Yesterday’s post taking a brief look at the politics of civil rights in the 1950s serves as a reminder that the much-derided polarization of the contemporary era is in many ways a good thing.
Today, if you live in a state represented by a Republican incumbent, and the GOP controls congress, and you want policy to move in a more liberal direction, you can vote for the incumbent’s Democratic challenger who’s all-but-guaranteed to be more liberal than the GOP incumbent. And if the GOP incumbent’s defeat leads control of the congress to flip, then the GOP Majority Leader will be replaced by a more Democratic Majority Leader and all the Republican committee chairs will be replaced by more liberal Democratic committee chairs.
Back in the day, it wasn’t like that. Impacts were unpredictable. Booting a moderate northern Republican in favor of a liberal northern Democrat would shift things to the left. Unless, that is, it flipped control of the Senate in which case it might empower new Dixiecrat committee chairs who were more conservative — especially on civil rights issues — than were their GOP predecessors. Beyond that kind of unpredictability, voters were often confused as to what was at stake. In 1952 and then again in 1960 according to the National Election Survey just 50 percent of the public felt it could discern “any important differences in what the
Republicans and Democrats stand for?” In 1966 that fell to forty percent. In 1992 by contrast, it went up to 60 percent and it was all the way up at 76 percent in 2004.
Those, remember, are polls of people who actually voted. So while pundits may not like it when the parties draw clear distinctions, it seems to me that it’s clearly preferable for the voters to be put in a situation where they feel like they understand the stakes and there’s a relationship between votes cast and policy outcomes. A world in which the electorate is left perpetually baffled by the decisions they face and then the important issues are settled through arcane committee negotiations rather than on election day is just a means of empowering elites, not a path to better governance.