I recently had the pleasure of talking to a distinguished public figure I greatly admire. After sending him a (forthcoming) review essay on the evolution of the Republican coalition over the last half century, he made the intriguing suggestion that campaign finance regulations passed in the wake of Watergate fueled the rise of the conservative movement and badly undermined GOP moderates. To those of us of a more conservative bent, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing at first glance — yet it may have led conservatives to think less about the interests of the broad electorate and more about the most energized, engaged slice of the Republican electorate. More recently, curbs on soft money donations to the parties have reduced the influence of organized labor relative to affluent social liberals in the Democratic party, many of them drawn from what a friend refers to as “the other 7%,” i.e., the households just below the top 2% of U.S. households in terms of market income. One obvious consequence of this shift has been that culturally conservative Democrats are far more marginal than they had been in earlier eras, though of course this might also reflect broader social shifts, and the Democratic stance on taxes has shifted in a very strange way: instead of making the case that public services are worth paying for, and so upper-middle-income households should be willing to take on a somewhat higher tax burden, it is only households earning more than $250,000 who should pay anything more than they do right now.
My latest column for The Daily explores these dynamics, and argues that campaign finance regulation has helped drive polarization.
Gabriel Rossman kindly passed on a copy of “Have Americans’ Social Attitudes Become More Polarized?,” a paper published in 1996 that argues that there is little evidence for the notion that the public was any more polarized in the mid-1990s than it had been in the mid-1970s. Morris Fiorina of Stanford and the Hoover Institution made a similar case in Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America., a thesis he also discusses in a 2006 article for the Stanford Alumni Magazine. I am somewhat more inclined to believe that there has been some increase in polarization in underlying social attitudes, but all of this helps to enrich out understanding.