Date December 1, 2016
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How party activists, not voters in general, drive political polarization

Assistant professor of sociology at Brown finds that as local political leaders try to leave partisan politics behind, grassroots activists drive local parties to more extreme positions.

Josh Pacewicz
In 2006, Pacewicz was doing elections research in Rust Belt cities when he noticed that, despite Republican victories in two successive presidential elections, local Republicans were engaged in “a war with themselves.” Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —Voters in the Rust Belt, sections of the northeastern and midwestern United States characterized by declining industry, played a significant role in the 2016 presidential election, with both Republican and traditionally Democratic areas voting for President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Josh Pacewicz, assistant professor of sociology and urban studies at Brown University, has long researched electoral politics in the Rust Belt and studied how changes to the community institutions in which American politics is rooted created opportunities for campaigns like Trump’s. Factors including a long-brewing conflict between establishment Republicans and party activists and voters’ loosening attachment to both political parties have contributed greatly, Pacewicz has found.

In the wake of this year’s election, Pacewicz shared his insights on how the economic decline of Rust Belt cities transformed grassroots political parties and the way that voters think about politics — topics he explored in depth in Partisans and Partners: The Politics of the Post-Keynesian Society,” published in October. The book looks closely at two Rust Belt cities, one traditionally Republican and the other Democrat.

Partisans and Partners book cover
Pacewicz's book looks closely at two Rust Belt cities, one Republican, one Democrat.

Can you describe the characteristics of the two cities that you examined in your research?

Essentially, I examined small cities that were once heavily industrialized but have lost most of their industry and other locally owned businesses. So think about small cities of 50,000 to 100,000, older, less educated than the U.S. median, more blue collar and over 85 percent white.

If you’re thinking that these sound like the kinds of places where voters moved to Trump, you’re right. The more Democratic of the two cities actually voted Republican for the first time since WW-II. The more Republican of the cities usually votes just over 50 percent Republican, but voted for Trump by nearly 60 percent. Interestingly, Obama won both in 2012 — albeit barely in the more Republican case. This pattern was repeated in other small formerly industrial cities across Iowa and the Rust Belt — arguably, shifts in places like these are why Trump won several Rust Belt states and hence the election. 

And you found a generational shift in how residents of these cities viewed politics?

For my research, I interviewed Iowans in two cities during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles with a particular interest in people’s intuitions about politics and how those who represent them should act. Ultimately, I argue in that these intuitions and judgments are more predictive of long-term party attachment than issue positions. What I found is that many older Iowans sounded just like people from political science texts in the 1950s.

They reasoned about politics as a struggle between the haves and have nots, the working people and the rich, little people and the well-to-do. Most older people tended to think in these terms, and most sided with the Democratic have-nots, although a few still identified with their cities’ Republican business class. By contrast, younger people tended to think about politics in terms of partners and partisans — respectively, technocrats who focus on building post-partisan partnerships, and outsider populists.

You describe a former system in which federal policies, including financial regulations that protected locally owned companies, contributed to locally controlled political organizations. What did that mean for politics?

The central argument of the book is that the traditional economy of these cities reinforced people’s identification with haves versus have-nots, whereas contemporary realities increasingly lead people to understand politics as a contest between partisans and partners.

Traditionally, the economy of the cities I studied was defined by locally owned firms — those owned by people who lived in the same city — and systems of intergovernmental finance that worked by apportioning resources to local commissions. This led community leaders to, at least implicitly, say: “These firms and federal grants are the resources that are under our control and the pie is only so big — the central argument is about how it should be apportioned.” So local leaders, at that time business owners and labor union representatives, fought over what they took to be local resources. Because they were fighting over community affairs, they were already organized into oppositional factions and saw partisan politics as a natural extension of their community role.

And that is no longer the case?

Contemporary community leaders operate in a climate where they have to compete with other cities to woo outside corporations and win outside grants, which they do by creating flexible place-marketing partnerships. Doing so effectively, I argue, requires a non-divisive person, which is ultimately what leads contemporary community leaders (the partners) to pull out of grassroots political parties, leaving them to ideological activists (the partisans).

