The Rise of Partisanship and the Expansion of Partisan Conflict within the American Electorate

By Brewer, Mark D. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Rise of Partisanship and the Expansion of Partisan Conflict within the American Electorate


Brewer, Mark D., Political Research Quarterly


Recent research has outlined important changes in partisanship among political elites in the United States. Specifically, the effect of partisanship on politicians' vote choice and other political behavior has risen, and the number of issue areas where partisan conflict is present has increased. This article examines whether similar changes have taken place among the general electorate. Using data from the NES Cumulative Datafile, the findings presented here do point to changes in partisanship among the mass public. Once thought to be in decline, mass partisanship has rebounded significantly in recent years. In a related development that is perhaps more important, partisanship has become more pervasive within the electorate, with partisan conflict now penetrating into a greater number of issue areas. Partisanship has become relevant in the areas of racial and cultural issues while retaining its importance for issues involving economic equality.

By the mid-1990s there was little doubt that, at the elite level, partisanship was resurgent in American politics. However, questions remain about the state of the parties in the general public. The parties arguably differ more on issues now than at any time since the early days of the New Deal. Politicians (party elites) are more likely to support their party and oppose the other party today than at any time since the 1950s. If issues are important to the contemporary electorate, and most evidence indicates that they are, then it makes sense that voters will pick up on the issue differences that exist between the parties and react to these differences. Shouldn't partisan changes at the elite level somehow affect partisanship in the electorate?

According to the major models of mass opinion change, the answer to the above question is "yes." Although aggregate mass opinion change is slow and difficult, it does indeed occur (Page and Shapiro 1992). And when it does take place, the engine generally thought to be driving mass opinion change is the behavior of political elites (Carmines, Renten, and Stimson 1984; Carmines and Stimson 1989; Hetherington 2001; Key with Cummings 1966; Layman and Carsey 2002a, b; Page 1978; Page and Shapiro 1992; Zaller 1992). Public opinion does not change on its own; elite opinion changes, then elite behavior changes, and then (in some cases) mass opinion changes. Certainly events also play a large role in changing public opinion, but even in such instances it is often elite reaction to and interpretation of the event as much as it is the event itself that affects mass opinion. Theoretically then, as political elites become more ideological and partisan in their rhetoric, policy proposals, and voting behavior (as they have since the late 1970s), the electorate should become more ideological and partisan as well.1 As the number of issue areas marked by partisan conflict expands among political elites, the same should happen among partisans in the general electorate. The key matter is whether or not these developments have taken place.

This article will show that partisan change within the mass electorate has indeed mirrored that which has occurred among elites. Not only has partisanship increased at the mass level, it has also become more pervasive and consistent across a wider range of issue areas. The traditional New Deal partisan cleavage on issues of economic equality continues, but is now joined by strong and salient partisan divisions on racial issues and cultural issues. Party elites became polarized on these issue areas first, followed over time by the mass public as it perceived and reacted to the cues the elites were providing. It is also crucial to recognize that this process quite likely feeds off of itself-elites polarize on issues, causing increased polarization among the mass on these same issues, which in turn fuels further elite polarization as politicians (who are after all elites) react to the views and demands of constituents and voters.

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