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Review

Red and Blue Nation?
Characteristics and Causes of America's Polarized Politics

by Jo Freeman

Red and Blue Nation? Characteristics and Causes of America's Polarized Politics
Volume One edited by Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady
Published by The Brookings Institution, 2006, 317 pages

Red and Blue Nation asks if the US is becoming a polarized nation of two different cultures moving in opposite directions.  Has the growing partisan divide impaired the democratic policy process?

Set up as a debate in five arenas by experts in their fields, each chapter features a main argument, followed by Comments and sometimes by Rejoinders.  Surprisingly, the main case in each chapter is one for a moderate interpretation while the Commentators see the evidence as giving more cause for alarm.

Scholars agree that Congress has become more polarized over the last few decades but they disagree about whether the extent of party polarization is outside the normal range of our history.  They also disagree about whether this polarization reflects a real culture war within the population or just an exaggeration of normal divisions.

Simple assessment of the "evidence" is complicated by the fact that party polarization is greatest among the most politically active citizens and least among those who don't vote at all. Since the former are more likely to push the levers of power, does it matter if those who don't act also don't differ?

It helps to keep things in perspective.  Party differences have grown greater within the lifetime of those now writing, but not within the lifetime of the country. The late 19th and early 20th centuries —  as the country shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy creating an urban-rural conflict over many moral issues — saw much more partisan passion than we see today.  The Depression precipitated another great debate.  Even these conflicts did not reach the extent of polarization that led to the Civil War.

In separate chapters, different authors ask whether the country is polarized by religion, the mass media, and partisan gerrymandering. While they don't agree (this is, after all, a debate), they do remind us that while some things change, others remain the same.

Red and blue counties highlight that the urban-rural dimension is as present today as it was a century ago. Race, region and class still matter greatly when people vote and when they give their opinions to pollsters.

But religion also matters greatly, more than it did in the middle of the 20th Century and in ways different than it did in the 19th.  A hundred years ago, outside the South, Catholics voted Democratic and Protestants voted Republican.  Now it is frequency of religious attendance that best predicts party preference, at least for whites, not religious denomination.

Ironically, the increase in news sources has made it less likely that voters will receive a "balance" of views.  When the choices were few, everyone listened to pretty much the same news outlets.  When they became numerous and diverse, people chose the ones that reflected their own predispositions. Self-insulation promoted cultural and political insularity.

The ability of state legislatures to manipulate the shape and content of Congressional Districts at least once every ten years (more for Texas) is often blamed for exaggerating the differences that exist.  However, on closer examination this effect appears to be modest.

State legislatures have succeeded in reducing competitive Congressional Districts, but this by itself has not led to the partisan gulf that currently makes the US Congress such an antagonistic assembly.  The real source of divisiveness is not state legislators, but voters.

This is only the first of two volumes. Among the many issues not covered in this volume is gender (or sex, as we used to call it).  The modern gender gap is not a simple phenomenon and it has rippled further than partisanship at the voting booth. Sex (both attitudes toward and gender) is a key component of the culture war.  It should not be ignored in a study of party polarization.

We are used to hearing about the difference in how men and women vote for President, but in the 2006 Congressional races the gender gap varied from zero to ten percent.  Anything with that much variability on the same day cries out for explanation.

Nor is it limited to voters.  The fact that Democrats are willing to nominate more women than Republicans has many ramifications. At least two-thirds of all women serving in the state legislatures, as Governors and in the US Congress are Democrats.  Is this a consequence of polarization, or a cause?  Does it make a difference in setting policy priorities?

This is a readable book, full of useful information and provocative ideas. The publisher smartly put the footnotes at the bottom of each page making it much easier to follow those points on which there is elaboration. If you like to talk politics, you'll find plenty here with which to make people listen.

Note: The Brookings Institution provides a chapter: http://www3.brookings.edu/press/books/chapter_1/redandbluenation.pdf

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