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Changing Cleavages and Coalitions in American Politics 1972-2016: The Rise of Polarization and Populism

Henry Brady, University of California- Berkeley

Henry Brady Henry Brady
What are the dimensions of political contestation in American politics today?  How has party-sorting and party activism contributed to political polarization and populism?  

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, American politics reflected the difference between the Democratic and Republican parties on economic issues (the “New Deal” cleavage) with an overlay, mostly within the Democratic Party, of differences on race (the “North-South” cleavage).  A mini-realignment among African American voters started in the 1930s in the northern cities, and it was accelerated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which extended the realignment to the countryside and the South so that African Americans switched to the Democrats from the Party of Lincoln and Southern whites switched to the Republican Party. The between-party New Deal economic policy cleavage was highly correlated with income, occupation, and union membership. Religion did not play a major role in American politics as white evangelicals had few overtly political interests, and they identified with both the Republican and Democratic parties. 

Starting in the 1970s with the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade (1973) decision and with the playing out of the consequences of the Civil Rights Acts of the mid 1960s, a two-dimensional cleavage structure arose comprising the traditional New Deal economic cleavage based upon income and occupation and a new social issues cleavage between the parties based upon religious attendance and moral conservatism. Although African Americans voted reliably for Democrats and many whites in the south began to vote for Republicans, the racial cleavage seemed largely submerged beneath the economic and social issues dimensions. Unlike economic policy where budgetary compromises were possible, concerns with social issues such as abortion, prayer in the schools, and gay rights presented problems where compromise was very difficult if not impossible.  In addition, conservatives sorted into the Republican Party and liberals into the Democratic Party. The result was an increasingly polarized politics.

Has this structure changed once again?   Are we now witnessing the emergence of a new dimension in American politics based upon xenophobia, racism, and nationalist sentiments? Was this dimension always there but obscured by other issues such as economics and moral conservatism? How does this dimension relate to the New Deal dimension and to social issues? How does it relate to America's long-term struggle with its legacy of slavery?

Using American National Election Studies and other data from the 1970s and earlier, this talk examines spatial diagrams over time to map out the changing coalitional structure of the parties, to investigate the possible emergence of a new xenophobic dimension, and to better understand populism and polarization in American politics.
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When and Where

Map Institute For Social Research - 1430

April 2018

4:00pm - 5:30pm

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