18 May 2008

Running the numbers: Polarized America

The following is in no way a rigorous examination of the issues brought up by Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal about Polarized America. I am not a statistician nor do I play one on television! That said, graphs often speak for themselves and sometimes the data presented is not all the data necessary to actually catch trends and analyze them, so I will take a highly biased view by bringing in a few other things that need to be pointed out.

From what I have read the general view is that national politics at the federal level has become more polarized with a heavy trend towards 'party line' votes and less 'bipartisanship' and less 'federal activism'. That is a general trend and one that everyone is pretty much aware of: gridlock. Gridlock means that government can't get much done and that at the federal level this has been an overall trend for a few decades. Of course it doesn't take a statistician to figure that out... In point of fact that is why the American people have been electing one party to the Executive and getting highly knife-edge divided in the Legislative, as the role of the federal government is to have checks and balances and 'bipartisanship' destroys that by diluting the power and ability of parties to present a coherent position with meaningful views on the republic. There are times when that is necessary and I will be pointing those out.

All graphs are modified from the originals.

Some of the eras I will be taking a look at are:

WWI - 1914-1918 - Time span chosen for actual war, although US involvement was 1917-18. This is for some of the effects seen overseas and their impact on the US.

Great Depression - 1930-1936 - The reasoning behind this time span is somewhat arbitrary, but based on the analysis I did in Insurance, Assurance and Prosperity. In truth the actual decline in the economy for the US started around 1927, with 1929 being the year of the Stock Market Crash and the final bottoming out in 1933. From 1933-37 are recovery years and the 1938 Recession was after the economy had already recovered from the Great Depression. Thus I consider the 1930-36 the heart of the Great Depression.

WWII - 1941-1945 - The US time in the war, not the entire war with its run-up by Japan starting in the mid-1930's.

Cold War - 1946-1999 - An argument could be made for 1948, but the chilling in post-WWII camaraderie was pretty rapid and problems were already starting to crop up in 1946.

One of the first things always given by the Left for problems in society is disparity of income leading to problems, so the graph of the percentage share of the top 1% and Polarization in the House, in particular, is a good place to start.


Of most interest is the era just prior to the start of the Great Depression where income for the top 1% was grabbing a larger share of wealth, yet polarization in the House was actually on the decline. Indeed, disparity of income, even as the share was declining for the top 1% did not increase polarization in the House until the late 1950's where the share would reach its *lowest* level and polarization would start to increase. If, according to Leftist views, disparity of income is a cause for civil discontent, then that is not reflected in the political polarization in the House of Representatives. Lowered polarization leads lowering in wealth distribution, it does not follow it.

Actually, as the top 1% of earners suffer a steep decline to a point below 9% of wealth does polarization actually increase. Even with the rapid increase in wealth due to the waning years of the Cold War seeing changes in tax policy, the trend is towards continued and increased polarization in the House even as the share of the 1% is still at a level *below* where it was prior to WWII, with the exception of three years. As that top 1% slows in its overall growth, polarity continues to increase unabated.

This is, from a Leftist view, astonishing: if the richest top 1% have their ability to succeed capped, there is increasing polarization. Trying to utilize 'transfer payments' and 'soaking the rich' then become a leading cause for *disharmony* and political polarization. When everyone is seen to be losing the ability to earn income, as in the Great Depression era, polarization wanes and continues to do so through times of 'national unity' during WWII and the first decade or so of the Cold War. When the rich have trouble getting richer, then things start to go awry. Decreasing disparity from a high, then, is only helpful to a limited extent, and if society starts to close of avenues towards wealth, the political class begins to reflect a feeling of discord and the party ideologies diverge from each other.

One of the difficulties with the data I have seen so far, is that they are inter-party (or more correctly Congressionally relative to those members in Congress) divergences. Attempts to measure what actually *is* 'liberal' or 'conservative' or 'moderate' is all done in the relative associations and voting done in Congress: there are no absolutes in these numbers. That understanding is necessary, especially as inter-era analysis can be dicey, as the researchers point out. With that said the relative breakout for the House is as follows:


Starting with the Great Depression there was a large scale change in US politics as seen between the two parties. The generally more conservative Republican Party started a slope towards the center of the political spectrum. Similarly the highly liberal Democratic Party shifted from the left to the center during that time. For Democrats that would peak, for the party as a whole, in the early 1950's and for the Republicans in the mid-1970's. Southern Democrats, however, would not shift towards a more liberal stance until the late 1960's particularly following 1967. This is reflected in both Houses of Congress:


When the parties are at low numbers there is a high degree of 'bi-partisan' voting in the two Houses. As their numbers approach 1.0 they become more and more polarized towards absolute party-line votes. Again, the late 1960's would mark the beginning of the end for large cross-over votes and by the mid-1970's the trend towards polarization would be an acknowledged fact. This is the point in time where the Republicans trend back towards their more traditional stance as seen pre-Depression, lagging the Democrats by over a decade. For the Democrats that trend towards their traditional stance only comes with the change in the Southern voter outlook in the late 1960's.

