In his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama vowed to change the tenor of politics in Washington and embark on a new era of bipartisanship. Admirable? Perhaps. Possible? Probably not, said Richard Fleisher, Ph.D., professor of political science.
“That’s way beyond any single individual, even the president, to change,” he said. “The entrenchment is such that it’s not going to be easily changed. If it was, both parties have had ample opportunity to change it, and resisted those efforts.”
The causes and consequences of partisan polarization are among Fleisher’s areas of expertise, along with statistical analysis of congressional roll calls and the impact of environmentalism on voting in presidential and congressional elections.
Fleisher, who began teaching at Fordham in 1979 after earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, credits baseball with influencing his methodology.
“As a kid, I was fascinated by the statistics on the back of baseball cards. Did that lead me to be fascinated by statistics as they relate to the study of politics? I think there is a connection,” he said. “Looking for patterns in things in a systematic way, and not being content with ad hoc explanations, is part of my personality, my intellectual makeup.”
To that end, Fleisher has penned dozens of papers, such as “The Shrinking Middle in the U.S. Congress,” which he co-wrote and published in the British Journal of Political Science in 2004.
Fleisher is interested in figuring out why, at certain times in American history, there have been vastly different levels of partisanship between the major political parties. For instance, he said that the parties were as far apart in the early 20th century as they are now, with few lawmakers voting with the opposing party.
That ended in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Democratic Party split between conservative Southern Democrats and more New Deal-oriented Northern Democrats.
“That heterogeneity continued up until the 1960s or the 1970s, when we began to see the emergence of the current pattern of polarization,” he said. “There are people who argue that the interlude in the middle of the century, which we thought for many years was the norm, may be the exception. That is, the American political system may be polarized more often than it’s not.”
In his writings, Fleisher has spent a lot of time examining the phenomenon of the “four parties” that exist within the political realm—that is, Republicans, Democrats, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Of the last two, only conservative Democrats still exist in some form—the self-described “Blue Dog” Democrats. Aside from a few token senators, Fleisher said the liberal wing of the Republican Party is extinct. This is important to remember when considering the rationale behind that party’s recent unanimous opposition in the House of Representatives to President Obama’s stimulus plan, he said.
This isn’t to say, however, that modern American politics can accomplish nothing, and Fleisher bristles when the world “gridlock” is used.
“Laws get passed, even big ones. Stimulus packages even,” he said. “It’s not that politicians are incapable of governing, but whatever gets done has to be done in a highly partisan way, because that’s the nature of the politics of the parties. Both parties seem hell-bent on continuing that politics for their own strategic reasons.”
Fleisher is working on a historical analysis of polarization from 1900 through the present. The project is still in its infancy, but one question he hopes to answer is, “Why did polarization begin to ebb in the 1930s, and why did it return again in the last third of the 20th century?”
“Some people have speculated that the divisions in the Democratic Party had to do with typical New Deal policies such as Social Security and so on. Our evidence, at least at this point, says that’s not the case. That is, the conservative and liberal wings of the party did not divide over social welfare aspects of the New Deal,” he said.
“What seems to have split the party was a set of cultural issues that go back to earlier times, including women’s suffrage, Prohibition and alcohol, the role of religion, immigration, and then later on the emergence of labor.”
The changing political landscape of 2008 dramatically illustrated how political science is a living science. Fleisher said he strives, through his ongoing research, to show his students that political science is exciting even if it’s not an election year.
“When people ask what I do, and I tell them that I study American politics, and they say, ‘Oh, these must be interesting times for you,’” he said. “My cliché answer to that is, ‘It’s always interesting times.’”
“There are things happening every day in the American political system that can be as exciting as the big events that draw everyone’s attention. Politics affects every aspect of our lives, and Congress is right in the midst of it.”