Virtual Roundtable: The Rise of Political Partisanship

Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS
Paul Pierson

John Gross Endowed Chair, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Theda Skocpol

Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, Harvard College


Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Threats to American Democracy Roundtable Series and U.S. Foreign Policy Program

The first session of the Threats to American Democracy Roundtable series focuses on the rise of political partisanship. The founders considered factions a grave threat to the new republic. We are now living their nightmare, politics as existential blood sport. Why and how did divisiveness and demagoguery triumph?  In this session, two of the world’s leading authorities on the subject discuss how America got here. 

The Threats to American Democracy Roundtable Series explores various threats to American democracy.  

ROSE: Thank you very much. Welcome, everybody, to what's the first of what to be a fabulous roundtable series. I'm Gideon Rose, I used to be Editor of Foreign Affairs, now I'm the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Council, and one of my favorite things in Foreign Affairs was satisfying my own curiosity. I would basically... If I didn't know something, I could call up a world expert and get them to say, "Hey, would you write about it?" And I thought I would miss that, but the fun part of being a studies fellow is you get to do these roundtables and you can do the same thing. And I don't know about you, but the last several years have thrown me for a loop intellectually. I didn't expect American politics and world politics to go in the direction it has. 

And when I got out of my captivity at Foreign Affairs and was talking with Jim about what kind of roundtable, Shannon to do what you do, I decided a roundtable on threats to American democracy. How did we get here? What are all the big problems that are besetting the country, and how do we get past them? And the glory of the council is its convening power, and we're able to pull together not just a wonderful group of participants in our roundtables, but fabulous, fabulous speakers, like the ones we have today. This whole series is going to be great. We have distinguished economists, distinguished political scientists, the top social scientists from basically around the world on the best questions of the day. And a better example of that couldn't be our kickoff session with Theda Skocpol and Paul Pierson on the rise of political partisanship. For those of you who may not know them, these are gods in the profession. Paul's kind of a kindler, gentler New Testament God, Theda's more of a sort of scary Old Testament God. 

And I get to have every graduate student's fantasy: A reverse generals, in which I grill the professors. So with that, what we're going to do is I'm going to basically spend the first half asking them tough questions about partisanship and its rise, and various other things, and then we'll throw it open, and you guys can pester them. And it should be really, really fun. They are the world's greatest experts on these subjects. Their bios and their details are available online, and you can... We'll circulate them, I don't need to waste time with that now. So let me kick it, and since they both largely, I would imagine, probably have somewhat similar takes on some of these questions, you guys can feel free to volley the things back and forth and defer if there's a worth to defer. 

So the first question, to who ever wants to pick it up. Okay, I was taught in graduate school lo these many decades ago, like you guys, that American politics was based around a rational public that engaged somewhat sensibly in retrospective voting based on an appreciation of the real things that happened to them in the real world, and making somewhat logical choices according to their somewhat logical preferences. This was kind of like a semi-Panglossian, "Everything is for the best of all possible worlds, that's all rational" mode. It did not prepare me for what happened in American politics a generation later. Those pages of the textbooks are ripped out, and now we're told, "No, we're all group creatures who think in terms of identity politics. It's all our partisanship that even determines our nature and view of reality. There's no such thing as an objective thing. It's all just what group you belong to." I'm whipsawed and don't know... What would you say to Rip Van Winkle? What has happened? Why and what does it mean? Theda Skocpol, you take the floor first. 

SKOCPOL: Okay. Well, I grew up in the same world that you did, and among other things I heard in graduate school, that major political parties will always aim for the kind of muddled middle where moderate voters stand. I think we have to step back and take a broader perspective here. In the middle of the 20th century, an unusual period in American politics happened, unusual compared to before and now. In that ideology, left-right ideology, particularly about the role of government in the economy and the society, did not line up perfectly with Democrats and Republicans, the two major political parties. That's partly because of the special role of race relations in the South and the exclusion of African Americans from the right to vote in the South. From the 1960s to the 1980s, during the Civil Rights era, the two parties moved toward being more aligned, liberals, democrats, conservatives, concerned about the role of the state in... Of the government in regulating the economy and race relations in the South. And then, starting in the 1980s, something very, very strange, on top of that, started to unfold, I think both Paul and I would insist: Asymmetric polarization, which the Democrats have become maybe a little bit more liberal in their interest to the community and the typical voters, more so the interest groups. 

But Republicans have gone further and further toward the right, and I would just say, on two different dimensions, that has speeded up in the 21st century. An elite dimension that sees ultra-free market groups backed by millionaires and billionaires, the Koch Network, and others, pushing Republicans to deny the government any role in redistribution, to reduce taxes, to slash regulations, to block any response to climate change and growing socioeconomic inequality. And then a popular dimension that I'll talk about later, that unfolded from the Tea Party time on and culminated, in many ways, in Trump's appeal, that is more based on fears about a changing racial and ethnic and generational composition of American society. That asymmetric polarization is enabled by the fact that American institutions, federalism, the Electoral College, the Senate, enable one of the two major parties to dally around with the idea of ruling from a minority position if they can exclude voters on the other side. 

