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Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politicsby Marc J. Hetherington
Synopses & Reviews
Polarization is at an all-time high in the United States. But, contrary to popular belief, Americans are polarized not so much in their policy preferences as in their feelings toward their political opponents: To an unprecedented degree, Republicans and Democrats simply do not like one another. No surprise that these deeply held negative feelings are central to the recent (also unprecedented) plunge in congressional productivity. The past three Congresses have gotten less done than any since scholars began measuring congressional productivity.
In Why Washington Wonandrsquo;t Work, Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph argue that a contemporary crisis of trustandmdash;people whose party is out of power have almost no trust in a government run by the other sideandmdash;has deadlocked Congress. On most issues, party leaders can convince their own party to support their positions. In order to pass legislation, however, they must also create consensus by persuading some portion of the opposing party to trust in their vision for the future. Without trust, consensus fails to develop and compromise does not occur. Up until recently, such trust could still usually be found among the opposition, but not anymore. Political trust, the authors show, is far from a stable characteristic. Itandrsquo;s actually highly variable and contingent on a variety of factors, including whether oneandrsquo;s party is in control, which part of the government one is dealing with, and which policies or events are most salient at the moment.
Political trust increases, for example, when the public is concerned with foreign policyandmdash;as in times of warandmdash;and it decreases in periods of weak economic performance. Hetherington and Rudolph do offer some suggestions about steps politicians and the public might take to increase political trust. Ultimately, however, they conclude that it is unlikely levels of political trust will significantly increase unless foreign concerns come to dominate and the economy is consistently strong.
The left and right in America are now divided by politically irreconcilable worldviews, and the root of that divide is authoritarianism.
Major polls all report that andldquo;trust in government is at an all-time lowandrdquo; in the United States. At the same time, polarization is at an all-time high. Hetheringon and Rudolphandrsquo;s timely book demonstrates a direct link between polarization and the decline of political trust in America. And itandrsquo;s not just legislators and party leaders who are polarized, but ordinary Americans. Drawing on a cornucopia of evidence and data, the authors show that since the early 2000s polarization in the electorate has increasingly been rooted not in ideological or policy differences, but, for the first time, in extremely negative feelings toward the other party. To an unprecedented degree, Republicans and Democrats simply do not like each other. These polarized feelings are central to why trust in government has polarized which, in turn, is central to andldquo;why Washington wonandrsquo;t work.andrdquo; On most issues, presidents and other party leaders can convince their own party faithful in the electorate to support their positions. In order to pass legislation, however, a public consensus is needed to push policymakers toward action. Some proportion of the out-party partisans and independents have to have enough trust in government to make an ideological sacrifice and form that consensus. As the authors persuasively explain, this is no longer occurring. Far from being a long-term and relatively stable psychological trait, political trust is highly variable and contingent. Whether or not one trusts government will vary depending on whether oneandrsquo;s party is in control, what part of government one is referring to, and what policies or events are most salient. Political trust increases, for example, when the public identifies international issues as most important (as during the 1950s and 60s). They also find that the effects of economic performance on political trust are asymmetric: weak economies harm trust more than strong economies help it. Ultimately, Hetherington and Rudolph have to conclude that it is unlikely political trust will ever to return to 1960s levels (a high point in the US) for any length of time unless international concerns again dominate politics and, just as important, the economy becomes consistently strong.
Although politics at the elite level has been polarized for some time, a scholarly controversy has raged over whether ordinary Americans are polarized. This book argues that they are and that the reason is growing polarization of worldviews what guides people's view of right and wrong and good and evil. These differences in worldview are rooted in what Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler describe as authoritarianism. They show that differences of opinion concerning the most provocative issues on the contemporary issue agenda about race, gay marriage, illegal immigration, and the use of force to resolve security problems reflect differences in individuals levels of authoritarianism. This makes authoritarianism an especially compelling explanation of contemporary American politics. Events and strategic political decisions have conspired to make all these considerations more salient. The authors demonstrate that the left and the right have coalesced around these opposing worldviews, which has provided politics with more incandescent hues than before.
About the Author
Marc J. Hetherington is professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Why Trust Matters and coauthor, with Jonathan D. Weiler, of Authoritarianism andPolarization in American Politics.
Thomas J. Rudolph is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and coauthor of Expression vs. Equality.
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