Political Polarization, 1980 and 2008

Paul Gronke

There have been a number of discussions, both on Blue Oregon and elsewhere, about the political climate faced by Barack Obama.  I don't want to dwell on the details of Obama's domestic agenda and whether or not he has been too centrist or has made too many compromises on health care and financial reform.

But if we are going to compare Obama to Ronald Reagan, we need to keep in mind the tremendous change in American politics that has occurred over the last half century--the reentry of African Americans into the electorate, the disappearance of the conservative coalition in the House, and, eventually, the reemergence of the Republican Party in the South. 

These changes were well underway by the time Reagan entered office, but in many respects had not percolated down much past the Presidential level.  Democratic control of the House was still solid in 1980, and most commentators presumed a permanent Democratic majority. 

As shown in the graphic below, party polarization, a measure of the degree of separation between the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress (essentially, how frequently to members vote together and how frequently do members cross political lines) had begun its long climb from its postwar low, but was still at levels that characterized most of the postwar era.  This meant that not just that Reagan had to reach across party lines, but that he could reach across party lines.  There were still many Democrats in the House in 1980 who voted more frequently with Republicans than with their Democratic counterparts.

Contrast this with the situation in 2008.  Party polarization was in full flower.  There is no party overlap at all--not one, not two, not a few, but zero members of the Democratic delegation who are more conservative than the most liberal Republican.  Party differences in the House exceed levels we have seen in the post Civil War era.  The apt historical comparison to 2008 is not 1980, but 1880, which experienced deep partisan divisions, charges of influence peddling, and widespread political corruption,  And some serious recessions to boot.  At least they weren't at war in distant foreign lands!

The America of 2008 is obviously substantially different from the American of 1880.  But let's be wary when we use Ronald Reagan to measure the political performance.  The America of 2008 is also not the America of 1980.


  • Richard (unverified)

    Where's the Blue learning curve?

    Try comparing Obama to Carter.

    Then imagine having to someday compare Brown to Reagan.

  • CPF (unverified)

    "influence peddling"

    This is the one that needs to get cleaned up. We must get rid of any politician that adopts the "voting the party line unless I get my concessions" tactic brought on by the Contract with America (sign it or you're against America!) and the Democrats having to respond in kind.

    That, and the openly biased media outlets that go all out pushing the idea of "us versus them" when we're all in the same big boat. And the 503c unlimited license to mudsling.

  • (Show?)

    Paul, this is a fantastic post. It is so important to recognize the political context for things--but I wouldn't have thought of going back 130 years for a comparator. Nice!

  • dan (unverified)

    Richard, Reagan's average approval rating for his first year in office was 58%, marginally about the same as Obama's 56% and both lower than Carter's 62%.

  • Boats (unverified)

    The true context is that you had a Democratic supermajority to rival those enjoyed by FDR and did jack shit with it that resonates with the majority of voters. The worst recession since the pre-war years and a pork laden monstrosity of "stimulus," card check, cap & trade, and effectively nationalizing healthcare is the agenda? Clueless.

    Meanwhile, the "easy" promises--increased transparency, publishing bills online, reining in lobbyists, and winding down the Iraq War--are all in various stages ranging from broken to atomized down the memory hole.

    The polarization, and hyper slimy wheeling and dealing that has really bedeviled your agenda is within your caucus.

  • LT (unverified)

    Boats, obviously you only want to rant and not discuss the topic here.

    You are Exhibit A.

    I wonder what you think of the socializing that Pres. Reagan and Speaker O'Neill did. Their politics were polar opposites, but they sometimes got together for an evening socializing as 2 old Irish guys.

    Reagan, for all his blunt talk, knew the importance of positive, courteous language when trying to accomplish a goal.

    Boats, you're no Reagan. You're just an angry blogger.

  • Boats (unverified)

    Me, I am just wondering where the polarization complaint is coming from when up until Tuesday's election, the Republicans could only offer up token resistance to Obama's agenda.

    Just admit your party's so-called leadership is as corrupt, inane, and dysfunctional as the Republicans' ever were in the twelve years they just held sway.

    It's impossible to be more self-parodying than the Democratic leadership has been.

    Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal largely divorced from reality. Dirty Harry Reid is as unethical as they come and a closeted racist rather like Joe Biden is. Obama is as unctuous as Bill Clinton ever was, but lacks his governing chutzpah.