ROSE: Okay, excellent starting volley. Paul, let's go to you for a quick fact check. Do you advise and... What do they say in Congress? Advise and extend Theda's remarks in any way, or do you let them stand on the what happened part?  

PIERSON: She hit, unsurprisingly, she hit, I think, most of the most important themes, and I do really want to underscore the importance of thinking about each of the political parties. There is a real concern, I think, if you talk about, increasingly intense party competition or polarization, that it sort of implies a notion of symmetry between the parties, and, even though I think that's a more comfortable place for some foundations and some academics and some journalists to be, 'cause it doesn't require you to point fingers, I think, to understand what's been going on, to get at the truth of what's been going on, one has to think of the two parties as being quite different animals in a lot of ways. I guess the only other thing I would want to add to Theda's great introduction to this is that I would emphasize that over this period that she's describing that American politics became nationalized. I think that's extremely important, that one reason why that old murky system that you described, that kind of moderating system that you described existed for so long was because the American political system was pretty decentralized. 

My late colleague Nelson Polsby liked to describe us as having not a two-party system, but a 100-party system. But now we have a two-party system. Media has become nationalized, interest groups have become nationalized, and state parties have become very much more tightly integrated into those national apparatuses. And so now we look at a Joe Manchin or a Susan Collins with interest, partly 'cause they have leverage, but partly because they're really exotic creatures at this point, but 40 years ago, they would not be seen as exotic creatures. So now we have a nationalized two-party system, and that... Once that really takes off, and I actually think this is unprecedented in American political history, and we'll get into that a little bit. Once that really takes off, it has a self-reinforcing quality to it. It pulls more and more of politics into that kind of framework, turns it into a zero-sum, us versus them game, and so I think that basic transformation of nationalization is a critical part of the story. 

ROSE: Okay. Thank you. Both of you have a lot of different variables, or at least a few different variables driving your analysis, and I want to push this theoretically earlier than I would have thought, because... For the non-social science professionals, you have to understand the theoretical foundations for the arguments, 'cause it means where the causes are coming from lead you in very different directions about things like solutions. One way of telling the story you just did, and Theda alluded to it, "Oh, the parties sorted, Blacks were excluded." And you could almost tell this as a series of structural changes in the economy, in American parties, in American electorate, that individuals are exactly the same as they always were, and individuals in the 1950s were... That are... In effect, individuals have remained the same, but circumstances have changed. And therefore, those same types of individuals who are acting in constant ways are now just responding to a different set of incentives in the environments around them. 

Another way of looking at it is people have gone batshit nuts. I don't remember people staring reality in the face, looking you straight in the eye, and saying, "Two plus two equals five," and fully believing it, to the point where you go and die, because you won't do something that is going to save you from dying, like get a vaccine. So I guess my question to you guys is, what does your story ultimately tell us about the individual actors involved? Are people now, democratic citizens, the same as they were then and just reacting to different sets of environments, or are they themselves acting in more nutty ways, and what does that say about our picture of political science in general?  

SKOCPOL: I think it's a big mistake to make an assumption that so many of us do, which is that everything is driven by the way people think, and whether they are sane or crazy. If you go back to the 1930s, I think you would have found quite a few people saying that the followers of Huey Long and Townsend movement were not in touch with reality completely, and there certainly have been extremists who've believed some pretty crazy things for a long time. They exist across the political spectrum, frankly. But what we see now is that circumstances have changed so that the leaders of a major political party are actually catering to and magnifying some of the extremism, I think, usually cynically, and usually without believing it themselves. And the only other thing I would say is, there have been changes in the American population over the period I discussed; of course there have. There are more college-educated people, and therefore more of a possibility for the college-educated to go a different way, especially since Americans are sorted out by region and state, and urban versus... Metropolitan versus non-metropolitan location, in a way that can magnify the power of the non-college-educated, particularly the non-metro college-educated who are White in our electoral and Senate system. That's what creates the possibility of a voting bloc that can win from a minority position. 

So yeah, and gender relations have changed, race relations have changed. We're at the end of a period of rapid immigration after 1965, and every time American society's at the end of a period of rapid immigration, every time it's at the end of a period of... Or at the beginning of a period of Black political assertion, you get reactionary politics. So it's almost like there's a perfect storm there in immigration, race relations, and then you put on top of that generational changes, and worries about the family, and that women... We women are no longer in our place. That is deeply disturbing to a lot of people. So people would worry about those things under any circumstances, but if a political leader and a political party start explicitly appealing to those fears and stoking them, that's a pretty powerful combination. 

ROSE: Okay, now interesting, now we have three levels. We have the environment and the circumstances, we have the public and the voters, and we have political leaders who mobilize them in regard to the latent potential. So okay, Paul, do you want to add any other levels of analysis we have to explore?  

