My dissertation argues that contemporary polarization of the U.S. political parties is rooted in long-standing issue connections between racial attitudes and other policy views among voters. I contend the parties more easily divided on issues like abortion and gun control in the 1990s, because the parties in the electorate had already divided on civil rights in the 1960s. This argument is significant because it challenges a prevailing scholarship that argues elites constructed the alignment of party and ideology; I contend this process was much more rooted in the mass public.
The dissertation’s first section focuses on long-running trends in public opinion and has three key findings: 1) I show that left-right attitudes on civil rights overlap left-right divides on essentially every other major policy issue. Voters that are conservative on civil rights and race have long expressed more conservative attitudes on abortion, gun control, environmentalism, women’s rights, gay rights, defense spending, economics, etcetera; 2) voters expressed this package of issue attitudes long before the parties took public positions on many now salient policies; 3) respondents who do not know where the parties stand on issues or who otherwise know little about politics, still package various issues together. Taken together, these findings challenge a robust literature that argues elites first package and then diffuse ideologies down to voters.
Consistent with these empirical facts, I argue that the 1960s racial realignment — referring to the period when the parties began to divide on race — created a domino effect across the party system. When the parties divided race in the 1960s, pre-existing ties between civil rights and other policy views encouraged the parties to take positions on newly salient issues, such as abortion or gun control, which reinforced this racial divide.
While this project focuses on events that occurred over 50 years ago, we continue to live in a political world created at this historical juncture. Issue overlap between racial attitudes and so many other policies helps explain the depths of polarization in a party system increasingly divided by race and ethnicity. That these divides are rooted in the mass public contextualizes why it may be politically difficult for party elites to simply switch positions or work across the aisle.
A draft of the manuscript can be be found here.