    Charles Rangel should be in prison.

    The list goes on and on.

    However, these miscreants are totally in charge. Polarized polity or not, you didn't need ANY Republican votes for anything other than fig leafing. Reagan had to work with Democratic congresses to get anything done. That's the key difference.

    Now it is time to see if Obama is more than the sum of his empty rhetoric to date.

  • Oregon Leopard Party (unverified)

    This isn't a bad place to be angry if you're responsive. Boats isn't too responsive.

    Actually, I think LT picked up on something. Boats sounds like an angry Irish guy, like Tip and Ron. It's been said, "You can tell an Irishman, but you can't tell him much"!

  • Boats (unverified)

    To be responsive there'd have to be a point worth responding to. The elephant in the room that the blind man failed to even notice in his original article is that pesky unified Congress and White House this past year.

    However, somehow the Republicans were obstructing a jackass supermajority? DO please flesh that one out. It should provide much hilarity.

  • Oregon Leopard Party (unverified)

    The elephant in the room that the blind man failed to even notice in his original article is that pesky unified Congress and White House this past year.

    Unified? Read here much? Yeah, there's an elephant in the room. It's called too much Reagan legacy.

    Posted by: Boats | Jan 20, 2010 10:51:55 PM

    To be responsive there'd have to be a point worth responding to.

    Please don't start quoting Ms. Axtman. It's hard enough to tell the parties apart already.

  • Sometimes data is just data (unverified)

    This seems to be a bit of a strawman argument. I hear few these days, especially younger "netizen" generation folks who dominate certain forums like Blue Oregon, comparing Obama to Reagan. When Reagan entered office a 40-year-old would have been 11, and when he left office that 40-year-old would have been 19 when he left office and a 21-year-old wouldn't even have been born.

    The argument and comparison I hear more often from young and old alike, and that your data speaks more relevantly to, is between the Obama and the Bush Administration where, with an equally but more closely divided Congress, the Republicans managed to cause the kind of people elected by the kind of people you're only partially informing here to cower impotently in opposition, and now even more impotently in power.

    More importantly, this data is a type of conditional statistic that is at best marginally informative. The superficial claim you make in defense of the superficial thesis that it reflects partisan voting in Congress is supported well enough by the data, but the more important question is "voting for what"? It's that (non-quantitative) prior that is critical to understanding what is going on here. That's the question I alluded to above and that is where the data highlights the serious inquiry lies.

    On a side note, today's Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend like human beings is relevant to this in two ways: The Court just condoned the kind of institutional corruption which will radically change the nature of the laws being introduced for votes in Congress. One of the most significant hypothesis scholars could study for the next two elections cycles will be whether or not this decreases partisanship because corporations fund candidates on both sides of the aisle to have the best chance of getting legislation they favor. The kind of data Paul shows here would only tell us whether partisanship declines or not, but not why it trends however it trends.

    If this money quote from Kennedy's 5-4 majority decision captures the substance of this decision, by the way, this is one of the most poorly reasoned decisions we've seen in a long time. And the majority has issued some seriously poorly reasoned decisions in the last few years in their quest to corrupt our court system:

    Distinguishing wealthy individuals from corporations based on the latter's special advantages of e.g., limited liability, does not suffice to allow laws prohibiting free speech. It is irrelevant for First Amendment purposes that corporate funds may "have little or not correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas." Austin, supra, at 660. All speakers including individuals and the media, use money amassed from the economic marketplace to fund their speech, and the First Amendment protects the resulting speech.

    The Supreme Court itself is the body that has established and extended at every turn the totally counter-First Amendment document that speech can be arbitrarily abridged if there is something they find to be a more compelling public interest. They then just arbitrarily say the speech is not "speech" and therefore beyond the First Amendment based on it's content. In this case, Kennedy is intellectually dishonest in simply making a blatantly ludicrous rationalizing without justifying that facilitates reaching the conclusion the majority wants, and without meeting the obligations of basic intellectual integrity and morality of providing reasoning susceptible to scrutiny and criticism that resolves this blatant contradiction in the Court's long-standing capricious attitude towards the First Amendment.

  • (Show?)

    Nice comment "Sometimes", but it seems to me that Paul's comments are toward the political in this instance and your rebuttal seems to focus on policy.

    <h2>Both valid avenues of inquiry by Paul doesn't deserve a hit for choosing to address one of the two.</h2>

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