If you think politics in North Carolina and elsewhere have gotten more partisan and polarized than in the past, you’re not alone or wrong. Using measures such as ideological consistency within each major party, and the ideological distance between the median Democrat and the median Republican, it is easy to demonstrate that we are more polarized than ever before in our lifetimes.
At the same time, however, North Carolinians are less likely than ever to register as Democrats or Republicans. The share of registered voters who are unaffiliated is at 30% and rising, the share who are Democrats is 39% and falling, and the Republican share has been stuck around 30% for many years.
How are these two facts related, or even consistent? Well, it turns out that most unaffiliated voters aren’t “mushy moderates” who swing freely back and forth between the parties depending on circumstances. Most are reliably Democratic or Republican voters. They just aren’t joiners. They don’t like the idea of making party registration an element of their public identities. Only about 10% of the North Carolina electorate are truly swing voters, up for grabs from one election to the next.
So far, I may be telling you something you already knew. Now, I’ll tell you something you may not know, or even find plausible: The effects of partisanship aren’t very large despite much commentary on dramatic course corrections.
In North Carolina, we’ve seen control of state government pass from Democrats to Republicans. Before 2010, the GOP had in modern times only briefly controlled one of the chambers of the General Assembly, in the 1990s, and elected just two governors: Jim Holshouser in 1972 and Jim Martin in 1984 and 1988. During nearly all of the preceding century, Democrats were firmly in charge in Raleigh and in the vast majority of North Carolina localities.
Since 2010, a Republican-led legislature has enacted tax cuts, budgetary restraint, school choice, deregulation and a host of other conservative policies. Democrats have fumed and fought back. Last year, Roy Cooper narrowly defeated Pat McCrory for governor, but Republicans gained ground in other statewide races. In a state where the legislative branch has more formal power than the executive, GOP lawmakers have maintained their conservative course with little deviation.
The effects on North Carolina have been significant, to be sure. But it would be a stretch to call them gigantic. The state continues to deliver its core programs and services as before. Its debt load, always modest by national standards, remains so today. Its income tax rates are lower, yes, but remain higher than key competitors such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee. About 1,500 state rules have been discarded under a new “regulatory sunset” policy, but more than 100,000 remain on the books. More children attend schools of choice than before, but district-run public schools still enroll about four-fifths of all North Carolina students.
If you are a conservative, I’m not trying to disappoint you. If you are a progressive, I’m not trying to lull you into complacency. What these facts illustrate is that elections and legislation occur within constraints of tradition, culture and inertia. Our political system contains checks and balances. Some are formal. Others are informal but just as effectual. They push even strongly ideological politicians toward a strategy of incremental change.
North Carolina’s experience is hardly unique. In a study published in The Journal of Politics, three Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars examined state political and policy trends from 1936 to 2014. Their research confirms that the two parties have, indeed, become more polarized. Until the 1980s, they found, “the partisan composition of state governments had little causal impact on the ideological orientation of state policies.” Over the last three decades, however, Republicans have grown more consistently conservative, Democrats more consistently progressive, and swings in state control have resulted in clear policy changes.
Here’s the kicker: Those rightward or leftward shifts in state policy, while noticeable, aren’t particularly big. “The estimated policy effect of a switch in unified party control in recent decades is one-tenth the size of the typical difference between states,” the MIT professors write, “suggesting that many decades of Republican governors and legislatures would be required to make the policies of Massachusetts as conservative as those of Mississippi.”
When it comes to changing public policy in a state, you may dream of scampering across the political divide like an exuberant hare. In reality, you are a tortoise — and so is your rival.