Studying the Polarized Presidency

By Cameron, Charles M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Studying the Polarized Presidency


Cameron, Charles M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Presidents are at the center of American politics. So to ask, "What do you want to know about the presidency?" is very close to asking, "What do you want to know about American politics?" For me, answering the latter question is easy, and my answer to the first flows naturally from it. An amazing ideological polarization has swept American political elites. What I want to know is this: what is the origin of this polarization and--perhaps even more critically--what are its consequences, especially in tandem with divided party government? What I want to know about the presidency, specifically, is how elite polarization combined with divided party government affects that institution--which it does, profoundly.

As a shorthand phrase, I use "polarized politics" to refer to the politics of periods when elites (especially congressional elites) resemble two armed camps at the ends of the American ideological spectrum. And I will refer to the presidency, when politics is polarized and control of government is divided by party, as "the polarized presidency." Thus, the defining conditions for the polarized presidency are (1) polarized elites (especially the congressional parties) and (2) divided party government.

This brief article lays out something of an agenda for studying the polarized presidency. I begin by summarizing some of the evidence showing that the people at the apex of American politics are more ideologically polarized than they have been in ninety years or more. I also review the frequency of divided party government, the second requirement for the polarized presidency. I suggest that the combination of polarized elites and divided government is the "double whammy" characterizing American national politics today. Then I turn to the implications of polarized politics for the presidency, which are (simply put) utterly pervasive. The succeeding section touches on the question of history. Here I suggest that we have spent too much effort exclusively on the "modern" presidents, many of whom served during a period of low polarization. We would be well served by becoming more familiar with the presidency from the close of Reconstruction to the end of World War I (or so), when the polarized presidency was the norm. This may strike some readers as a bit perverse, but I hope it is at least thought provoking. The final section deals with methods, not too tendentiously I hope. Needless to say, as a died-in-the-wool "rational choicer," I have my favorite way to study the presidency. But polarized politics is so important and so interesting that all sorts of ways of studying it--historical, qualitative, quantitative, and formal--will be helpful.

The Rise of the Polarized Presidency

No one can have failed to notice the signs of something unusual, and rather unpleasant, happening in American politics. The impeachment of President Clinton, the hyperbolically partisan language and displays on Capitol Hill, the vituperative tone of dissents in Supreme Court opinions, the mud-flinging displays on media political talk shows, the snide and nasty language in best-selling political journalism--what is going on?

The answer is both obvious and straightforward: American political elites have polarized ideologically to a truly remarkable degree by recent standards. A full-fledged review of the polarization of elite politics is outside the scope of this brief article, though there are some excellent sources. (1) I present just the key points.

1. The parties in Congress have headed to the ends of the ideological spectrum. How do we know this? The statistical arcana of congressional roll call analysis sometimes make voting scores seem like black magic. Even at its best, roll call analysis has definite limits. Nonetheless, the robustness of the broad results to details of method, plus the confirmatory evidence offered by qualitative historical materials, is reassuring. …

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