Segregation and Polarization

RF writes:

Several times in the past year you have alluded to the idea the the civil rights movement somehow eliminated the one issue that had motivated America’s two political parties to collaborate and compromise with each other. The implication being that the modern era of more intense polarization is an artifact of that one re-alignment.

I don’t challenge this assertion, but I don’t understand it. Can you explain it further in a post or, if this is conventional wisdom, direct us to the books/articles that lay it out?

If you want to see this demonstrated quantitatively, you should look at the McCarty/Poole/Rosenthal work that makes it look all scientific.


For a qualitative description, I think you can find no better example than the Glass-Steagall Act. Most progressives, whether or not they favor a return to the specific rules enacted by this law, would certainly cite it as an example of the kind of “get tough on the banks” attitude they favor. Why can’t we have real liberals in congress like that anymore? But these guys were both white supremacist southerners. Rep Steagall, the more moderate of the two, was apparently known as “Marse Henry” by black Alabamians. Senator Carter Glass, by contrast, was the kind of guy who looked at the state of Virginia in 1900 and decided that the problem with it was that living conditions were too good for black people. He helped rewrite the constitution and remarked “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”

So the southern version of the Democratic Party included many members who were left-wing on economic issues but right-wing on race. But it also included members who were right-wing on economic issues and right-wing on racial ones. What’s more, the line between racial and economic issues often isn’t totally blurry, so many populist southern members might defect from a progressive economic coalition unless some given program was modified in such a way as to be detrimental to the interests of African Americans. Meanwhile, many northern Republicans with moderate-to-conservative views on economic policy had relatively progressive views on race. And for several decades racial issues were highly salient. Congress spent a lot of times debating measures that were seen as having a hefty racial element. So ideological coalitions would shift from time to time. That in and of itself meant a less “polarized” environment, but it also had the knock-on consequence of simply meaning that the parties as such weren’t defined in clear ideological terms. The party system in any given state or city would be built around one or more patronage machines, and the national parties were stitched-together networks of patronage machines and ethnic loyalties. The Democratic machine in New York City had no particular ideological affinity to the Byrd Organization in Virginia but they were partners in a nationwide partisan endeavor and linked historically by a shared animosity to the antislavery and anti-catholic proclivities of the 19th century GOP.

But at a certain point non-southern Democrats tilted so strongly in favor of civil rights that “lets all be Democrats regardless of what we think on other issues in order to advance white supremacy” became a moot idea. Southern African-Americans were enfranchised and “should black people be subject to massive formal discrimination” went from a very high salience to a very low salience issue. Southern whites with left-of-center views on economics formed a coalition with southern blacks, and southern whites with right-of-center views on economics joined the right-of-center Republican Party. Northern Republicans who opposed segregation ceased having anything interesting in common with liberal Democrats since everyone opposed segregation. Now congress still represents a range of views, but the vast majority of the voting behavior can be understood in simplistic “the Republicans are to the right of the Democrats” terms. In principle other issues exist that would scramble the party coalitions, but party cartel dynamics create a large incentive to keep those issues off the table. If people in American society started to suddenly feel very strongly about some brand new topic, it could start forcing its way onto to the agenda and potentially scramble the coalitions. But in practice, that hasn’t happened. I, personally, am interested in a number of low-salience issues (parking regulations, patents) but most people aren’t.