American politics is stuck in a rut. Why does nothing change?

A woman tries to get between Black Lives Matter protesters and pro-Trump counterprotesters.
A woman tries to get between Black Lives Matter protesters and pro-Trump counterprotesters in Huntington Beach in June 2020.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In three books spanning the presidential campaigns of 2012, 2016 and 2020, political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides have punctured a series of credulous narratives that political pundits and journalists used to explain American politics and its outcomes.

Take this one from the most recent campaign — the conviction among many moderate Democrats that their party suffered a voter backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

Not so, Sides, a professor at Vanderbilt University, told a group of reporters earlier this week, citing three different sets of carefully collected data to prove their point.


To begin with, Joe Biden‘s margin over then-President Trump in pre-election polls got bigger, not smaller, during the summer of protest. Beyond that, when Sides, Vavreck and her UCLA colleague Chris Tausanovitch examined county-by-county data for their latest book, “The Bitter End,” which looks at 2020, they found that in counties where protests took place, Biden actually increased the Democratic margin compared with what Hillary Clinton managed in those same counties in 2016.

Finally, when they looked at voters who were polled in 2016 and re-surveyed in 2020, they found that views about Black Lives Matter had simply hardened along party lines: “Democrats became more favorable, Republicans became less,” Sides said. Like almost everything else, the protests just made existing political divides deeper.

‘Calcified politics’

“There’s just no movement. Nobody’s changing,” said Vavreck.

“The most interesting stuff happened” during the course of the 2020 campaign, including a world-wide pandemic and the racial-justice protests, “and nothing moved. It’s crazy.”

That may be the defining reality of current American politics, what the authors refer to as “calcification.”

Take another example: Biden out-advertised Trump by a massive amount in 2020 — a gap bigger than any recent presidential contest. But sift through the data, and there’s no sign the advertising gap existed. Line up the vote by county across the U.S., and there are only very small differences between the margins in 2020 and the margins in 2016 — a degree of stability that’s almost unheard of in the annals of presidential elections.

As Vavreck describes it, that calcification grows out of three key aspects of politics today:

The two major political parties are increasingly homogenous on ideology. Conservatives have overwhelmingly moved to the Republican side and liberals to the Democrats. Even when the parties become less uniform in terms of race or ethnicity, the shifts just strengthen that ideological sameness: The Latino voters who have moved to the GOP in recent years are mostly conservatives, for example.


While the parties have become more uniform, they’ve grown further apart from each other, especially on the issues of identity and race that dominate U.S. politics.

The fire of racially divided politics grew hot with the election of President Obama, the nation’s first Black chief executive, and the backlash from the right that followed, and then Trump “threw gasoline on it,” Vavreck said.

Finally, the two parties have almost equal strength politically. Democrats have won more votes than Republicans in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but the structure of the electoral college and Congress give the GOP a big enough boost to keep the parties roughly even.

No incentive to change

As a result, for both parties, “there’s no incentive to go back to the drawing board” and change messages, as the Democrats did after losing a string of elections in the 1970s and 1980s. “Victory is always within reach.”

This pattern makes for repeated high-stakes elections, fought in apocalyptic tones and featuring dug-in positions, with neither party willing to yield an inch.

Wonder why so many national Republican figures have rallied around Herschel Walker in Georgia’s Senate election, despite new evidence this week that he paid a former girlfriend to get an abortion? Calcification provides an answer.


And while a newly prominent issue potentially could change the voting mix, the impact is often less than opinion polls might predict. That’s because very few issues truly matter to voters as much as the splits over race, immigration and identity that divide Americans.

The three authors demonstrated that with an experiment using a huge polling project known as Nationscape that UCLA and the Voter Study Group ran throughout the 2019-2020 election cycle, interviewing some 6,000 voters each week across the country, ultimately conducting more than half a million interviews.

Rather than only asking voters which position they favored on major issues, the Nationscape poll gave them alternative scenarios involving a mix of different issue outcomes and asked respondents which they preferred. If they had to choose between a scenario that included a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour or one with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, for example, which would take precedence?

The results consistently showed that when forced to choose, issues of immigration and race — the questions of who gets to be an American and which Americans really count — were the ones most voters really cared about, Tausanovitch said. Republicans who might say, for example, that they favored a minimum wage increase “were not really cross-pressured” by their party’s opposition “because they don’t care that much.”

Trump intuitively understood that in 2016, and he gave voice to resentments about race and immigration that previous Republican nominees had largely avoided. Since he showed the way, other up-and-coming Republican political figures have followed his pattern of exploiting issues of identity for partisan gain.

So, what’s the exit? How can Americans break out of a pattern of increasingly bitter divides between two dug-in parties?


It’s a question on which the authors disagree. Sides argues that an entrepreneurial politician could succeed in bringing new issues to the forefront that could change the current stalemate. Vavreck is skeptical.

“We argue about it all the time,” she says.

“I used to say maybe an alien invasion” would change what Americans fought about, she said. “That was a joke, but COVID was sort of that.” Rather than change anything, however, the pandemic quickly became polarized along the same lines as everything else, in part because of the way Trump chose to turn a deadly disease into a partisan fight.