What led to the collapse of traditional business associations and created the need to attract outside grants or investment?

Most important of these factors is deregulation of financial markets in the 1970s, which was championed by Republicans, but also Democrats and even figures like Ralph Nader, in response to stagflation and other economic problems. In retrospect, we know that these reforms undermined the regulated financial system of the WW-II era. And economic historians argue that they produced the largest corporate merger movement of the 20th century in the 1980s.

So in the 1980s, locally owned firms in the cities I studied were bought out by bigger corporations headquartered elsewhere or takeover specialists on Wall Street, who often liquidated the firm. Each time a locally owned firm was acquired, the local business community lost clout and lost its ability to shape public institutions via organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or, for that matter, the Republican party. This process is not to be confused with the manufacturing crisis, which also impacted these cities — mostly by leading firms to reduce workforce — but did not alter these firms’ ownership structure and hence the pool of local leaders. Outside acquisitions and liquidations decimated unions, too, so cities of the type I studied lost their traditional leadership class of business owners and union representatives.

You wrote that community leaders now avoid grassroots parties, a tendency that polarizes politics by leaving ideological activists in control. What factors contribute to this?

Overall, participation in party politics complicates contemporary leaders’ ability to be effective, prominent community leaders. I argue that community leaders are made, not anointed. They are constantly jockeying with one another for prominence and prestige, which allows them to put their plans into action or otherwise pursue their agenda. In effect, influence has much more to do with an informal pecking order than formal authority.

When community leaders are distinguishing themselves by creating partnerships that effectively market their plans to outsiders, party politics presents two kinds of obstacles. First, it makes it hard to form partnerships with certain types of people. For instance, if you are a Republican business leader, it is hard to sit down with union leaders and apply for a state job creation grant if the GOP is simultaneously spearheading an anti-union campaign. Second, activists associated with grassroots political parties are constantly doing things that a large segment of community leaders see as divisive — for instance, picketing Planned Parenthood or an adult book store on the GOP side. For community leaders to be associated with that would tar their public image. Their goal is to appear undivisive and willing to work with anyone on anything.

What happens when partners abandon community-level politics?

As community leaders abandon grassroots parties, they get taken over by ideologically motivated activists who drive party politics to the extremes because of their influence over primary elections and national politics more generally. That American politics has been polarized more by changes among party activists than changes among voters is fairly well established in political science. The contribution of my study is to show why this process is taking place. Ironically, our political system is being polarized because community leaders have become relatively apolitical and avoid engagement in grassroots parties, thus leaving them in the hands of grassroots activists.

Where does this leave voters and citizens who are not activists?

We’ve just been through an election in which, on the Democratic side, a self-avowed socialist did pretty well in the primary and, on the Republican side, a political outsider with direct ties to white nationalists just got elected. Such an outcome is only possible within a political system in which the grassroots base of our party system is in the hands of ideologically motivated neophytes. So there’s the double-edged nature of the current political moment: on the one hand, it creates possibilities for outside-the-Beltway movement and campaigns to influence the public agenda, but it also creates opportunities for some scary, reactionary counter-movements.

The level of polarization is much lower among regular voters. It is true that if you hold consistently Republican views you are more likely to strongly identify as a Republican — but most social scientists think that this is because the parties fight more, thereby distinguishing themselves more clearly from one another. If you pick an American at random, they are likely to hold some Republican views, some Democratic views, and not have a particularly articulated or strongly held position on any of them. What has changed also is that people identify less with political parties — decades ago, people were more likely to say “I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican,” whereas today they say, “I’m an independent but usually agree with the Democrats more.” So that tension between politicians and voters is what I have investigated: Why have politicians become so much more polarized when most voters haven’t?

Historical records show that the period between 1930 and 1980 was fairly unusual in that the two political parties agreed on many key issues and bipartisanship was relatively common in historical perspective. Both the period before that and, obviously, since then have been marked by high levels of partisanship. I think the key question is: Why was the period from 1930 to 1980 characterized by low partisan polarization? I think my research provides an important piece of the answer.