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Why weren’t we polarized in the past?

Summary:
There’s a lot of recent discussion about how the country has become increasingly polarized. One way of getting at the issue is by looking at the opposite question: Why weren’t we polarized in the past? Here it will be useful to consider the mid-1960s and the late-1980s, two periods in which political polarization might have occurred, but didn’t.  Furthermore, I’ll argue that the reason polarization did not occur in the 1960s is entirely different from the reason it did not occur in the 1980s. For a period of several years after the Kennedy assassination in 1963, progressive views were considered much more respectable than conservative views.  During what has been called “the liberal hour”, the views of anti-government conservatives like Barry Goldwater and

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There’s a lot of recent discussion about how the country has become increasingly polarized. One way of getting at the issue is by looking at the opposite question: Why weren’t we polarized in the past?

Here it will be useful to consider the mid-1960s and the late-1980s, two periods in which political polarization might have occurred, but didn’t.  Furthermore, I’ll argue that the reason polarization did not occur in the 1960s is entirely different from the reason it did not occur in the 1980s.

For a period of several years after the Kennedy assassination in 1963, progressive views were considered much more respectable than conservative views.  During what has been called “the liberal hour”, the views of anti-government conservatives like Barry Goldwater and segregationist southern politicians were viewed as quite disreputable.  So why wasn’t there more polarization back then?

The big difference between the 1960s and today is that the two parties were much more ideologically diverse.  Within both the Democratic and Republican parties there was substantial support for civil rights laws, but also substantial opposition.  While there were differences of opinion on civil rights and Vietnam, the public did not segment into two “tribes”.  The political figure in 1968 that most resembled Trump was probably George Wallace, who was a Democrat.  In addition, the landslide victory of LBJ in 1964 made the steady march of progressive ideas seem almost inevitable.

By the late 1980s, the two political parties had become much more ideologically distinct.  So why wasn’t the country much more polarized at that time?  Why wasn’t Reagan the Trump of the 1980s?  To understand that period, you have to look at the problems that progressives encountered after the 1960s in at least four areas:

1.  In the 1960s, progressives tended to be anti-anti-communist.  To sneer that someone was an “anti-communist” was a sort of insult.

2.  In the 1960s, public policy became “soft on crime”.

3.  In the 1960s, the welfare state expanded.

4.  In the 1960s, public policy aimed to lower unemployment with rapid growth in aggregate demand.

Over the next few decades, a number of changes occurred that tended to discredit the progressive view on those issues:

1.  Writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exposed the horrors of communism.  Pol Pot’s atrocities became better known.

2.  The murder rate in America skyrocketed higher during the late 1960s and early 1970s, despite a booming economy.  Poverty no longer seemed to be the “root cause” of crime.

3.  After 1970, economic progress in the African-American community slowed sharply.  People like Charles Murray persuasively argued that the welfare state was not having the intended effect.

4.  The breakdown of the Phillips Curve led many economists to reject a policy of persistent demand stimulus, and adopt Friedman’s “Natural Rate Hypothesis.”

By the late 1980s, many progressives came to the conclusion that on some issues the conservatives had been correct.  Democratic politicians became “tough on crime”, or in favor of “ending welfare as we know it”.  Inflation targeting came into vogue.  The collapse of communism was seen as a vindication of Reagan’s tough stance.

For all these reasons, the two parties remained unpolarized.  They still had their disagreements over specific issues, but it was within the “reasonable people might disagree” framework.  The Whit Stillman film “Barcelona” nicely captures how conservatism was respectable at that time.

In the 21st century, the GOP lost many of its key issues.  Failures in the Middle East discredited neoconservatism.  The Great Recession made neoliberal economic policies less popular.  Some of the GOP’s best ideas were adopted by the Democrats.  In response, the GOP turned to a set of ideas that might be called populist authoritarian nationalism.  Things like the Muslim travel ban and “birther” theories.  Challenges to the legitimacy of the 2020 election.  To progressives, these views seemed more than misguided, they seemed disreputable, unacceptable, in a way that is fundamentally different from GOP views on tax cuts or Supreme Court picks.

Conversely, as the left became increasingly “woke”, conservatives felt treated as second-class citizens, unable to freely speak their minds.

Thus the political disputes of the 2010s became much more personal than the disputes of the late 1980s.  Each side saw the other as not just misguided, but as evil.  That’s a formula for polarization.

Reagan won 49 states in 1984 (as did Nixon in 1972).  What are the odds of either party winning 49 states in 2024?

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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