The Politics of Polarization: Not as Simple as They Seem

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Polarization is everywhere these days. Voters are polarized, legislators are polarized, the courts are polarized, all perhaps to different degrees at different moments, but the movement of the parties—and those who represent them—away from each other is evident in one realm after another.

But too often, journalists talk about this phenomenon as though it were symmetrical, with Republicans and Democrats moving away from the center at roughly the same rate, even though that's not true. For instance, Congress has seen asymmetrical polarization in recent years, with Democrats growing slightly more liberal and Republicans growing much, much more conservative. There are a lot of reasons that has happened, but what I want to focus on at the moment is the differing internal dynamics of the two parties that help produce it.

Political scientist Hans Noel, fresh from a conference on polarization, reports that his colleagues may be paying too much attention to the relationship between voters and legislators, and not enough to activists, since the activists are the ones who exercise real influence over what politicians see, perceive, and understand:

Members of Congress are not polarized because voters are now better sorted. And voters are not polarized simply because legislators now are. The missing piece is ideological activists, who now dominate the political parties. In short, policy demanders. These politically engaged activists are the base that legislators are increasingly playing to, because they are the ones who provide campaign resources and who threaten primary challenges. Their polarization also filters to voters, through elected officials but also through the media and informal networks.

One thing that Noel doesn't mention is that the relationship between politicians and those “policy demanders” is profoundly different for Republicans than it is for Democrats. You may have heard the saying that Republican elected officials fear their base, while Democratic elected officials hate their base. The latter part may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there's a fundamental truth there. The problem left activists have is that they haven't been able to make Democrats fear them—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they haven't really tried, at least not in the way right activists do. Let's look, for instance, at this story from yesterday's Washington Post:

SHORT PUMP, VA. — Just a few miles from his family home, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) felt the wrath of the tea party Saturday, when activists in his congressional district booed and heckled the second-most powerful House Republican.

They also elected one of their own to lead Virginia's 7th Congressional District Republican Committee, turning their back on Cantor’s choice for a post viewed as crucial by both tea party and establishment wings in determining control of the fractured state GOP.

Cantor is a long way from having to seriously worry about a primary challenge. But this kind of pestering from Republican activists is something pretty much every elected Republican has to think about and deal with. For some it's part of a real threat that could result in them losing a primary, and for others it's just an irritant. But it's always there.

Democratic activists, on the other hand, just don't do this kind of thing, at least not as much as their Republican counterparts do. My hypothesis of the reason rests with the different kind of connections each side makes between the national and the local.

Conservative activists think nationally and act locally. When those Tea Partiers in Virginia took over their local Republican committee, they saw it as part of a national ideological struggle for the soul of the GOP, one that's playing out across the country, in Congress, and in the next presidential campaign. This relatively small thing is their way of participating in that struggle. And it's pretty effective—if they can become a giant pain in the House Majority Leader's behind, keeping him always looking over his shoulder to make sure he's not making the activists in his district angry, they will have exercised a substantial amount of leverage for a small group of ordinary citizens.

But when liberal activists act locally, their focus is usually on local things. There are issues they care about in their town or in their state, and they organize around those issues. Maybe it's an environmental effort, or passing a minimum wage increase or marriage equality. What they don't do as much is use their local activism as part of a nationally-focused effort to control the Democratic party's ideological tilt. There are all kinds of progressives doing all kinds of progressive activism in all kinds of places. But if you're the Democratic equivalent of Eric Cantor—let's say Chris Van Hollen, the congressman from liberal Montgomery County, Maryland, who is close to Nancy Pelosi—nobody's showing up at your town meetings to heckle you for not being liberal enough, or pushing out your candidate for the local Democratic committee. You're not feeling that pressure.

For liberals, is that lack of grassroots pressure good or bad? I'm not really sure. But the difference in how the two sides' activists behave is one of the major reasons we have the kind of polarization we do.

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