Political polarization is a key concern in many important topics within the social sciences, yet the conceptual understanding and quantitative measurement of polarization are often unaligned. The rapidly expanding literature on polarization emphasizes two key dynamics: distance and concentration of a distribution’s component groups. To capture these dynamics, I introduce the cluster-polarization coefficient (CPC), a novel measure of multimodal data structuration that scales to high-dimensional analysis, accepts a wide variety of data structures, and enables comparison across diverse spatiotemporal contexts. I present simulations to show that the CPC predicts distributional polarization with greater accuracy than current measures and I demonstrate its use as a post-processing technique by examining American elite polarization in comparative perspective.
Isaac D. Mehlhaff, Timothy J. Ryan, Marc Hetherington, and Michael MacKuen. “Where Motivated Reasoning Withers and Looms Large: Fear and Partisan Reactions to the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Under Review. [Working Paper] [Monkey Cage] [Supplementary Materials]
Contemporary American politics has been largely characterized by hyper-partisanship and polarization, with partisan motivated reasoning a thematic concern. Theories of emotions in politics suggest that anxiety might interrupt partisan heuristics and encourage citizens to reason more evenhandedly—but in what domains and to what extent? We use original panel data to assess how anxiety about becoming seriously ill from Covid-19 interacted with partisan attachments to shape political judgment during the Covid-19 pandemic. The structure of our data allows us to assess large-scale implications of politically relevant emotions in ways that so far have not been possible. We find large effects on policy attitudes: Republicans who were afraid of getting sick rejected signals from co-partisan leaders by supporting mask mandates and the like. Effects on vote choice were muted in comparison, but, in a race as close as the 2020 presidential election, were potentially large enough to have been pivotal.
An antagonistic political culture has long been thought to pose a threat to liberal democracy. More recently, many scholars have proposed a link between political polarization and democratic breakdown, yet causal evidence for this prominent theory remains thin. I present the first broadly comparative analysis of the relationship between mass polarization and democratic backsliding, the modal form of autocratic reversion in the post-third wave era. Panel estimates of ideological and affective polarization from as many as ninety countries and forty-nine years indicate that both ideological and affective polarization exert negligible causal effects on levels of electoral and liberal democracy. To the contrary, results suggest that democratic decline may actually foment mass polarization. Despite widespread concern over the fate of democracy in polarized polities, comparative evidence since the start of the third wave suggests that mass polarization itself poses little threat to democratic regimes.
Isaac D. Mehlhaff. “Polarization in Comparative Perspective: Concept, Definition, and Measurement.” Working Paper. [Working Paper]
Isaac D. Mehlhaff. “Subverting Solidarity: The Role of American Organized Labor in Pursuing United States Foreign Policy Objectives in Chile, 1961-1973.” The Burkhardt Review 1, no. 2 (2018), 24-40. [Article]
Isaac D. Mehlhaff. “The Short-Term Success of New Deal Work Relief Programs: An Evaluation of Private Sector Employment, 1929-1940.” Equilibrium: Journal of Economics 8 (Spring 2018), 29-33. [Article] [Data]
This paper examines government work relief programs created by President Roosevelt’s Hundred Days Congress aimed at immediate relief, namely, the Civil Works Administration. While the symbolic importance of these programs must be acknowledged, there is some evidence that these programs had little overall effect on recovery. They may have improved the lives of some Americans in the short run, although it is unclear how many Americans truly benefited. That is the question to be addressed by my research: Did the programs aimed at addressing the unemployment crisis work in the immediate context of the period for the demographic groups toward whom they were addressed? My empirical model aims to evaluate the association between work relief spending and private sector employment across diverse industries. I find industry-specific growth rates to be highly volatile, generally negative in the aggregate, and uncorrelated with work relief spending. Given my empirical evaluation, I posit that the sudden influx of money from New Deal work relief programs played a role in sustaining the retail industry through the later years of the Great Depression, but this benefit did not extend to wholesale or manufacturing. The Civil Works Administration was valuable because it put a few dollars in the pockets of desperate Americans, but the far-reaching economic impact claimed by Roosevelt’s administration most likely did not materialize as a result of this program.