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Why Can't We Be Friends? Essays on Gridlock in American Legislatures


My dissertation addresses the role that chief executives play in the unusually high levels of partisan conflict in today’s politics. It consists of three essays. The first essay investigates the polarizing effects of presidents when they prioritize an issue in Congress. Using roll-call vote data from 1971 to 2010, I find that presidents increase the level of partisan polarization in Congress when they prioritize an issue, beyond the influence of ideology and standard party effects. And this polarization grows larger as presidents place more emphasis on an issue. The second essay confirms that opposition parties can successfully damage a chief executive’s reelection chances, and improve their own, by withholding bipartisanship on the chief executive’s agenda. It uses three survey experiments to test the hypotheses, finding that opposition parties can damage a chief executive’s reelection vote share by as much as 20 percentage points in ideal political contexts, but withholding bipartisanship has no effect in adverse political contexts. The final essay investigates how parties minimize potential backlash from voters for engaging in partisan conflict on presidents’ agendas. It develops a novel measure of partisan message cohesion, using data from members’ floor speeches on CQ Key Votes in Congress from 2005 to 2012. The data show that parties tend to lower their message cohesion on presidential priorities. This may indicate that parties tailor their messaging to their districts to make up for their especially polarized votes on presidential priorities. The evidence also indicates that the measurement procedure can be easily and effectively employed to measure message cohesion in a variety of applications. Taken together, the essays of my dissertation show that a significant amount of the partisan conflict we see in today’s politics likely stems more from political maneuvering than sincere ideological disagreements.

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