Graduate Students

Matthew Atkinson

Contact Information

Email    matthewa@ucla.edu
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United States Congressional history is filled with small changes in the polarization of the parties on different issues and sometimes outright flip-flops. Why, then, do the issues that structure party conflict change over time? My dissertation offers a theory that explains those changes. This theory of realigning issues holds that changes in party conflict are a product of the changing structure of interests in society. When the interests of two different groups become more compatible, new coalitional opportunities emerge.

United States Congressional history is filled with small changes in the polarization of the parties on different issues and sometimes outright flip-flops. Why, then, do the issues that structure party conflict change over time? My dissertation offers a theory that explains those changes. This theory of realigning issues holds that changes in party conflict are a product of the changing structure of interests in society. When the interests of two different groups become more compatible, new coalitional opportunities emerge. Large changes or realignments, therefore, are not driven by changing interests themselves but by changes in the relative compatibility of societal groups with the major party coalitions. I argue that episodes of realignment are set off by the activation of realigning issues. Realigning issues are issues that become central to organizing partisan conflict when new coalitional partnerships either commit the coalitions to polar positions on a salient issue or release one of the coalitions from an electorally disadvantageous constraint on a salient issue. For example, the coalitions polarized on slavery when westward expansion of the United States enabled the development of an anti-slavery coalition; and the Democratic Party was able to moderate on race in the 1960s when the northern migration of African Americans provided a coalitional alternative that relaxed the constraint imposed by the Party's dependence on the South. By my account, then, changes in the interest composition of the coalitions caused by realigning issues should lead to predictable changes in how polarized the parties are on all issue domains. To test this theory, I construct an original data set of House roll call votes (1st to 109th Congresses) coded according to the Katznelson-Lapinski policy typology and measure MC issue preferences with DW-NOMINATE scores that scale the subset of roll call votes for each of the major policy categories. I find strong support for my hypothesis by analyzing changes in the levels of inter-party polarization on national defense, social policy, and immigration over the course of American history.

Fields of Study

American Politics and Quantitative Methods

Research

Political Parties, Realignment, Interest Groups, Public Opinion, Political Leadership, Participation, History and Politics

Committee

John Zaller (Chair), Jeffrey B. Lewis, Lynn Vavreck, and Keith Poole