IT'S THE POLITICAL ECONOMY, STUPID:
A POLANYIAN TAKE ON AMERICAN POLITICS IN THE LONGUE DURÉE
Josh Pacewicz - Brown University
American politics is in the gutter, and a key long-term cause is the polarization of the two parties: Democratic and Republican politicians uniformly take opposing positions on virtually all issues. This phenomenon may appear less pressing than Trump’s brinkmanship and racially divisive appeals, and a full accounting of Trump certainly requires attention to other issues like the politics of racial backlash. But, on the other hand, Trump’s ability to endure countless scandals and breaks with GOP orthodoxy while maintaining near-total party support is unimaginable except in a scenario wherein Republicans oppose Democrats across the board. Party polarization is what created conditions of possibility for a figure like Trump.
My work examines the political-economic roots of party polarization, and—I think—illustrates the ways in which analyses that focus on political-economic institutions counter the normative intuitions of both formal and folk political theory, particularly the presentist mindset with which some commentators approach analysis of our current historical moment.
The distinctive feature of New Deal era politics was grassroots political parties that were dominated by community economic and social elites—as shorthand, politics embedded in community governance. My book illustrates this via a historical analysis of two Rust Belt cities, wherein local business owners dominated the GOP and the Democratic party was largely an extension of the labor movement. This arrangement was specific to my cases, but other studies from the period also point to party politics as extension of factional community conflicts. In contemporaneous Cleveland, for example, Michael McQuarrie (2017) describes conflict between downtown, Republican business interests and an African-American dominated coalition based in the neighborhoods. Such factional community conflicts were partially the product of federal policies. Financial sector regulation and anti-trust enforcement discouraged corporate acquisitions, sheltering robust local business communities. Other policies encouraged labor union formation, empowering large locals that could pay full-time representatives to engage in community work. Federal social and urban programs also transferred discretionary dollars to cities, which led elites to construct their interests as local and encouraged them to mobilize supporters in conflicts over federal funds.
This system depolarized politics, because community elites coopted grassroots parties. GOP meetings frequently occurred at the country club, whereas the Labor Temple served as de facto Democratic headquarters. The result was a mode of public engagement that political scientists identify as conflict displacement: community elites focused party politics on the issues of economic redistribution that motivated their local engagement and literally did not allow activists focused on other causes near the microphone. My interviews with older voters showed that this led many to see national politics as an extension of community cleavages. The distinctive feature of the mid-20th Century electorate was voters that were highly committed to one of the parties, but ambivalent on most political issues. This was possible because voters used their experience of community affairs to make sense of the national politics—they saw political significance in their job, associational activities, neighborhood, and leisure activities. They saw local business and labor leaders as proxies for, respectively, the national GOP and Democratic Party.
The political-economic transformations of the 1970s and 80s decimated such traditional community relations. Financial deregulation set off the largest corporate merger movement of the 20th Century, which robbed cities of locally-owned businesses and their local business communities—a loss of local business influence, which mirrors business leaders’ contemporaneous loss of collective voice at the national scale (Mizruchi 2013). Unions too went into decline. Simultaneous cutbacks in federal funding led remaining elites to identify their interest with an ability to market their city to outsiders. They began avoiding conflict with one another in favor of partnerships to attract investment, whether competitive funding or corporate employers. In the process, local elites adopted a professional, post-partisan ethos than made them allergic to the partisan commitments of their predecessors.
In my book, I describe the consequences as politics disembedded from community governance: community affairs are dominated by those who focus on place-marketing, party politics by those who play no role in community governance. On the GOP side especially, this created an opening for the disaffected, hyper-partisan, and reactionary. After local business leaders left the local party, activists motivated by the day’s hot button issues, and thereby partisan news outlets and PACs, took over. Arguably, this state of affairs is not all bad. Following McAdam and Kloos (2014), progressive and conservative social movements alike now more easily influence the two parties. But, on the other hand, recent events suggest a political system stripped of its guard rails; it is difficult to imagine the xenophobic and conspiratorial turn of the GOP occurring under the watch of local business leaders. The successor to the elite-mediated partisan speech of the New Deal era may be a lot of bad speech.
To my eyes, political economic-perspectives are valuable primarily because they counter the presentist assumptions of liberal democratic narratives. The public is understandably hungry for research that promises to bridge the empathy gap, adjudicate whether Trump voters were driven by economic anxiety or racism, and otherwise reveal the true character of the politically dispossessed (to a limited extent, I’ve written some publicly-oriented stuff like this myself).
Social scientists can and should feed the public’s anthropological curiosity in the politically dispossessed, but it’d be nice if we could also lead the discussion by providing historical context.
It is hard to see the 2016 election as anything but a historical turning point, and one generally explains these by looking at institutional factors. Contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, politics frequently runs ahead of public opinion—following De Leon, Desai, and Tugal (2009), political actors construct rather than reflect political cleavages within the population. In my work, for example, I spoke to voters who expressed veiled and not-so-veiled racial resentments, but voted for Obama anyway and did so enthusiastically— largely, I think, because the 2008 and 2012 elections closed with familiar appeals to middle and working versus upper class identities that resonated with voters’ traditional community cleavages. One informant explained that, “the blacks have suffered” and that Obama would therefore look out for “the little guy.”
Following Mudge (2018), we can think of 2016 as marking the collapse of moral market, which—via a constellation of translocal socio-economic institutions—translated the daily frustrations of many white voters in the industrial Midwest into working or business class identities and, in its absence, appears to have left reactionary populism hegemonic within the political field. A political-economic approach is one tool at hand for analyzing how such broader societal changes amplify or suppress taken for granted political identities, including and especially the scary political identities mobilized in 2016. To me, the latter prerogative is core to Polanyi’s notion of freedom in a complex society: to formulate analytical narratives that equate democracy or departures from it not with individual attitudes, but rather institutions that either do or don’t increase people’s appreciation of social interdependence and engender meaningful representation.
* See http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-1-growing-ideological-consistency/
- De Leon, Cedric, Manali Desai and Cihan Tugal. 2009. “Political Articulation: Parties and the Constitution of Cleavages in the United States, India, and Turkey.” Sociological Theory 27(3): 193-219.
- McAdam, Doug and Karina Kloos. 2014. Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Poswar America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. 2016. Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- McQuarrie, Michael. 2017. “The Revolt of the Rust Belt: wwwPlace and Politics in the Age of Anger.” British Jounal of Sociology 68(1): 120-152.
- Mizruchi, Mark. 2013. The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Mudge, Stephanie. 2018. “Can Progressive Experts Make Progressives?” Maxpo Discussion Paper 18(1): 68-75.