Ideological polarization in the US Congress reached a record high last year, while Congress’ approval rating reached a record low. The resulting gridlock has put the brakes on new legislation to address most issues, including climate change.
While nary a political news program passes without reference to polarization, little light has been shed on exactly what it is, how it happened, and whether or not it can be fixed.
In his new book, Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America, Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel does just that.
His main insight – that ideologies are a dynamic set of political preferences, distinct from parties, and shaped by people outside of government – runs counter to most existing notions. But it provides an illuminating framework for understanding the conflict that defines American politics today.
While his book is not about climate change, he shared his thoughts about what the trend of increasingly ideological parties and polarized legislatures might mean for the future of US climate policy.
When we hear that Congress is becoming more polarized, what exactly does that mean?
At the simplest, it means that we have two increasingly well-defined blocks of legislators, each voting pretty consistently against one another. I think that’s the best way to think about it, because we don’t have clear evidence that the parties are necessarily further apart, for example, but we know that they are more distinct.
The reason is not that liberals have become more liberal and conservatives more conservative. It’s that there are few conservatives in the Democratic Party, and even fewer liberals in the Republican Party. That didn’t used to be the case. In the 1950s, you would have some members who would vote with their party on some things, but then break away to vote ideologically against many in their party. But with the alignment of party and ideology, that doesn’t happen anymore.
And how do these ideologies come about?
Ideologies are just systems that tell you what you should think, based on the other things that you think. So if you oppose the War in Iraq, you are probably (but not necessarily) liberal-leaning, and liberalism also tells you to favor abortion rights and labor unions.
The way that ideologies do this is by appealing to an overlapping set of values and principles. (Sometimes, these principles may seem to contradict one another, but ideologues have found some way to resolve those conflicts.) They emerge because a lot of people are trying to figure out what we should do, as a society. People with one set of predispositions or values tend to talk to others with similar predispositions. And so as their ideas evolve together, you get an ideology.
Is it accurate to say that addressing climate change has become part of a liberal ideology – linked in people’s minds with other liberal issues?
I think that’s right. In my book, I show that environmental protection issues in general are strongly associated with liberalism since as early as 1910, and without question since at least 1970. It’s empirically the case that, among politically engaged and sophisticated people, concern about climate change is associated with other liberal attitudes.
Did it have to be this way? Could climate change have been a conservative issue, or better yet, non-ideological?
It’s hard to imagine the current liberal and conservative ideologies being aligned on climate change differently. Conservatism includes a concern for the interests of business, and opposes restrictions on what businesses can do. Opposition to government intervention in the economy is rather central to conservatism. But in the late 1800s, for example, the constellations of ideologies were quite different. Progressivism had many, sometimes contradictory impulses. It’s possible that what emerged might have had a different structure.
It’s not clear to me that being non-ideological would be “better yet.” It might be. But being ideologically cross-cutting doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Concern for the welfare of blacks cross-cut ideological and partisan lines in the early part of the 20th century, but that didn’t lead to a lot of progress for racial minorities. It wasn’t until liberals (one ideology, but still in both parties) made civil rights a priority that it succeeded.
You say in your book that ideologies “care as much about who is right as about what is right.” How important are the proponents (say, Al Gore) and opponents (say, fossil fuel industries) of climate policy in determining how the issue gets linked to ideology?
It’s absolutely critical. Not so much Al Gore per se. He’s a polarizing figure, but I don’t know whether his climate change work is the chicken or the egg. But more broadly, who is on your side matters. The fact that the costs of fighting climate change will be disproportionally felt by a particular set of industries, and that those industries are aligned with conservatives for a variety of other reasons, means that conservatives have an incentive to fight climate policy just as they fight labor restrictions and other government intervention in the economy.
There are conservatives, like former Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who challenge the link between climate change and liberalism by advocating for “government-shrinking,” “free-market” solutions, on the basis of being good stewards of God’s creation and responsible towards future generations. Are there examples of people like this going against the grain and being successful?
Ideology, as I conceive of it, is a matter of aggregate patterns. There are always people who don’t fit the pattern. Ask yourself, do you agree with everything that liberals or that conservatives think? Probably not. And yet, you probably are closer to one than the other. So a lot of people don’t fit the pattern, but the pattern is still there.
A case can be made for a different ideological alignment on this issue. The stewardship argument is one way to make that case. But this is not the common argument. For every Inglis, you have a dozen conservatives who don’t see it his way.
You argue that public intellectuals (i.e. “elite thinkers”) – not partisans or special interests – are most responsible for shaping ideologies. That’s much more credit than most people give them. How did you come to that conclusion?
I started out looking somewhere else. If you ask a political scientist, where do voters get their political opinions, they’d tell you that voters respond to party cues. When party leaders say something is good, voters follow. There is an excellent and influential book by John Zaller that shows that this happens. But if you ask a political scientist where those party leaders get their policy positions, they might tell you that parties choose platforms to win votes. There is another excellent and influential book by Anthony Downs that shows how that could happen.
So we have voters following parties, and parties chasing voters. It’s very circular. I was interested in understanding where in that story does change come from? It could just be that the system is noisy, and so new ideas can sneak in where people don’t quite follow the model. But the truth is that we get the development of strong, well-integrated ideologies. And those ideologies emerge first among political elites.
If “elite thinkers” link issues together in creating ideologies, can they also decouple issues and change ideologies? How would this happen?
I think they can. I don’t think elites actively try to decouple issues, but they can build new connections that would replace the old. The ties between issues have to be maintained. As a polity moves forward, connections that seemed logical before might be replaced by different connections. If everyone starts talking like Bob Inglis, then things could change.
Any advice for policy advocates whose issue is deadlocked between ideological parties?
I don’t know that I’d call it “deadlocked between” the parties. You have one party that has an ideology that is favorable to your policy, and one that is opposed. That may be a recipe for stalemate, but it’s better than having everyone against you. And it may even be better than having an equal number of supporters, but spread between the parties.
The nice thing about having ideological parties is that you know who is on your side. If one party is in your camp, what you do is get that party elected, everywhere. That will make it easier for the party to enact any of its policy goals, yours included.
Going it alone, on the other hand, can be successful, too. But it’s risky. The issue of restrictions on alcohol followed that path. Temperance advocates used to be fairly well aligned with the Whig and Republican parties, but after the civil war, attitudes toward temperance shifted a great deal. When Prohibition was enacted, it was a bipartisan and cross-ideological coalition. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) both fought for prohibition, but they didn’t agree on much else. The Anti-Saloon League’s strategy, which ultimately was successful, was to back whichever candidate was dry, Democrat or Republican.
So that worked. But for how long? By the time a challenge to prohibition arose, the ASL had stopped sending dries to Congress, because they had little reason to remain engaged in politics. Presumably, climate policy will require a long-term effort. Why not free-ride on the organizational efforts of one of the parties?
At any rate, it’s unlikely that climate policy will become bipartisan. So the partisan strategy is more likely to be successful.
This, by the way, is why I think it’s very useful that you have shown interest in looking for patterns in other issues. Understanding how party politics works will be helpful in making progress. And it’s very smart to look at other issues and how they have played out. Climate change may have its unique character, but it will also have a lot in common with other issues.
Hans Noel is Associate Professor at Georgetown University. His researchis on political coalitions, political parties and ideology, with a focus on the United States. He is the author of Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America, and a co-author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. He is interested in the implications for understanding parties through focusing on how their policy demands relate to coalition building and coordination. Noel blogs on political parties and related issues at Mischiefs of Faction, and occasionally at The Monkey Cage.