The Effects of Polarization on Ideological Certainty: An Application to Executive Order Issuance

Date01 July 2020
Published date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(4) 506 –522
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18814477
Over the past several decades, elite polarization in the United
States has steadily increased, with individuals sorting into
parties based largely on ideological lines; liberals have
become more aligned with the Democratic Party, and conser-
vatives with the Republican Party (Bafumi & Herron, 2010;
Fleisher & Bond, 2004; Layman, Carsey, & Horowitz, 2006;
McCarty, Poole, & Rosenthal, 2006). Within the halls of
Congress, these dynamics are reflected in historically high
rates of party support scores, party unity votes, party una-
nimity votes, and growing ideological divergence between
the two parties. Recently, it has become far easier to predict
how individual members of Congress will vote—as well as
their ideological preferences—based on their partisan affilia-
tions (Theriault, 2008).
Several causes of Congressional polarization have been
proffered, including party influence (McCarty, Poole, &
Rosenthal, 2001), demographic shifts (Aldrich, 1995; Fleisher
& Bond, 2004), electoral polarization (Abramowitz, 2010;
Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008), gerrymandering (Carson,
Crespin, Finocchiaro, & Rohde, 2007; Fiorina, Abrams, &
Pope, 2006; McCarty, Poole, & Rosenthal, 2009; Theriault,
2008), increased strength of parties (Cox & McCubbins,
2005; Theriault, 2008), the discouragement of ideological
moderates from running for office (Thomsen, 2017), and
polarization within Congressional leadership (Heberlig,
Hetherington, & Larson, 2006). However, despite the interest
in the topic, studies of the effects of polarization in the
separation-of-powers context tend to focus on polarization as
it relates to the ideological distance between the two parties,
despite evidence that greater ideological divergence is not the
only effect of polarization; indeed, polarization is also associ-
ated with greater intraparty ideological homogeneity, and not
all members of Congress are equally affected by this latter
factor. While ideological extremists might welcome stricter
ideological dogma, moderate members may balk at support-
ing policies with which either they or their constituents dis-
agree. On many votes, regardless of how these “cross-
pressured” legislators vote, they may face condemnation
from their constituents or party leadership, or they may find
themselves supporting a bill with which they disagree. Thus,
it is no surprise that increasing polarization has corresponded
to a decline in the ranks of these inherently unpredictable
cross-pressured legislators (Han & Brady, 2007).1
Importantly, these cross-pressured legislators have been
largely replaced by those whose ideological preferences more
closely match those of their parties and the partisan members
of their reelection coalitions (Han & Brady, 2007). As these
members feel fewer conflicts between the demands of
814477APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18814477American Politics ResearchBrockway and Hollibaugh
1University of Notre Dame, IN, USA
2University of Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Gary E. Hollibaugh Jr., Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Public and
International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, 3802 Wesley W. Posvar
Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.
The Effects of Polarization on Ideological
Certainty: An Application to Executive
Order Issuance
Mark Brockway1 and Gary E. Hollibaugh Jr.2
Many standard models of political institutions frame outcomes as a function of the preferences of key decision makers.
However, these models, and the empirical analyses they inspire, typically assume decision makers can infer the identities and
ideological locations of other decision makers without error. Here, we reveal the substantive importance of this assumption.
We show that partisan sorting, a common cause of polarization, can result in reduced uncertainty about the ideologies of
key decision makers and the identities of key pivots. When we incorporate estimates of pivot uncertainty into empirical
models of executive order issuance, we find lower levels of uncertainty are associated with higher rates of policy-relevant
executive order issuance. These results have implications for the study of polarization and the use of models of institutions
in political science.
