Partisanship and National Crises

Have legislators historically rallied around American infrastructure in times of crisis? Did Sputnik really rally legislators to the cause of math and science education? How bipartisan was the highway project?

One of the prevailing narratives of our time is the story of how American leaders have so far failed to confront the number of crises facing the rising generation. Pundits seem convinced that a great American rallying around common goals will be the key to solving such “looming crises” as America’s deficit, crumbling infrastructure, its lagging behind India and China in math and science, its growing inequality… whether or not these are actually “looming crises” (some probably aren’t, some almost certainly are), I wanted to know whether we should expect to see the kind of coming-together we envision led America to win the space race and foster lives of dignity for veterans. This begs the question if this actually was the case for such legislation.

Off the top of my head I was able to think of six pieces of post-World War II investment that would make good data points for examining this question:

  • The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 – The culmination of 30 years of public policy designed to provide the United States a national highway system
  • The National Defense Education Act of 1958 – The primary piece of math and science education legislation triggered by the Soviet launch of Sputnik
  • The Depressed Areas Bill of 1959 – Early use of massive federal stimulus into “chronically depressed” urban areas
  • The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 – One of the cornerstones of the Great Society legislation, established Head Start and Job Corps
  • The Social Security Act of 1965 – The bill that authorized Medicare and Medicaid
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – The stimulus program designed to turn the entire Internet against the Obama presidency

Was the polarization of the votes on these issues more, less, or about the same as the polarization on other votes of the time? Does a potential national disaster rally self-interested parties into aisle-crossing acts of legislative altruism… or does positive political theory hold?

I constructed a polarization index similar to the standard DW-NOMINATE stuff, only slightly simpler and slightly less holistically accurate. Relax, it’s only six data points. I essentially tried to create a one-shot DW-NOMINATE score for each vote by taking the ratio of the party unity scores on each vote.

Polarization of individual vote = (Democrats who voting yea:Senators who voted yea)/(Republicans voted nay:Senators who voted yea)

Basically, think of it as the vote unity ratio. This calculation is a test of the assumption that parties act in a united fashion, and that minority parties have the incentive to block legislation that could be attributed to the majority party’s policy-making prowess.

Then, for each of the years in which these votes occurred, I simply took the ratio of the actual party DW-NOMINATE score averages and their difference for the Senate session in question, essentially recreating the DW-NOMINATE polarization scores. Thus, the party polarization is simply

Absolute value(Average Democratic DW-NOMINATE score for year of vote – Average Republican DW-NOMINATE score for year of vote)

This let me construct a useful graph. It compares the amount of polarization present in the House session in which each of the votes occurred, to the amount of polarization in the votes themselves. Basically, it compares how united the Democrats and Republicans were on the particular bill named on the x-axis, compared to how united they were on all the votes that took place within the same year.

I don’t have enough data here – even these five data points took a long time to accrue – but it doesn’t really look like there’s much of a difference. We have this historical notion that, once in a generation, people band together to dump a nation’s resources into, say, a Space Race, or the elimination of poverty. The Highway Act enjoyed unanimous support, but the shocker to me was that the legislation that essentially helped the U.S. win the space race wasn’t. “Crisis legislation” is as partisan as any other.

One piece of legislation I thought of that should fit the definition of bipartisan support was the GI Bill, which indeed passed with de facto unanimous support; 95 cosponsors and a 50-0 vote. I have been unable to find out why half the Senate decided cosponsorship was enough. But since then, it seems, any sense we may have of a “national imperative” is as subject to political self-interest as anything else. Looking ahead, as it becomes more and more imperative (politically, at least) to make massive investments in infrastructure, we should not expect to see party unity to that effect.

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