PIERSON: I think we probably have enough for now. I just... I do think if the first major fallacy in the way that we talk about polarization is the assumption of symmetry, the second big fallacy is the focus on individual voters and their tendencies towards tribalism. Human psychology has not changed in the last half century. What has changed is the environment that feeds... That has incentives to feed our tendencies towards tribalism. So it's not the question whether mice like cheese. The question is why is there so much more cheese around than there was 50 years ago? And to understand that, you really do have to think about these other levels, the incentives of elites, organizational forces in society, and the way that those can feed on themselves and create this kind of destructive self-reinforcing cycle. 

ROSE: Okay. Here's a kind of meta thing. We now have, okay, elites as well, sort of... And you mentioned... And Theda mentioned the millionaires, although there are millionaires on the Democratic side as well, and I don't... 

[overlapping conversation] 

SKOCPOL: Yes, there are. 

ROSE: The progressives like the Kochs now, so you gotta be careful on the different kind of things 'cause they're isolationists, so they're on the same side as the left on that. Okay. Here, we have a theory in which there's voters, and there's shadowy elites who are, in effect, manipulating the circumstances and environments, and we have leaders who are making... Polarizing things in their own interest. How is this kind of framework different from your average ordinary conspiracy theorist who also comes up with a bunch of different categories to explain the world and says, "This is why things are"? That's question one: What is the meta-difference between what you're saying... And also, how do we know if... If we got it wrong before, how do we know we're not getting it wrong now?  

SKOCPOL: Well, come on now, both Paul and I, and many others that we deal with, we actually formulate hypotheses and test them with extensive data collection. For example, your point that there are more millionaires and billionaires active in politics on the left as well as the right, that's exactly true. It's gone from being 70-30 to being more like 60-40. And my colleagues and I have written about exactly how those wealthy interests have organized themselves, and the goals that they're pursuing, and how they pursue them. I'll only say that you do need to bring elites into the picture, because politics is never driven by one force, particularly electoral politics. And governance is even more complicated, and it's not the same thing as electoral politics. It is very possible. It's a testable hypothesis, but research bears this out, for wealthy elites to bankroll politicians, who make appeals to masses of voters that many of those elites don't believe, but find useful for installing people in office who will pursue their primary goals, which are, on the right these days, are blocking taxation, making sure the United States does not use government power to respond to the global warming crisis, and in many ways, the pandemic, and eviscerating trade unions and other mass organizations. Those are empirically testable ideas, and there's a great deal of research that lies behind what both Paul and I are saying here. That's not a conspiracy theory. 

ROSE: Okay. The question to you guys about the agency, which is we got here partly because of agency. How do we... Look, the two questions now would be the unprecedented-ness of this. Theda has talked about sorta pendulum-type swings, reactions, going forward in one way. Presumably, the pendulum continues in the other direction until it swings back. Paul, you were talking about unprecedented aspects of this, so... Is this era we're in now something that is historically recognizable? Are we back to the 1790s, when the founders say, "Hey, I know this." Scurrilous press, fake news, high levels of partisanship, federalist Republicans, this is an all-familiar American history, it's just cycling back to the bottom of our national trading range, or is it something really new and radically different?  

PIERSON: So I'm actually, I'm working on a book right now with my colleague, Eric Schickler, that takes up this question. And there are people who argue, and I think they find solace in this, they argue that actually polarization is pretty normal in American politics, that the period that Theda was describing, the mid 20th century period was an exception. And Eric and I argue in the book that actually what we're experiencing now is unprecedented. You can find some historical parallels to earlier periods. The three that people look at are the 1790s, the period leading up to the Civil War, and the very end... The 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, where by some measures politics was polarized. But it was... In both the first and the third of those periods, it was not nationalized in the same way, and it did not persist for a significant period of time. There were always these decentralizing pressures within the parties that meant that even though the parties might be at loggerheads for some brief period of time or around some particular issue, it didn't permeate politics in a way that then sucked everything into the national system the way that we have now. The one... I think, frighteningly, the one closest parallel would be the 1850s, which obviously led to a civil war. 

But what's different about that period, first of all, it was very short. The Republican Party had only existed for a few years when Abraham Lincoln became president. So in terms of party polarization, it was very short, led to an immediate breakdown, but almost immediately when the war is over, you see the resurgence of factionalism within the parties. And in that case, again, there was a single national issue that divided the two parties, that was seen as existential. And when that actually got organized into American politics, the system couldn't handle it. But the system, what we have now is different, where every issue that's brought into politics is being organized around these nationalized polarized lines. So I really... And it's partly why Eric and I are so worried about what's going on now. We just don't accept the idea that, "Well, this has happened before, it's just a cyclical thing, we'll get out of it." Polarization has been building in the American political system for over 40 years, and it has become much more intense in the last 25 years, and I think as Theda suggested, ramped up yet again with the rise of the Tea Party and then Donald Trump. The idea that we just have to wait for the pendulum to swing back, I think, is really a serious mistake. 

