It isn’t just that we disagree whether we prefer pepperoni or anchovies on our pizza. We disagree about what pepperoni and anchovies are. And we disagree in increasingly strong ways.
That’s one way that Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, described the sharply partisan atmosphere of American politics. He spoke Thursday in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall in the first session of the 2013-14 season of “On the Issues with Mike Gousha.”
Franklin and Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, presented some of the early findings of research the two are conducting on polarization in politics, especially in the Milwaukee area and Wisconsin. Gilbert is on a six-month leave from the newspaper to take part in the project, supported by the Law School’s Sheldon B. Lubar Fund for Public Policy research.
Gilbert presented a set of graphics showing voting patterns in metropolitan areas in the 2008 presidential election, with shades of red and blue getting deeper as the margin of victory gets wider in individual communities in a metropolitan area. In places such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, the central city was Democratic blue to very blue and the suburbs were generally Republican red in a variety of milder or brighter shades. But in each metro area, there was variation in the intensity of the suburban colors and some areas that were light or medium blue, creating more of what Gilbert called a “patchwork” of varying intensities of partisanship, both Democratic and Republican.
“Then you get to Milwaukee,” he said, calling up maps on two large screens in the room. There was an audible reaction from the audience: The city of Milwaukee was deep blue, the Milwaukee County suburbs generally lighter shades of red with some blue, and the surrounding counties of Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee almost entirely deep to very deep red (except the city of Waukesha itself, which was somewhat blue). Overall, the deeper shades of red and blue were more predominant in the Milwaukee area than in the other metropolitan areas, and the dividing line between red and blue areas was much easier to spot, almost exactly following the borders of Milwaukee County on the north and west. In a nutshell, metro Milwaukee was more sharply partisan and sharply divided than the other metro areas.
Lumping suburbs and city together, the Milwaukee area presidential outcomes have come out very close to the national outcomes over a string of recent elections. But, broken down by area, the geographic divisions in Milwaukee are “very stark,” Gilbert said. “It’s a form of political segregation,” he said. He hesitated at this point in the far-from-complete research to say how unusual the degree of polarization is, but said, “It’s not commonplace. The divide is deeper in Milwaukee than in a lot of other places.”
Gilbert said that in 2012, only one in seven voters in the Milwaukee metropolitan area lived in a community that didn’t vote for either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney in overwhelming proportions.
The significance of that shows up in the way legislative bodies are operating, as well as in other aspects of who has power and how it is used, Franklin said.
Franklin showed graphs that showed the partisan intensity of Congress, based on plotting how liberal or conservative the overall voting record was for each member. For the Congress elected in 1980, the result formed two humps, one for Republicans and one for Democrats, but the humps were fairly close together and there was some overlap at the base of each hump, meaning some Democrats had more conservative voting records than some Republicans and vice versa. For the Congress elected in 2010, the two humps were much farther apart and there was almost no overlap at the base of each.
Franklin showed an example of how partisanship can affect public opinion. In a Marquette Law School Poll conducted in 2012, Wisconsin voters were asked how much influence a president can have over gasoline prices. Republicans were much more inclined to say a president could influence prices than Democrats were. But the poll came at a time when Democratic President Obama was being criticized by some for not doing enough to lower the cost of gasoline. Franklin contrasted the results with a different poll conducted when Republican George W. Bush was president and gasoline prices were high. In that case, Democrats were the ones who more frequently were saying a president can influence such prices.
The results, Franklin said, “show how powerful our partisan attitudes are in shaping what we think about the world.”
Gilbert stressed that he and Franklin are in the early stages of their work and will have much more to report later.
The “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” series for this academic year is also in its early stages. Sessions are free and open to the public. They also can be viewed on Marquette Law School’s Web site. You can find out more about upcoming sessions by clicking here. And you can view the conversation with Franklin and Gilbert by clicking here.
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