Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Facebook Twitter YouTube SoundCloud Instagram Tumblr Email list

Dynamics of American Democracy: Partisan Polarization, Political Competition and Government Performance

November 16, 2020

In December 2020, Eric M. Patashnik and Wendy J. Schiller published, "Dynamics of American Democracy: Partisan Polarization, Political Competition and Government Performance." This edited volume brings together leading scholars and practitioners to examine the challenges plaguing contemporary American politics, including ideological polarization, partisan sorting, and legislative stalemate. 


Watson spoke to Patashnik and Schiller and asked them to share some of the most important findings of the research presented in the book. Here's what they said:

Three key findings of the book stand out. First, Democrats and Republicans increasingly hold fundamentally different views on the meaning of American identity. As James Morone of Brown University argues, the two major parties once deflected identity conflicts. Each of the parties protected (and rejected) different marginalized groups, such as immigrants and Black Americans. However, the Democratic party today embraces both immigration rights and racial justice, and the Republican party (supported by its rural, white working-class base) opposes these positions. It remains to be seen whether the GOP will adopt a more multicultural identity following Trump’s surprisingly strong showing among Latino and Black voters in the 2020 election.

Second, while Trump’s presidency represented a sharp break with democratic norms in many respects, it also marked—according to Nicholas F. Jacobs of Colby College and Sidney Milkis of the University of Virginia—the “culmination of a century-long development in American politics: the rise of executive-centered partisanship.” Presidents of both parties now regularly pronounce party doctrine and make aggressive use of their administrative powers to advance their party’s governing priorities. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will fundamentally move away from this trend of executive aggrandizement.

Finally, the book presents survey data that shows that two-thirds of voters want more alternatives to the policy choices that Democrats and Republicans are offering, but they do not necessarily want a third party. And Americans who do want a third party disagree on what kind of party it should be. One-third of those who support a third party want a party of the center. One-fifth want a party more conservative than Republicans. And another fifth want a party more liberal than Democrats. This isn’t to say that electoral reform is impossible. We may do best using the flexibility of American’s federal system to test out different reform ideas and see which ones work best.

The book’s most surprising finding is that liberals and conservatives exhibit different patterns of political engagement on social media. In their chapter, Deborah J. Schildkraut, Jeffrey M. Berry, and James M. Glaser of Tufts University analyze a dataset of Twitter followership and posting behavior. They find that liberals hear a narrower variety of voices on Twitter than do conservatives. Conservatives are more likely to engage with political information they dislike on Twitter, and liberals (who are less comfortable with conflict than conservatives) are more likely to retreat. This finding challenges the conventional wisdom that conservative live in a “Fox news bubble,” and suggests that liberals “are more likely than conservatives to seal themselves off from exposure to people with whom they disagree.


Watch event coverage from, "Dynamics of American Democracy ─ Partisan Polarization, Political Competition and Government PerformanceHERE

Read a Q&A with Eric Patashnik and Katherine Gehl, "Is America's Grand Experiment with Democracy at an End?HERE

Read Eric Patashnik and Wendy Schiller's commentary on the January 6th Capitol riots HERE