize provocation today to save politics tomorrow. Creating organizational structures that help students feel connected to the campus, and part of a community, would be a smart move, no matter how large the institution. If colleges and universities can create campus cultures that attempt to strengthen a sense of civic community among students, faculty, and administrators; and which foster a tolerance for ideological pluralism, then perhaps we have at least one means for crafting a more respectful national political discourse in the future.

becoming right jacket binderAmy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton). She is also the author of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.