Logan Westum/The Daily Evergreen In the eyes of Byron Shafer, political scientists must find a new perspective to understand America’s modern political landscape.
Shafer, the Glenn B. and Cleone Orr Hawkins Chair of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the previous Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at Oxford University, visited Bryan Hall Tuesday afternoon to share his insights into the evolution of partisanship in the United States since WWII.
Political scientists have developed three primary methods for understanding American politics, he said. The first takes into account which party voters tend to identify with, and the second focuses on the evolution of the stances social groups have taken on major political issues. The third centers on partisan polarization.
Shafer recommended the audience members not base their understanding of politics on one of those methods alone, but to instead take all into account.
The United States has experienced three distinct eras of partisan politics since WWII, he said. The first was a continuation of the New Deal era – a time when the majority of American citizens were Democrats, Shafer said.
The second era, which started in the late 1960s, was a period of divided government, he said. Since that time, Congress and the White House have often faced off on opposite sides of a gap between Republicans and Democrats.
During the early years of that era, voters began to cling even stronger to their partisan stances on social issues, like the Vietnam War, Shafer said.
“Old conflicts over social welfare did not go away,” he said. “If anything, they became more intense after 1968 that they were joined by new conflicts over cultural values and social life often on an equal and sometimes far superior (level).”
Now, Shafer said, the United States has entered a new, undefined era of partisanship with even greater potential for disappointment among voters.
Shafer showed the audience several charts demonstrating changes in voters’ political identification throughout the 1900s. In the late New Deal era, men tended to identify as Democrats and women were more Republican, he said.
Of course, that has changed since, he said. The partisan difference between the sexes disappeared in the 1960s, and men and women began to split off in opposite political directions a decade later – with more men identifying as Republicans and more women as Democrats.
“The result was destined to become a huge gap,” Shafer said. “The size of that gap is a standard story of partisan polarization.”
Shafer came to WSU as part of a series of lectures put on by the Thomas S. Foley Institute. The institute hosts about 15 to 20 guest lecturers a semester, said Richard Elgar, the organization’s assistant director.
“This semester is quite different,” Elgar said. “We’re bringing in people around the specific theme of electoral political polarization.”
They will share their theories on why partisanship exists, and some may even argue that the political environment isn’t nearly as partisan as it’s typically thought to be, said Cornell Clayton, the director of the Foley Institute.
Shafer’s lecture was special, Elgar said, because the professor possesses an elite level of expertise about the American political landscape.