ROSE: Okay, I really hate it when people smarter than I am are really pessimistic. So Theda, do you agree with Paul? Please tell me you don't. 

SKOCPOL: On the whole, I do, and actually I want to point to a more, a graver worry than polarization. What worries me about the current period, is the movement of one of the major political parties to embracing authoritarianism and dalliance with violence. And that worry, for me at least, has taken a new level of anxiety since last November, because it's not... Now, let's be clear, there are very few things in American history that are completely unprecedented. I don't believe in cycles. I think that's comfort food for intellectuals, and I'm not into comfort food. But we have had formations, parties and major movements and interest groups that have engaged in authoritarianism and violence before, and the end of Reconstruction is absolutely a critical period in all of that. But it's pretty scary to see the systematic effort to threaten people who administer elections, who count the votes; forget the question of making it inconvenient for voters, we've now moved to another frontier. 

And I really think there's a strong chance that if this incarnation of the Republican Party, whose majority of elected officeholders are embracing threats of violence and authoritarianism, if they get the levers of power at the national level again in the next couple of cycles, I'm not sure that we will recover from that as a quasi-democratic polity. It's always been quasi-democratic, it's never been purely democratic. But there's a big difference between a party that tries to win power by appealing to more groups and voters, and one that systematically uses every lever that can be found and manipulated in a very complex federated republic to try to exclude groups from voting. And that did happen in Reconstruction, it's happening again now. 

ROSE: I'm very tempted to just turn it over to our group now at that level, but I wanna ask one last question. A judge I happen to know just issued a ruling tossing the Facebook suit on the grounds that the government did not make a case that, what seemed like a really big danger and a really important dominating thing was durable and permanent enough to be worth coming down to crush in a way. Is the system that... Are the problems you're worrying about temporary? If they can come out of nowhere, can they go out of nowhere? Can new political actors mobilize good guys the way as easily and quickly as bad political actors mobilize bad forces? Can the Jedi return against the Empire? If everything is changeable... And I used to also not buy the cycles until coming back to it late in life, I kept seeing things pop up. Are we in another... Some other kind of Huntingtonian ideals institutional crisis right on schedule now in American politics? Every few generations, there's another great awakening of some sort, and popular religion goes in very enthusiastic ways. I don't know. Bob Putnam's book is, "Hey, we were here a century ago, got out of it, we can do it again." He's going to talk at the last session of the roundtable. He at least seems somewhat optimistic. 

SKOCPOL: Yeah, he'll give you the optimism you want. 

ROSE: Okay. By the way... Good. And on that note, you stick around for all the rest of the sessions as well, 'cause Bob and Shaylyn are going to do their book, which is a great cool book as well. By the way, these are... I should say, this is one former president of the American Political Science Association talking about another former president of the American Political Science Association, which is a sign of the quality of stuff you get on this roundtable. With that, I am now going to turn it over to our participants to grill the experts. 

Timothy Wirth, you are first up. 

WIRTH: There we go. Can unmute it now, I'm out in the country and not working very... Great, thank you very much, Theda, good to see you again, and thank you for a very interesting session. I was hoping you could expand a little bit on the power of social media and how much influence that has had, in what I would suggest is creating a totally alternative universe in which a large part of the American electorate seems to live, work and believe. The best example of it perhaps being the power of the big lie and how that has not only stuck and grown, it's metastasizing all across the country, and the inability to see what you and I would believe are the facts, and instead, adhere to some other broad set of beliefs, is just to me, so antithetic to everything about our democracy. We greatly appreciate your thoughts, and thanks a lot for a really good discussion. 

SKOCPOL: I'm going to defer to Paul in a minute. I want to say that part of my research in recent years has been going out in the country and actually meeting and talking to grassroots activists and local political party leaders, both on the right and the left. I don't know that there are very many people who've been in an anti-Trump resistance meeting the same day that I attended a Tea Party meeting, in the middle of the country. It's important to realize that there's an integrated and differentiated media system now. Not so different from newspapers in the 19th century, but much more nationalized, and social media is part of it, but it's part of it along with right-wing talk radio, with Fox News, with a whole series of internet sites. And people at the grassroots in non-metropolitan areas who are devoted to the Tea Party or to Donald Trump, literally get all of their affect and their information in a constant stream of... They will often have Fox News on in their homes all the time, they will be exchanging Facebook and Twitter and references to internet sites on a very, very... Ever further right. And so, for them, they live in a different reality than people on different parts of the political spectrum and in different social geographies. 

ROSE: Wait a second. A couple of things on that, Theda, take a two finger... I love Paul's comment about the mice and the cheese. Is that a mouse problem or a cheese problem?  

SKOCPOL: It's a cheese problem. 