During the 2020 cycle, abortion was one of those issues that most voters were willing to trade away in favor of their party’s stand on what they considered higher priority matters. One of the key unknowns of the current midterm election is whether that’s changed now that abortion bans have gone from a theoretical possibility to a reality for tens of millions of Americans.

If not, and if other issues can’t compete with the ones that currently divide us, “maybe it’s just going to take 20 years,” Vavreck said. “Maybe this is just where we are.”

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UC Berkeley/L.A. Times poll

This week, we’ve been publishing the results of the latest statewide and local poll that we’ve done with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Here’s a rundown:


— The race for mayor of Los Angeles has tightened, but Rep. Karen Bass continues to hold a double-digit lead among likely voters over Rick Caruso, Ben Oreskes reported.

— In the race for L.A. County sheriff, incumbent Alex Villanueva has fallen behind his challenger, Robert Luna. As Alene Tchekmedyian reported, a majority of voters have no opinion about Luna, indicating that the race is largely a referendum on the incumbent, one which he’s currently losing.

— The two ballot initiatives on sports betting, Propositions 26 and 27, have generated record levels of advertising, mostly negative. The result: They’re both trailing, Taryn Luna reported. An initiative to raise taxes on incomes above $2 million to fund electric vehicle programs is tottering on the edge, while one to ban flavored tobacco products has a strong lead.

— A large majority of the state’s voters support Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s newly enacted proposal for special CARE Courts to handle people with severe mental illnesses. A large majority also support mandatory kindergarten, which Newsom vetoed last month, citing costs, Hannah Wiley and Phil Willon reported.

— Two-thirds of the state’s voters say Trump should be prosecuted if the evidence suggests that he’s committed a crime, Melanie Mason reported. But 6 in 10 Republicans in the state say prosecuting the former president would be bad for the country.

— California’s mandate to phase out new gasoline-fueled cars by 2035 has broad majority support across all racial and ethnic groups, Russ Mitchell reported. But concern about costs is still a big barrier to buying electric vehicles.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— President Biden will travel to Colorado next week to designate a historic military site as a national monument, delivering on a key priority of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who is fighting for reelection, Eli Stokols reported.

The latest from Washington

— Biden on Thursday pardoned all individuals convicted on federal charges of simple marijuana possession, a move that the White House estimated would affect more than 6,500 people nationwide. As Stokols reported, Biden urged all governors to follow his example, and called for a formal review of marijuana’s classification in federal law as a Schedule I drug — the same classification as heroin and LSD.

— The Biden administration is giving $240 million to Latin American countries that have been hit hardest by the forced migration of Venezuelans and Colombians. As Tracy Wilkinson reported, the money will also go toward helping countries along irregular migration routes to make their borders safer; to provide immigrants with legal status and work permits; and to combat human trafficking.

The latest from California

— Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg donated $1 million to Communities United for Bass for LA Mayor 2022, pushing his total contributions to the group to about $1.85 million, Oreskes reported. As an independent expenditure committee, the group is legally separate from Bass’ campaign and does not coordinate with it. Katzenberg’s contribution is the largest of several from prominent Hollywood figures, including Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw Spielberg, who each gave $125,000, and Norman Lear, who contributed $5,000.

— As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi strides confidently toward her 18th reelection at age 82, there’s a widespread sense in San Francisco that most powerful and consequential politician San Francisco has ever put forth is nearing the end of a long, storied career. That has generated a lot of mixed emotions in a city she has championed, Mark Barabak wrote.

Malia Cohen, the Democratic candidate for state controller, is facing scrutiny over the recent suspension of a business license and the foreclosure of her San Francisco condo more than a decade ago. Her Republican opponent, Lanhee Chen, is pointing to Cohen’s personal financial problems in questioning her fitness for the office, Luna reported.

— California will send tax refunds to about 23 million state residents starting Friday to help them navigate rising costs. The state will spend $9.5 billion on the rebates, Nathan Solis reported, with one-time payments ranging from $400 to $1,050 for couples who filed jointly on their 2020 state income tax return and $400 to $700 for those who filed independently.

— California doctors will soon be subject to disciplinary action if they give their patients information about COVID-19 that they know to be false or misleading. That’s generated misgivings even from some mainstream doctors, Corinne Purtill reported. They fear the new law could end up curbing well-intentioned conversations between patients and physicians about a disease that’s still changing from one month to the next. “There’s clear misinformation that’s happening that’s as black and white as you can get. But there’s a lot of gray out there too,” said Dr. Eric Widera, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who specializes in geriatrics.

— Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) did something increasingly rare in current politics: He apologized. As Barabak wrote, in an August interview with a conservative podcast, Garcia had compared the Biden administration to the Nazis, a trope that other Republican figures have used recently. At a Yom Kippur service in his congressional district, Garcia said he realized the comparison was offensive. “I regret my comments. I deeply am apologetic for those comments,” he said. “The metaphor and the hyperbole was inexcusable,” he added.


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