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Parties, Partisanship & Cooperation

From Personal to Partisan: Abortion, Party and Religion in the California State Assembly, 1967-96 

Chloe Thurston
IPR political scientist Chloe Thurston's research is at intersection of politics and economics, which largely focuses on the role government and interest groups play in shaping public policy.

In Studies in American Political Development, IPR political scientist Chloe Thurston examines how politicians changed their voting behavior to shift from personal to partisan beliefs over time. Thurston and her co-author David Karol looked at how legislators in the California State Assembly voted on abortion issues between 1967 and 1996 to understand this change in behavior. The study finds that abortion was not a party issue when it was first passed as legislation in 1967 and that religion was a better predictor of a politician’s vote on abortion than party membership. Catholics, including Democratic legislators, were more pro-life than other legislators in the 1960s. By the 1980s, Catholic legislators were more supportive of abortion rights than other members of the state assembly. Relationships developed between feminist groups like the National Organization for Women and Democrats and the Christian Right and the GOP during the 1970s, helping to supplant the importance of politicians’ religion on their abortion voting stances. The influence of these interest groups polarized the issue over the next two decades, thereby realigning California legislators’ positions on abortion. The researchers note that the findings show “the importance of personal background to a legislator’s voting can shift over time as issues emerge and evolve, and as positions become linked to political parties.” ​

Does Polarization Lead to Less Support for Democratic Norms? 

Although affective polarization, or the extent to which members of one political party harbor negative feelings toward members of the other, has been on the rise in recent decades, we still do not know much about its political consequences. In a recent working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman looks at one of its potentially dangerous effects—that of eroding Americans’ belief in democratic norms and values. Druckman and his co-authors surveyed nearly 4,000 Americans, selected randomly via the internet, to determine their levels of affective polarization. They also gauged their support for the separation of powers and the right to free speech, among others. They find that high support for democratic norms predicts liberal policy positions, suggesting that the Democratic Party, at least at this moment, is seen as the “pro-norm” party. This matches their finding that those Democrats who hold less negative views of Republicans tend also to have less liberal policy positions and to be less supportive of democratic norms. The researchers observe that voters seem to view democratic norms as “just another partisan issue,” suggesting a need for more widespread civic education about the importance of democratic norms. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science.

Reevaluating How We Measure Political Polarization

Affective polarization—the tendency of differing parties to dislike one another— is a widespread and growing phenomenon in American politics. However, it is difficult to reliably measure such polarization. In Public Opinion QuarterlyDruckman and co-author Matthew Levendusky examine two important gaps in current systems of measurement. First, scholars use a wide range of survey questions to measure polarization, but there remains contention regarding which survey questions should be used. Druckman and his colleague argue that the feeling thermometer, trait ratings, and trust measures are the most accurate survey items, whereas the social distance measure is not a good means of evaluating affective polarization. The second issue is that when respondents are asked to evaluate other parties, it is unclear if their answers refer to the party voters or the politicians. Druckman and his colleague find that respondents generally think of elites more than ordinary voters. Furthermore, respondents are considerably more negative toward the elites of the other party than they are toward its voting base. These findings bring to light new information not only on how researchers ought to measure polarization, but also how we can address such partisanship within the political system.

Why do Lawmakers Reject Compromise?

In their new book Rejecting Compromise: Legislators' Fear of Primary Voters (Cambridge University Press, 2020), IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge-Yong and her colleagues, Sarah Anderson and Daniel Butler, show that instead of finding common ground, policymakers might vote “no” even when a policy moves closer to their ideal policy than what currently exists. In other words, they reject the idea that “a half loaf is better than none.” Gauging how often legislators reject half-loaf compromises across all legislation is nearly impossible to measure in practice since doing so requires mapping the positions of a current policy, a proposed policy, and a legislator’s preference. Yet the researchers managed to capture all of these measures by creating a hypothetical voting scenario. They surveyed 257 state legislators to see whether they might vote “no” on a state gas tax closer to their ideal tax than the current gas tax in their state. Their results reveal that 23% of state legislators surveyed rejected a compromise that moved policy halfway closer to their preferred policy outcome. The authors find that one of the key predictors of rejecting compromise was the perception that voters, especially in primary elections, would punish lawmakers for compromising. They also show that, in this experiment, Republicans and those in the majority were more likely to vote “no.” So, while legislative gridlock is widely painted as a result of polarized policy positions that cannot be reconciled, Harbridge-Yong and her colleagues show that gridlock can occur even when a compromise policy is offered, if some lawmakers choose to hold out for the whole loaf. Read more about Rejecting Compromise. 

The Effects of Blaming Others for Legislative Inaction 

Legislative gridlock has become common in recent years, and legislators often blame it on members of the opposite party. Harbridge-Yong and David Doherty of Loyola University look at how voters respond when legislators blame others for inaction. In six survey experiments conducted online in 2017 and 2018, they asked participants to read content from an electronic newsletter a member of Congress sent their constituents—both fictional content and real excerpts—about various policy issues. The researchers then evaluated how the participants viewed the legislator based on whether she or he blamed the other party or chamber for inaction. They find that evidence that people respond less favorably toward legislators who blame the other party for inaction. Although individual legislators do not gain much by blaming others for gridlock—and may even be viewed negatively for it—blaming can improve the standing of the legislator’s party relative to the opposing party. “This suggests that blaming can be an effective negative‐sum strategy when legislators see little opportunity to cultivate positive accomplishments,” the researchers wrote. They also note that it may be an effective collective strategy if many legislators follow this approach as it can boost opinions of their own party relative to the opposing party while distributing the penalty for engaging in blame across many legislators.