PIERSON: It's a cheese problem. I do think that there are obviously some stunning things connected to the rise of social media, but this has been building the changes in the media environment that feeds, so this is now the cheese, not the mice. The change in the media environment dates back really to the late 1980s, early 1990s, which I see is actually a key turning point in all this with the rise of Newt Gingrich and a very, very different kind of Republican Party you see beginning around the '94 election. That new Republican majority made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the House. And so you get the rise of talk radio, and some of this is driven by changes in technology and changes in American capitalism, which encourage media forums that can just find a niche in the market, they don't have to reach a third of the market initially, and you can still be highly profitable. 

It's important to remember, Fox News doesn't start up until the late 1990s, and it takes it a few years to really find its voice. And those are talk radio and cable news, Fox in particular, incredibly powerful forces, there's now a very good social science research showing that it's not just hard conservatives who watch Fox News, although that's true, but Fox News turns people into hard conservatives, and changes their views about issues. Social media is relatively new, but the kinds of dynamics of people being inside their bubble, and getting amped up, because it is the business strategy of these organizations to make people angry and afraid. 

SKOCPOL: Afraid. 

PIERSON: That has been going on for 30 years. 

ROSE: Okay... By the way, this issue is so interesting and important that we have a special session of the roundtable just on it. We have Clay Shirky, and another expert who'll be entertaining us and discussing this particular question. I used to be much more sympathetic to it until the technologies that were being in both kept changing. You just talked about radio, TV, the internet. A variable can explain a constant, a constant can explain a variable. And if these trends like Putnam, that everybody says has been going on for 50 years, it can't be the social media thing my kids are being destroying themselves with. But this is a very interesting question, and there are a lot of people who want to get in on the discussion. Charlie Stevenson, you're next up. 

STEVENSON: Thank you. I teach at SAIS, and I certainly agree with what I've heard about the perfect storm of developments that have led to the situation that we're in now. But in terms of what might get us out of this, so far, it only sounds as if you think that the way to reform is self-restraint by the Republicans, that they don't use every advantage that they have. I guess my hope was that maybe the voters would punish toxic partisanship, because it's so abnormal, frightening, etcetera. Do you have any reason to think something could happen that would be hopeful, and in particular, is there a chance that voters would punish this extreme partisanship?  

PIERSON: I think... To start, I would say, in the short term, I'm not that optimistic about that; in the medium term, I think that there is some reason for optimism about it. One of the things that I think is striking about what's happened, and here I think tribalism is a helpful metaphor, is that more and more voters, because they're attached to their party, are not that open to policy-based appeals, and it's an interesting bet. I think part of the reason why people used to think that elections would serve this moderating, keep extremists under control kind of effect, is because if you were doing a bunch of things that are unpopular, then you're going to lose voters, but once people have moved so far into these camps and are just looking at politics based on what's the color of your team jersey, it's harder and harder to have that more normal policy-based politics work. And it's interesting, I think the Biden administration is placing a bet on the idea that you can actually... If you actually do a bunch of things that will make tangible improvements in people's lives, that that will win over the voters that you need. 

And now, people might disagree about how they felt about the amount of money that's being proposed to be spent on those kinds of endeavors, but if we were still living in the age of normal electoral politics, I think there'd be good reason to think that that would work, that you would win over a bunch of swing voters this way. But I actually have my doubts, given what we've seen over the last few years that there are that many voters who are going to be open to that kind of suasion and it will make a difference, so I'm pessimistic in the short run about it. In the medium to long run, I do think the Republican Party is up against demography. I do think they have doubled down on an electoral base that is a declining demographic force in the country. And if the system sustains quasi-democratic, as Theda put it, quasi-democratic elections for another 10 or 15 years, I don't think it will be viable for the Republicans to remain competitive, even with all the advantages that they have as a kind of White ethno-nationalist party, and that could force them onto a different course and I think really shake up American politics. The question is whether the system can retain its quasi-democratic status for 10 or 15 years, and I have my doubts about that. 

ROSE: Theda, do you wanna chip in on that?  

SKOCPOL: My research has focused on two massive citizen upwellings. The Tea Party, which, the forerunner of the style of politics that has now taken control of the Republican Party and certainly the base, the core of the people who thrilled at Donald Trump's presidency which has allowed him to expand that fearful, non-metropolitan, heavily White, older, ethno-nationalist, fearful base. But the other side of it is that we saw an even bigger citizen movement across the country, including ongoing organizations in the anti-Trump resistance. And I'm not talking about the anti-trust resistance the way most leftist commentators talk about it. They mostly talk about it as a series of advocacy groups operating in Washington and New York. To me, the interesting aspect of the anti-Trump resistance was that older White women and some of the men they keep in tow with them organized groups over the entire country. In fact, our research has established lists of actual named local Tea Parties across all 50 states in the 2009 to 2011 period, and an even larger list of up to 3000 locally named indivisible and non-indivisible connected resistance groups that formed everywhere. 

