American Gridlock, eds. James A. Thurber and Antoine Yoshinaka

Second paragraph of third chapter (“Party Activists, Interest Groups and Polarization ion American Politics”, by David Karol):

In this chapter, I argue that activists and interest groups are key elements of political parties. Activists and party-aligned interest groups work within parties to advance their policy goals via candidate selection and lobbying elected officials. Unlike the formal party structure and some elements closely linked to it, activists and interest groups are a force for polarization. I review delegate and donor surveys as well as trends in interest group campaign contributions revealing evidence of polarization among activists and lobbies. Elected officials’ relationships with party activists and interest groups are not one-sided. Even more than highly informed voters, activists take cues from politicians, and interest group leaders are subject to pressure from elected officials. Still, evidence suggests that activists and party-linked interest groups promote polarization.

This was kindly given to me by co-editor James Thurber a few years ago. (Since you asked, I have worked out that he is the fifth cousin once removed of the humorist James Thurber.) It pulls together papers from a conference in May 2014, looking not only at the polarisation of American politics in Congress, but also at state legislatures, in the Supreme Court, in the media and in party structures. The situation was bad in 2014, and nine years later it looks worse.

The 18 essays come to some stark conclusions. The two parties are more ideologically distinct now than they have ever been, and the Republicans are further to the right than the Democrats are to the left. The political system incentivises pandering to your own hardliners rather than, y’know, actually governing. It is difficult to see any realistic path by which this can be reversed. Thomas Mann, in a foreword, suggests that a few more electoral defeats could be healthy for the Republicans and therefore for politics. I would point out that the Republican candidate for President has got more votes than the Democrat in precisely one of the eight elections since 1988, and it doesn’t seem to have chastened them.

I did wonder why some questions were not asked. From a European perspective, it’s actually not such a bad thing to have political parties that clearly represent different points of view. To me it seems that it’s not so much the ideological polarisation that is screwing American politics, it’s the culture of demonisation of political opponents, which actually goes back a long way but has got worse recently. European parties in general know that they may well have to work with each other in government after the election and so find politer ways of disagreement. (There are exceptions, of course.)

The other glaring omission, though it was not as obvious in 2014, is the surge of political violence in the USA, and its endorsement by leading figures on the right, most notably the 6 January 2021 coup attempt. Genteel analysis and numerical coding by academic observers rather pales into insignificance when you have an entire political party whose leadership has supported overthrowing the constitution by force.

Anyway, this is thought-provoking and depressing stuff, painting a gloomy picture which has turned out not to gloomy enough. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is City of Soldiers, by Kate Fearon.