Gross National Rancor: A new measure of political failure

Study finds partisan conflict on a steady increase

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The country of Bhutan famously measures Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. Now an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has come up with a new metric that is especially fitting of the times. I like to call it the Gross National Rancor.

Marina Azzimonti has devised a way to monitor what she calls “partisan conflict” over time and the results are fascinating. To simplify a complicated methodology, Azzimonti measured partisan conflict in America by quantifying how it is reflected in news stories; the more stories that report on political disagreement, the higher the Partisan Conflict Index (PCI) (although calling it GNR is more fun).

 Here’s the PCI, for example, since 2004:

Source: Marina Azzimonti, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

The super-spike came with the government shutdown in 2013. Partisan conflict has increased steadily since the Great Recession began.  The wider view looks like this:

Source: Marina Azzimonti, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

Partisan conflict declined from 1891 to the 1920s and remained stable – and low by contemporary metrics – until the 1960s.  The author doesn’t say so, but the shift in 1960s probably relates to battles over civil rights and Vietnam.

One surprising finding is how low partisan conflict was in the 1930s.  Unsurprisingly, international turmoil has generally lowered Gross National Rancor. Surprisingly, “No clear relationship between partisan conflict and recessions is detected.” Azzimonti says, “This suggests that American politics are very polarized regarding economic policy, but less divided when it comes to national defense issues. It also indicates the presence of a partisan “rally around the flag” effect.”

Azzimonti compares partisan conflict and polarization over time.  For these purposes, polarization has a straightforward definition: It is simply a measure of the difference between congressional parties on issues, measured by votes. Polarization here doesn’t refer to any broader kind of ideological, red/blue division in the country.

So here’s partisan conflict and polarization compared since 1891 (the numbers on the horizontal axis refer to sessions of Congress; the 52nd convened in March 1891):

Source: Marina Azzimonti, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

You would expect what I’m calling Gross National Rancor and polarization to move together and they do most of the time.  The big story is the consistent rise of both partisan conflict and polarization beginning in 1960s.

Another finding of Azzimonti’s that I found fascinating was the close correlation of partisan conflict and income equality (as measured by the share of total income held by the top 1 percent). Take a look at this:

Source: Marina Azzimonti, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

Azzimonti says, “The increase in inequality observed since the late 1960s may be an important determinant of the rising trend in partisan conflict.”  I think that is an original insight into the possible sources of partisan conflict and it’s likely to be controversial, especially coming from an economist at the Fed.

Azzimonti says, “Low levels of partisan conflict ease the implementation of policies that reduce inequality, while low inequality creates incentives for parties to move toward the center.”

If that is the case, we shouldn’t expect to see political attempts to address historic levels of economic inequality or any movement towards the center by the political parties any time soon.

Of course, that’s not news. No one I know was expecting either.

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