Now, that's important because the two parties face completely different incentives and challenges in this period. Republicans can possibly keep themselves in power by discouraging metropolitan and suburban college-educated voters and Black and Brown voters, while maximizing the delivery of vote through the church networks and gun networks and Tea Party networks that predominate in many parts of non-metropolitan White America. That's because of the way the Electoral College system works, which gives them a big bonus for each vote they can mobilize, and they have. Their voters are located in the right places to maximize the representative payoff in state legislatures, even more than in Congress. 

Democrats, on the other hand, can't just appeal to the extremes. They have to put together young, hip, advocacy-oriented, woke on gender and racial issues and immigration issues, people who live in metropolises with, we now know, much more moderate-minded, Black and Brown voters and remaining pockets of working-class White support. And they have to bridge between Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts. That is an enormously difficult balancing act. That is what President Biden is trying to do right now. And what happens in Congress over the next year, is going to be very important in determining whether the Democrats can hold on to majorities in Congress and the presidency, during a period in which the temperature is lowered and people's stake in actual policy is made more apparent. And I just wanna say, Paul and Jacob Hacker have showed us the ways in which Democrats, in the recent period, have allowed themselves to be blocked from actually governing during the brief periods when they get the capacity to do so. 

And I'm not saying that filibuster has to go, but this balancing act that Biden is trying to do, where he's trying to deliver re-distributive social policy, at the same time that we build some bridges and some internet connections that are gonna matter to those marginal voters in the exurbs, as well as suburban voters, that's a critical balancing act, right in this period that's going on right now. 

ROSE: Okay. On that, Peter Gourevitch, you're next up. Another god. What can I say, I was a classics major, I'm a polytheist at heart. Peter, you're up. 

GOUREVITCH: Thanks very much, Theda and Paul, what a great panel, you guys are doing a fantastic job. I teach at UC San Diego. My question actually had to do exactly, was where Theda was going, and so I'd like you to continue on that. I was just interested in the factionalism on each side and how they're going to manage. Each side has potential to blow itself apart, and so I was wondering if you would talk exactly about that, about the debate that happened after the last election. As you very well know, that the Democrats argued about why didn't they do better. And various people complain of the Democratic side, Democrats talk too much about socialism. And so I've asked the question, and I wonder if you would talk about that argument, about that discussion. And also the Republicans also have a potential to fight with each other post-Trump. So I wonder if you would talk more about how they're going to manage, how each side is going to manage its potential for factionalism. Great panel and thanks to both of you. 

SKOCPOL: Let me just say a little bit and then I'm sure Paul will have something to say. Look, I think on the Republican side, there's not as much of a war as there sometimes appears to be. I see the Trump era as a synthesis between the ultra-free market, anti-government, wealthy elites who have tried to use and control the Republican Party's governing agendas and the ethno-nationalist strand that the Tea Party and many ordinary Trump voters are, and frankly, Christian nationalist ideas that many of them are fine, vital in their lives and in their outlooks. There are tensions there to be sure, but because the elite forces are trying to ride the tiger and feel they need it, and also believe they can control it, I think wrongly so, but they believe that. I've talked to many of them. I don't think you're going to see actual splits in votes in the Republican Party. 

The Democratic Party is another matter. The pandemic actually hurt Democratic outreach on the ground, which face-to-face outreach is very important for many Democratic constituencies. And I do think that the fight over defunding the police was harmful to Democrats because of the needing to put together very different educational and class constituencies and racial constituencies that have different distributions on the ground in the states that they have to weave together, to put together the majorities in these elections. But I think Democrats are actually amazingly... Let's say, they're afraid of the right at this point. All of the tendencies, and I think you're seeing it coming together, that you'll continue to see. The extremists in the Democratic Party are those who think all you have to do is yell morally correct things and you're gonna get what you want. But they don't have nearly as much sway as the extremists in the Republican Party. 

PIERSON: So again, unsurprisingly, I agree with all of that. And the Republicans, Jacob and I, our last book, "Let them Eat Tweets," was on the development of what we call plutocratic populism which is exactly the kind of alliance that Theda was describing, and in which a really striking thing is that the policy preferences of the elites... And here, it's actually not just the plutocrats, but also the Christian right, are not popular in the nation as a whole. Really quite extraordinary actually, just how unpopular core parts of the Republican agenda are. But that is actually fed in... Their solution to that has been tribalism. So let's not actually fight about policy, they don't want to talk about infrastructure, let's just get people amped up and make sure that they stick with their tribe. And I do think... I just mentioned, we have talked very little about Donald Trump, which I'm glad about, but I do think he's added one important strategic element to this, which I draw my version of it from Game of Thrones, which is the idea of bend the knee. 

