It’s The Political Economy, Stupid

My notes on Pacewicz, J. (2018) It’s The Political Economy, Stupid: ​A Polanyian Take On American Politics In The Longue Durée. Perspectives 40(2)

This short piece is a valuable reminder that Trump’s capacity to endure countless scandals while retaining the support of his party wouldn’t have been possible without a degree of political polarisation in which “Republicans oppose Democrats across the board”. Far from political polarisation being a deviation from the norm, it is the breakdown of a degree of consensus in American politics which was itself exceptional:

People say that partisan polarization has increased recently, which is true, but the short term perspective misses that we are regressing to levels of polarization reminiscent of the 19th and early 20th Century (McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal 2016). The 1930s to the late 1970s—roughly, the New Deal Period—was the real historical anomaly for politicians’ high rates of bipartisan policy commitments. Explanations that look primarily to voters put the cart before the horse. The polarization of politicians, which began in the 1980s, precedes the polarization of voters by two decades, and the latter has also not gone nearly as far. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a majority of Americans, 79% in 2014 according to Pew, hold some mix of Democratic and Republican views.

The distinctive character of the 1930s to the 1970s can be seen in “grassroots political parties that were dominated by community economic and social elites”. Party politics was embedded within and constrained by community politics. The control of community elites over what was politically visible and what was regarded as politically significant mean that focus was directed towards their own economic interests at stake in locally based conflicts. It left people committed to parties, with participation intimately tied to the fabric of their daily life, but with little engagement with political issues beyond those encountered in their local community.

The political economic transformations of the 1970s led to the deterioration of union membership but also to the decline of community elites whose local businesses increasingly struggled. They increasingly collaborated in pursuit of inward investment for their region and this left them decreasingly inclined to speak in partisan terms in the way their immediate predecessors would have. The result of both trends was that party politics was disembodied from community politics, creating the space for what followed. In different ways, both parties became vehicles for social movements in a way that wouldn’t have previously been feasible.

The author makes a powerful case for the importance of historical and economic perspectives in making sense of contemporary political developments:

To my eyes, political economic-perspectives are valuable primarily because they counter the presentist assumptions of liberal democratic narratives. The public is understandably hungry for research that promises to bridge the empathy gap, adjudicate whether Trump voters were driven by economic anxiety or racism, and otherwise reveal the true character of the politically dispossessed (to a limited extent, I’ve written some publicly-oriented stuff like this myself).

Social scientists can and should feed the public’s anthropological curiosity in the politically dispossessed, but it’d be nice if we could also lead the discussion by providing historical context.

Doing justice to these questions means looking beyond individual attitudes and instead offering narratives about  “institutions that either do or don’t increase people’s appreciation of social interdependence and engender meaningful representation”.

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