At this point I will pull in my demographic trend analysis from History is not inevitable, to see just what this phenomena on the Democratic side is, as it is normally overlooked:

The above taken from US Census datasets.

Starting in 1964 is a marked decline of voter participation in both Congressional and Presidential elections. These are, of course, national trends, but the shift of the two parties back *towards* their pre-Depression era stances cannot be discounted to this cause. Indeed, this may be one of the hardest driving factors for both parties at this time and explain much else in the datasets. Do note that these are not relative declines, but absolute declines as measured against the voting age population.

The most unremarked upon thing in this analysis, across the board, is how much bi-partisanship there was in the Great Depression to mid-1970's: it is uncharacteristic for the Nation as seen from the Reconstruction era to have that much cross-aisle work happening. Having the two party system drift towards each other is not the norm in US politics and it is only the economic and military pressures seen from the Great Depression, WWII and the Cold War that created this sort of voting pattern. Even worse is that a large and growing part of the population actually stops participating in representative democracy. If there are questions about why the polarization happened the startling conclusion is not the growing ideological gap between the parties, but the center walking out on BOTH OF THEM by not voting. This is not a case of the parties drifting apart and leaving the center behind, it is a case of the center leaving the two parties to drift towards their more traditional venues.

The center, by walking out, causes gridlock and stifles the ability of the federal government to do anything.

If this analysis is correct, it is highly disturbing as a representative democracy cannot last without such a large block voting to give the overall system validity. If, say, 68 million people voted in the last Presidential election at ~58% turnout, that leaves 49 million voting age population that did not exercise their franchise right. A voter registration campaign that brings in 3 million voters and can actually get them to vote, does not significantly change that demographic swing. It may influence an election, but that is far less than 10% of those not voting.

What is more troubling than that, and being witnessed this election season, is the two parties fielding presumptive candidates that are, inherently, starting to cause party faithful to waiver. If candidates in both parties cause a minor drop in their own base participation, say 10%, then the percentage voting drops very close to 50%, just nudging over it by a bit. At 15% it drops just below 50% turnout. At that point representative democracy goes from plurality government to true minority government, representing a sub-part of plurality. Even with minority government status being reached de facto for many years, the absolute shift where true plurality of the voting age assent is given is no longer in hand.

Gridlock is actually not a problem but the solution being given by the political center in the US: it is the only ready means at hand to keep the two parties in mutual check so that they can not run an activist government. The ability to actually be wealthy and not have that pathway to wealth put in danger is a sub-marking point of the larger demographic shift by the center. As government is a user of wealth, not a creator of it, the political center is now saying to both parties that what they created during the Depression to mid-1970's is not what is wanted by them, and they are willing to let the two parties drift hard apart from each other by not participating in representative democracy. We hear much from the two party activists, but the quiet and dead silence from the middle is attempting to marginalize both parties into ineffectual stalemate.

This is not a question of a 'third party' being created as NO PARTY will address the need to remove the caps on wealth generation, which is the federal government. Offering more gifts and bribes to the people is getting fewer and fewer votes overall, and that salient point is missed by both parties. Guaranteeing entitlements gets you a slice of an ever decreasing pie, and fighting over it can keep the two parties from trying to take more of the filling out of the pie. This message is not so much conservative as it is 'anti-activist government', as that political center sees no real great thrill in activism to the Left or Right from government as both tend to cap wealth creation by shifting to even out wealth distribution. In our era of everyone Left and Right touting activism, it is a bit difficult to wrap one's mind around a non-activist political party that will slowly remove the ability of the federal government to be activist.

There isn't one of those in the US, at present. So the people who occupy the political center are forcing their solution on two ever more ideologically separated parties. By doing that they are also telling the two parties that their activist message doesn't mean a good god-damned thing to them. If the political parties are polarized it is an effect from the political center that refuses to have anything to do with them. And as neither party can figure that out, it demonstrates the further bankruptcy of their ideologies as they increase in volume and gridlock.

If true, this analysis posits a highly unstable democracy heading towards true minority voting amenable to ever more polarized messages until a very slim marginal difference in turnout means sweeping victory. Not a bang, not a whimper, just ever more shrill and meaningless arguments... that is how democracy can die, if we are not careful.

I do hope I am wrong, very much so, for I do not like that conclusion.

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