You want to force people to declare their loyalty, and if you can do that, then a whole lot of other stuff follows from it. And so that's why as Theda says, there really is not much of a fight in the Republican Party right now. A few whimpers as people continue to let Donald Trump be the dominant force even after everything that's happened. So that's really quite striking, and it reflects the fact that they don't have an alliance that has popular appeal, even though it's very powerful. On the Democrat side, I guess just the one thing that I would emphasize, which I think is important here. We haven't talked very much about American political institutions and I do think that American political institutions are a big part of the challenges that we face. The system is grid-locked, it is not designed to operate with a kind of... With two highly organized partisan teams. 

If you have those teams, you get zero, you get gridlock. And some people would say, "Okay, well, you know, then that means that nothing changes and nobody gets what they want," but it is much more damaging to the Democratic coalition for the reasons that Theda was describing than it is to the Republican coalition. Democrats actually need to do stuff through government, they need to bring some tangible rewards to their voters, they actually do want to tackle some of these problems. Now, you could disagree with about the ways that they want to tackle them or not, but they actually need a system that will function. So I do think the discussion about the filibuster and more broadly the character of our national institutions, which even if you got rid of the filibuster, would make it very, very difficult for a popular majority to address the kinds of challenges that the nation faces. This is a big problem for the country, but it's a particularly big problem for the Democrats. 

ROSE: Shannon O'Neil, ask the experts. 

O'NEIL: Great. Thanks, Gideon, nice to see all of you. I wanted to ask you a bit about, sort of reflect a little bit on the international dimensions of this, because the United States is obviously not the only country that's facing polarization or democratic backsliding or authoritarian tendencies. And so one is we often in academia, think of the United States as sui generis or exceptional and study only it. So, one is the United States still that? Is what's happening here just the shape of our political institutions and trends and the like, or is it something broader that's happening around the world? And then maybe a bit on, does what's happening internationally matter for what happens in the United States? We often think of Trump as influencing other leaders around the world and letting the Orbáns or others grow in influence, but does it matter what's happening globally in terms of democracy for the way our quasi-democracy shakes out? Thanks. 

SKOCPOL: I do think it's been quite striking to see how much the Trump presidency increased the authoritarian resonance, the ethno-nationalist authoritarian resonance across the globe. It's not that those forces weren't there in a whole range of countries. But they took hard, didn't they, from Trump's in-your-face espousal of these blatantly ethno-nationalist ideas in the United States. And there are obviously forces across the world that I think a lot of IR scholars have pointed to, the communication trends Paul talked about are happening broadly. The movement of peoples due to immigration and refugees, flows of refugees, the wars in the Middle East throwing a lot of Syrians into Europe played a big roll. 

And the tendency of the market economy to increase disparities of wealth and income in ways that resemble what happened in the late 19th century, but on steroids at this point, and creating elites, economic elites, who really aren't loyal to nations, particularly, who are willing to see these kinds of ethno-nationalist forces manipulated in particular countries to get them the economic policies they want. I interviewed a member of the Koch Network, by the way, some years ago. Most of the people I interview are not elites, but this man was a self-made, impressive billionaire, no-nonsense guy, and he and his adult children both told me right out that they found Donald Trump and the things he stood for, particularly the tax on immigrants, to be crude and extremely distasteful, but they thanked God, as the daughter put it, every day he was in office, because of the things he was doing about taxes and government regulation. 

And that kind of fusion of elite cynicism and willingness to manipulate nationalist fears, we've seen it before in the world. I'm not going to use loaded words, but it's not as if these things, if we want to talk about cycles, haven't happened before, and it is happening in the United States more than in some other places, because a two-party system actually gives advantages to the tribalists on the right, particularly if they get an extra pay-off out of the institutional structure of elections and governance, which they do get through our long-standing federated and Electoral College system. 

ROSE: Jonathan Tepperman, you're up next. Unless Paul, you wanna jump in it?  

PIERSON: Just in the interest of time, I'll stop. 

ROSE: Jonathan?  

TEPPERMAN: Hi there, thanks so much. What a fantastic conversation. Paul, I want you to pick up on what you were saying a minute ago about institutions, and tell us whether you think there are any institutional, structural fixes that one can plausibly imagine being made any time in the near future that could actually have a positive effect and produce a government better able to act on the desires of a majority of the population. A lot of the fixes that do get discussed, like abolishing the Electoral College are just simply not going to happen. So what could happen that could make a difference?  

PIERSON: Yeah. It's a great question. So just to underscore as a starting point, the framers did not anticipate political parties, which they... Given what they were working with, the circumstances they were in, they made a lot of, I think, inspired design choices given how little we knew about how democracies might function, but it is a pretty striking thing that they did not anticipate parties. Of course, they formed immediately once the system was set, which it would not be a surprise to political scientists now. But for a long time, the US had quite decentralized political parties, ones that really created many, many factions within the parties and made it very, very hard to unify for any sustained period of time across a broad agenda. But that is not the era that we live in now and the system that we have is simply not well-equipped. I mean, Mitch McConnell was behaving completely sensibly given the incentives of the system and the desire that he has to advance the interests of his political party and the forces behind his political party, but his goal is to make it impossible to govern. 

