Political Polarization

with Henry E. Brady, Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy


Has the American political spectrum become a two-color system? Henry Brady, Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, discusses how partisan polarization became so extreme—and what could be done to change it. Join Brady and other Goldman School panelists on Sept. 23 for CALIFORNIA Live! Surreal Politics: How Anxiety About Race, Gender, and Inequality Is Shaping the 2016 Presidential Campaign.


“The affluent and well-educated have participatory megaphones that amplify their voices in American politics,” says Dean Henry Brady, linking political polarization and economic inequality. In response to those who speak the loudest—by virtue of their extreme political views and their wealth and education—politicians often take positions on far from the center of political opinion. Public policies, in turn, deal disproportionately with the concerns of those with wealth and education and must contend with the polarized views of well-off Democrats and Republicans.

“Political polarization is exacerbated by economic inequality,” says Dean Brady. “We’d like to believe that in a democracy, all voters are weighted equally. One person, one vote,” he says. “But the reality is that because money is so important in politics, political parties and candidates have incentives to diverge away from the median, toward those able to fund a campaign. While the median household income in America is around $52,000 per year, the median dollar in a campaign comes from those who are making more than $80,000 per year. These ‘elite’ tend to take the most extreme positions on either side of the political spectrum. The two parties are farther apart than ever before, with the Republican Party especially far from the center of American political opinion on many issues.”

This wasn’t always the case. According to Dean Brady, the polarization around social issues like abortion or the role of women is a relatively recent development. Before the Reagan era of the 1980’s, it was possible to find Republicans and Democrats on either side of most social issues, and the political parties had a diversity of views on social issues within the party. There were conservative Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond (D-SC) and Alabama Governor George Wallace, and socially liberal Republicans from the Northeast like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits (R-NY).

“Both the Democratic and Republican parties had cleavages on social issues within them—not between them,” says Dean Brady. “But the Southern Democrats went away, largely because of the Civil Rights movement. Why the North Republicans disappeared is harder to figure out,” he says. “But as the Republican Party was wooing disaffected Southern Democrats, it may have alienated its more liberal members. Also, the supply side economics proposed by President Ronald Reagan may have gone too far beyond traditional conservative economic policies, further driving away moderates.”

Today, each party’s position on social issues and economic issues is more differentiated than ever. And within each party, according to Dean Brady, it is the elites who exacerbate political polarization.

“The elites on the right argue that government intrusion reduces religious freedom and economic freedom. White fundamentalists and evangelicals are moved by this argument, and they reject economic policies (such as Obama’s health care program) that might benefit them. Elites on the left do likewise, selling the idea that only government can protect the working man or woman from corporate power. It is hard to find compromises on positions in between.”

Dean Brady notes that the difficulty in finding a path beyond polarization has to do not only with basic economic inequalities that fuel extreme views, but with governmental institutions and procedures.

“We have institutions which make it hard to get anything done, such as the 2/3 rule for tax increases in California or the filibuster rules in the US Senate,” he says. “These kinds of rules and the many checks and balances in American government are designed to protect smaller groups from the tyranny of the majority, but they become impediments to making important decisions when there is substantial political polarization. It becomes impossible to get enough agreement to move forward, and we have gridlock. Institutional rules seem to have bigger bite than they used to,” he continues. “In the 1960’s, the filibuster was used 10 to 20 times per session. Now it’s used 100 times per session. Every single issue gets a filibuster, in part because it’s not very costly. Legislators can invoke a filibuster, then go home. If they were required to stay in the Senate chamber and make speeches, it would be costly both in terms of time and the image they project on C-SPAN. Procedures like that need reform.”


This article was originally published in the Goldman School of Public Policy’s Policy Notes in 2012.
Excerpted with permission.