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American polarization is broad but not deep

I'm not above a silly polarization joke.
I'm not above a silly polarization joke.

The prevailing theory of American party polarization is that it runs deep — that it taps into differences in the core beliefs and values of Americans and the politicians who represent us. I'm generally sympathetic to this view, which is consistent across all sorts of research: the "God gap" between the parties, the partisan split on an increasing number of issues, arguments about polarization that link it to the social changes of race and gender in the 1960s.

But how deep is polarization, really? I alluded to this in my initial reaction to the Republican debate last week. The candidates often articulated positions on specific policies that did not follow from the larger principles they described. This is not limited to the Republicans; for the Democrats, we're more likely to observe that they simply don't articulate a governing principle at all.

We see this in Hillary Clinton's inability to explain her position shifts on gay rights, and in Bernie Sanders's explanation of what it means to be a democratic socialist. Sanders's explanation drew entirely on concrete comparisons rather than on an actual theory of governance. On the Republican side, the candidates walked in circles on issues from immigration to corporate welfare. The ideology still sounded conservative — get government and its regulations out of the way; small business is good while large-scale organizations are bad. But the specifics were something else entirely: several of the candidates talking about income inequality, usually a Democratic talking point; Rand Paul talking about limiting the lobbying power of the Fed (kind of a strange position for a candidate with libertarian views); Chris Christie talking about a politicized Justice Department that won't go after corporate offenders.

These aren't limited to the current batch of presidential candidates either (so we can't blame the CNBC or CNN moderators, however much we might want to). Paul Ryan's comments about family leave also reflect incongruence. It's easy to dismiss them as simple hypocrisy. But the fact that the Republican Party emphasizes family values alongside the free market rights of employers is a bigger question to untangle, and it goes beyond the particular case of the newly elected House speaker. On the Democratic side, Obama repeated the talking point about immigration that he wants to focus on deporting "felons, not families." But no such clear distinction exists; felons have families and do not constitute a discrete subset of human beings. Any policy based on this idea is going to have gaps and contradictions.

The gap between ideological principles on the one hand and policy in practice on the other has a long history in American politics. For one thing, the large coalitions required by a two-party system in a large, diverse country leads to lots of compromises and conflicting principles. Translating big ideas into real regulations and interventions is also complex. One example of this is the National Industrial Recovery Act, a centerpiece of the New Deal that was eventually struck down in court. Stephen Skowronek has argued that the Supreme Court probably did FDR a favor, because the politics of making the NIRA a reality were shaping up disastrously. Imagining government as a real player in the labor-management relationship was one thing; coming up with consistent policies that worked across size and sector was another. In the 1950s, Republicans confronted a different version of this: Moderate "modern" Republicans for the most part shared their more conservative counterparts' distaste for excessive government involvement. But they generally supported keeping and even gradually expanding some New Deal programs. Scholars still debate the precise ideological commitments of modern Republicans like Eisenhower, but ultimately I think their support for Social Security and federal involvement in infrastructure and education came down to practical questions. These policies produced political and policy results. Changing directions would have been disruptive, especially to groups that benefited most from the New Deal programs already in place.

The meaning of all this isn't so much that reports of intense polarization are wrong. Clearly, voting behavior in Congress has changed. Certain aspects of the media have changed. The presidency has changed. And there's at least some evidence that voters may have changed, though this appears to be the most contested of these claims.

But the superficial, piecemeal nature of elite ideology does suggest that we might think about polarization and governance differently. First, there's the fact that a period of strong parties was preceded by a candidate-centered presidential era — from Eisenhower up through Reagan. Party polarization hasn't completely displaced the candidate-centric model; rather, perhaps the focus on the president as the embodiment of ideas and values has shaped what polarization means now. Another way of saying this is that divided reactions to George W. Bush and Barack Obama might be a core driver of polarization, not a result of it.

Second, this highlights the challenge of making and implementing policy. In the study of American political development, we talk about political orders, policy logic, and disruption quite a bit. (Those interested in reading more about this should check out work by Theda Skocpol, Suzanne Mettler, the aforementioned Skowronek, and Karen Orren). Some recent work by Steve Engel illustrates how multiple orders can be at work in the same substantive policy arena: The Department of Defense treated same-sex partners one way, while until recently marriages were not recognized in all states. Now marriage is the law of the land, but many states have no protections against discrimination.

Other policy — economic regulation, health care, immigration — often produces similar incongruence. Even major policy change is partial, changing some parts of the relevant systems while leaving others intact. This means that policies have a kind of cumulative effect — this is the development in American political development — and that as time goes on, large-scale, sweeping policy changes become increasingly difficult. In other words, we can expect policy change that is politically possible to diverge from the ideas about policy that political rhetoric offers.

Finally, there's a connection with the process preference point that I raised last week. When substantive policy issues are difficult to mesh with deeper ideological principles, another way to hash out governing philosophy is by talking about process. Process debates allow us to argue about the meaning of the Constitution in a way that is cut off from policy implications. That's probably a lot more worrisome than the possibility of a country that's deeply polarized on the issues.