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The Deeper Issue Behind Political Polarization


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


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 with the intense political anxieties that have remained unresolved for at least twenty years.

Perplexed by the oddity perceived by liberals of white working-class citizens who voted for Republican George W. Bush, Prasad and her team combine an analysis of NES data on white voters with a survey of more than 1,000 white working-class Republicans living in heavily GOP-districts in North Carolina and Illinois to explore the dynamics of the 2004 election. Their findings, which were also based on 86 in-depth interviews among the survey sample, lend credibility to the claim that white working-class voters went for Bush because they prefer the “moral values” of the GOP. As the researchers claim, “although the economic policies [of Bush] are unpopular, they are bundled with an overarching moral framework that is extremely resonant to this set of voters.”

The researchers claim that, understood in light of their survey and interviews, their full regression of NES data shows that variables related to “moral values” were the “best predictors” of voter choice between Bush and John Kerry. However, the authors do not mean moral values as policy issues. After all, concerns about abortion and same-sex marriage did not yield statistically significant correlations in the NES data: “The variables that represent morality understood as character traits are highly significant, and large in magnitude,” including themes that resonated strongly in the personal interviews, such as whether a candidate “cares about people like you” or if respondents agreed that the trait “moral” described the candidate as well. Among the significant variables predicting a vote for Bush: disagreeing that the trait, “cares about people like you,” describes Kerry (p<.01); agreeing that the same trait describes Bush (p<.05); and agreeing that the trait “moral” describes Bush (p<.05).

Even as the study may downplay moral values as policy issues, it is no coincidence that citizens who were motivated to vote by morality broadly defined cast their lots with the candidate who nonetheless also held moral policy positions on life and marriage.

(Kyle Dodson, “The Return of the American Voter? Party Polarization and Voting Behavior, 1988 to 2004,” Sociological Perspectives 53.3 [Fall 2010]: 443–49, and Monica Prasad et al., “The Undeserving Rich: ‘Moral Values’ and the White Working Class,” Sociological Forum 24.2 [June 2009]: 225–53, emphasis added.)

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