Presidents, Polarization, and Divided Government

By Cohen, Jeffrey E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Presidents, Polarization, and Divided Government


Cohen, Jeffrey E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


For several decades the American political system has been polarizing along partisan, ideological, and issue lines at both the mass and elite levels. One implication of polarization is the disappearance of the political middle: Moderates have almost completely vanished in Congress, for example (Fleisher and Bond 2004), and the political activists stratum, that is, party activists, candidates for office, and office holders, consist almost entirely of consistent liberals in the Democratic Party and consistent conservatives in the Republican-Party. By historical and American standards, polarization has given rise to policy extremism, in the sense of vanishing moderates. (1)

This article investigates the implications of the partisan polarization and extremism of the past two decades on the American presidency. Although the presidency is a key political institution, and often at the center of important political changes and developments, rarely has the literature on polarization considered the presidency. As Layman, Carsey, and Horowitz (2006) state, "the work on growing polarization between the parties in government has focused largely on Congress" (87). (2) The literature on presidential-congressional relations and polarization rarely goes beyond the general point that polarization makes a difficult relationship even more problematic for presidents (Andres 2005; Binder 2003; Edwards and Barrett 2000; Fleisher and Bond 2000a, b; Pomper 2003; Sinclair 1997, 2000, 2002; Theriault 2008; but see Beckmann and Kumar 2010). For instance, almost no attention has been paid to the effects of polarization on presidential policy choice and the implications of such choice on presidential success with Congress. (3)

Cameron (2002) offers one of the few extended discussions of the implications of polarization on the presidency, yet Cameron's essay aims mainly to set an agenda for research. As Cameron argues, polarization touches more than executive-legislative relations but also deeply affects presidential relations with the media, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the organization of the White House staff. But, "[p]residential scholars are just beginning to grasp these changes." (Cameron 2002, 647). To date, few have picked up on the research directions set out by Cameron. (4)

This article looks at the implications of polarization on presidential policy choice. The polarization literature argues that the widening gap between the parties should lead to policy extremism as opposed to moderation. Has the presidency, like Congress, also become more extreme, that is, decidedly liberal or conservative, as polarization has increased? I test two competing explanations for extremism in presidential policy, the party activist theory and the congressional context theory. The first theory argues that the reforms in election processes, in particular campaign finance and nominations, increased the power of party activists in the party processes. Consequently, liberals captured the Democratic Party and conservatives the Republican. Presidents, as agents of their party, selected by these newly powerful elements in their party, moved to the policy extremes in the post-reform era.

In contrast, the congressional context theory maintains that policy considerations in part motivate presidents: Presidents care about implemented policy for a variety of reasons detailed below. Two aspects of the congressional context affect presidential policy choice, whether their party controls Congress and the degree of party polarization. Under united government, presidents select policies close to their party center. Under divided government, presidents will moderate their policy positions, being forced to work with the opposition. But the president's ability and/or willingness to work with the opposition during divided government ebbs as polarization between the parties widens. The analysis presented below shows support for the congressional context theory but little for the party activist one. …

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