So people talk about different kinds of reforms, and some are about trying to get more moderates into office. I actually think some of those things like ranked choice voting are a reasonable idea, but I don't think that they're going to make a huge amount of difference given how polarized things are. I do think you want to diminish the amount of gridlock in the system, and so I would support getting rid of the filibuster. I don't think that you need yet more veto points piled up on a system that already has a massive number of veto points and strong incentives for the minority party to use those. The other, I think, fundamental challenge that exists with our institutions, and I'm not sure that there's an institutional solution to this, is that they're biased in favor of rural areas, and that's obviously true of the Senate, and that's a huge deal. 

It's why we have the Supreme Court that we do. Even though the party that has appointed most of the Supreme Court Justices hasn't been able to command a majority of voters in the Senate most of the time, or even when they won the presidency, a couple of times. So the Senate is biased for rural areas, the House is too for reasons that we could get into, the Electoral College is to a more modest degree, and effectively now the Supreme Court is as well. That wasn't a problem for much of American political history because the parties were not aligned as much along this rural urban divide, but now they are. And so that is just a huge advantage for the Republican Party, and it skews our politics. There's not an obvious institutional solution to that problem. 

And I think that problem will only be diminished if you see a kind of re-ordering of the cleavages/alignments along American politics that run less along this urban-rural divide, which is as Theda was saying, part of what the Biden administration is trying to do is to reach out into some of these areas so that the Democrats become more competitive in those areas. But the one thing that I think would make a difference that I think you actually could do political reform around would be reducing gridlock by diminishing, especially the filibuster as a veto point. 

ROSE: Theda, any quick practical reforms you would recommend?  

SKOCPOL: My research group and I have been working over the last four months on a comparison of North Carolina and Georgia. I'm one of these people who actually gets down on the ground. And although politics is nationalized, the pieces are still not all the same. And even on this urban rural thing, North Carolina and Georgia are interesting because the urban, rural or the... I would say metro, non-metro dimension because the suburbs, metro suburbs everywhere have swung heavily toward the Democrats because of the role of college-educated, college-credentialed people of all races in them, nowhere more true than in North Carolina and Georgia. But the thing to remember about those two states and some other states outside the Upper Midwest and the East and West Coast is that race and metropolitan, non-metropolitan don't completely align. 

So then in Georgia, for example, there are quite a few Blacks who live in non-metro areas, in smaller cities and in rural and small town areas, and Stacey Abrams' genius was to put together a set of organizations that could begin to develop a year-round presence in those communities and draw those under-mobilized and under-aware groups to the ballot box on behalf of Democrats. So think of that, that took years to do, and it paid off in giving the Biden presidency a chance to govern in this crucial juncture. So I just want to say that in addition to thinking about institutional reforms, and actually more than institutional reforms, there is a lot of room to organize, and that has to be in states and localities with an eye to national payoffs. It has to be continuous. It has to be through networks where people talk to other people. Forget the social media, that works with the 20-year-olds, it doesn't work with most other people, and the Republicans have known that for quite some time. They work through networks on the ground, through church networks, gun networks and various Christian right networks. That has to happen and can happen much more among Democratic constituencies, including beyond the already very liberal states and communities. 

ROSE: By the way, we just added another level of analysis that have the sort of social movement and popular activists even below the elites and the rich people and the fewer voters. Okay, 25 years ago, I was at a conference in Princeton, a workshop on ideas and politics. The little fish or the junior faculty had organized it and they brought in Peter Gourevitch. The big wise man coming in at the end and blessing with his presence and commenting on it. And Peter, at the end of the day said, after engaging the different papers and talking about their ideas, he said, "You know what I'm struck by is how the older I get in the field, the less I feel I know about some of these questions and the more uncertain I am." And I was sitting there in the audience and I was thinking, "For this? The big shot in the field?" I thought, "Shouldn't by this point in his life he know more? Shouldn't he actually have a better answer?" 

And Peter, I just want to retrospectively apologize for my lese-majesty, because now that I am older than you were then I feel even more so what you were saying, which is that I know less about politics than I did when I was young and arrogant. And I just want to thank Theda and Paul for the kind of work they do, the kind of attitude they display. I asked the question about conspiracy theories, not to just to provoke her, but it was really to basically point out that you can engage, just like there are people who engage in what looks like journalism, but it's not actually journalism because it is not about the reporting and communication, the facts and good things, but it's just sort of propaganda. So there's a lot of discussion that resembles political analysis and valid discussions of politics according to Enlightenment standards. But there are only a few who actually really do it. And those who do it know how little we know, but they're trying to add to our knowledge. And we not only had a chance to see a couple of great practitioners with us today, but I encourage you to come back for the other future sessions of the series when we will continue these discussions. Thank you guys. Thank you all of you for attending, and let's hope you guys are wrong. 


PIERSON: Thank you, Gideon. Great discussion. 

SKOCPOL: Thank you, thank you, everybody. 

This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. 

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