executive orders, polarization, separation of powers
Brockway and Hollibaugh 507
constituents, parties, and personal beliefs, voting records in
more recent Congresses have more closely reflected the
wishes of parties (Ramey, 2015). Moreover, with fewer cross-
pressured legislators, “waffling” in Congress has decreased,
with fewer members voting against bills they once (co-)spon-
sored (Kirkland & Harden, 2016). All of these dynamics have
resulted in Congressional behavior becoming more predict-
able on the basis of partisanship alone (Theriault, 2008).2,3,4
We show partisan polarization induced by partisan sorting
can result in greater certainty about the identities and ideo-
logical locations of key members of Congress. After showing
this, we provide one example of this dynamic in the separation-
of-powers context and show that, by our measures, uncer-
tainty is associated with fewer executive orders. As
mentioned, this is presumably because the president will
have more information about the preferences of and/or iden-
tities of key players and will be able to structure executive
orders in ways acceptable to at least one relevant pivot, thus
preempting Congressional opposition.5,6 Moreover, uncer-
tainty matters even when we incorporate the ideological
divergence between the parties (i.e., one common way of
operationalizing polarization) into our empirical models, a
finding that should incentivize scholars to refine understand-
ings of polarization and the effects thereof.7
Polarization, Uncertainty, and
Executive Orders
Despite the relationship between polarization and ideologi-
cal uncertainty, the latter has yet to be seriously engaged by
scholars of American institutions (e.g., Cox & McCubbins,
2005; Krehbiel, 1998; but see Cameron, 2000). This is
despite the fact that greater certainty about the ideological
preferences of key actors should affect institutional outcomes.
Indeed, vast amounts of research in political science—and
cognate disciplines—based in part on formal models of
incomplete information have suggested that uncertainty is
important to political interactions, and can change the incen-
tive structures and actions of those involved. For example,
private information about—and incentives to misrepresent—
one’s military capabilities and willingness to fight have been
cited as reasons for the occurrence of war (Fearon, 1995).
Within American politics, it has been argued that one reason
for the existence of political parties is their ability to reveal
information about the preferences of those running under
their labels (Snyder & Ting, 2002). Voter uncertainty over
the president’s preferences can lead Congress to write bills it
expects the president to veto, with the goal of making the
president seem more extreme (Groseclose & McCarty, 2001;
but see Martin, 2012). And uncertainty over the location of
the veto pivot has been argued to provide the president more
leverage compared to a world without uncertainty (Cameron,
In particular, Cameron’s (2000) logic is that when indi-
viduals are less certain about the ideological locations of key
pivots—or the identities thereof—it will be more difficult to
structure bills to ensure that they will later be acceptable to
the veto pivot. This same logic would suggest that if presi-
dents are more certain about the identities and ideological
locations of key pivots, they will be better able to structure
executive orders in order to preempt legislative retribution.
And this potential ability to use informational advantages to
sidestep Congressional opposition is, in some ways, not alto-
gether different from other sources of presidential advan-
tages in the inter-branch bargaining process. For example,
Howell (2003) argues that when Congressional policy pref-
erences are broadly fragmented, Congress is unable to form
majorities necessary to overcome subsequent vetoes of legis-
lation introduced to negate executive orders—assuming they
can even pass the negating legislation in the first place.10 The
common thread between these two dynamics (Congressional
fragmentation and certainty about the ideologies or identities
of key pivots) is that both might be caused by higher degrees
of partisan polarization.
However, the extant research on executive orders has
focused primarily on the first dynamic and variations thereof
(such as the degree of ideological divergence between the two
parties), and has largely ignored how growing partisan polar-
ization might relate to ideological certainty. This is a notable
oversight, given standard models of ideological sorting, and
much empirical research on the topic suggests that the parties
have not only grown further apart—to the extent that there is
no longer any ideological overlap between them—but their
ideologies have become more tightly concentrated around
more divergent party medians (Bafumi & Herron, 2010;
McCarty et al., 2006). These dynamics have consequences
for the roles of Congressional fragmentation and certainty
about the ideologies or identities of key pivots (due to
increased intraparty homogeneity), and thus attendant conse-
quences for executive order issuance patterns, as standard
models assume the executive considers the preferences of the
legislature before issuing executive orders (Cameron, 2000;
Cameron & McCarty, 2004; Chiou & Rothenberg, 2014,
2017; Hassell & Kernell, 2016; Howell, 2003; Martin, 2012;
Mayer, 2002; Tsebelis, 2002; Warber, 2006).
Within these standard models, of which Howell’s (2003)
is perhaps the most prominent and well-known, executive
orders offer the president an important advantage and an
opportunity to take an active role in the creation of policy.
However, within Howell’s (2003) model, this ability is lim-
ited and subject to discretionary limits imposed by the judi-
ciary (wherein the judiciary will overturn the executive order
if the discretion is exceeded), as well as limits on discre-
tion—and possibly direction—imposed by the legislature.11
Chiou and Rothenberg (2014, 2017) build on Howell’s model
and formally introduce the role of parties, finding that mod-
els incorporating the majority party median exhibit better
statistical fit than those where the executive is most respon-
sive to the chamber median (or not responsive to any legisla-
tive actor).

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT