Katherine Krimmel is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College of Columbia University. Prior to Barnard, Professor Krimmel received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2013, was a National Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs from 2012-2013 and an Assistant Professor of political science at Boston University from 2013-2016. Her research and teaching interests include public opinion, political parties and their relationship to interest groups, fiscal politics, and the politics of race and gender. Her current book project examines the organizational foundation of contemporary party polarization.
Associate Editor Rachel Weintraub sat down with Professor Krimmel to talk about her current research project. The following transcript, compiled by Weintraub, has been edited for clarity.
What is the focus of your current research project?
My research is focused on the major party organizations [the RNC and DNC]. I’m studying how the parties have changed and developed, and specifically at what pace and in which ways they’ve grown over the last century. We have snippets of data over time about their staffs and their budgets, but I’m trying to fill in that history to figure out when and how they became the major professional organizations–or corporations– that we see today.
I argue that the foundation for modern party polarization was built in the New Deal era, long before it started skyrocketing. Polarization is hard for parties- developing alternative positions on a wide range of issues takes a lot of work. This wasn’t work that national party organizations were in any position to be doing in the early 20th century, because they were largely decentralized. Specifically, The New Deal gave the national government a lot more responsibility, which subsequently gave the parties incentives to shift power from the local to national level. The New Deal also ultimately was hard on local party machines. As patronage became less important in party politics, it had to be replaced by something, so parties started to form stronger positions on issues to compete with one another. It’s causal in a loose sense. I’m not arguing that the New Deal caused polarization, but that the roots of polarization that we see today actually go back further than is commonly assumed. Party polarization is not a new phenomenon.
How did you become interested in this area of research? Has this project built on any of your prior research?
In some ways, the book project I’m working on right now was sparked by my work on my dissertation, in which I studied group party linkages. Throughout that process, I found that there was little written in the academic literature about the evolution of the national party organizations. My research is therefore trying to fill this gap in the literature.
Additionally, a report published by the American Political Science Association in the mid 1950s actually criticized the parties for being too programmatically similar and not offering voters clear choices on issues. Part of the reason why the APSA felt this was the case– and that party organizations were failing voters in this way– was because the party organizations were flimsy institutions, and therefore not capable of developing positions on a wide range of issues. In tracing their growth over time, I hope to provide a better understanding of how these organizations grew to be better positioned to take clearer positions on issues.
What has been the most challenging aspect so far, and how are you planning to address this challenge?
Gathering my data has been very logistically difficult and has been the most challenging aspect of the process so far. For my data, I am using a variety of archival documents. I made a list of all the places where these [archives of national party organization] documents are housed- and came up with a list of 28 sites across the country. Luckily, Barnard students are from all over the place, so I’ve hired a few research assistants to help with data collection.
Additionally, there’s no one right way to synthesize all of the information from these documents, and it’s not something that you’re really taught. I did some archival work for my dissertation, and how I did it then was by collecting and reviewing each document individually. I would make notes on them and tag them for being relevant to different aspects of my research. I’m hoping this time to find better software to streamline this process- I think there’s probably some software that exists now to create a better system for review.
In today’s political climate, many point to extreme elite polarization as problematic. In general, how will your research improve our understanding of the contemporary polarization that we see today?
It depends on how you think about polarization, and what exactly that means. Does it mean that opinions of Democrats and Republicans have grown further apart? Or does it mean that there are no more moderates, and only extremes? In that sense, the public is definitely not polarized; there are still plenty of moderates. However, there is no disagreement that the elites have polarized. Polarization is not new; there was also high levels of polarization at the turn of the 20th century. It was really the low polarization in the middle of the 20th century that is the exception. While polarization is definitely at historic highs, today, it’s more than just party polarization that people are talking about. For example, there’s been a lot of talk of urban versus rural polarization, especially in the wake of the 2016 election. It’s definitely something that a lot of people are worried about.
However, not everyone thinks polarization is a problem. Back in the mid 20th century, when the parties were really similar, people didn’t like that either. Like I mentioned before, even the American Political Science Association didn’t like that, because they said if the parties are really similar, what kind of choice does that give voters? The parties need to be different in order for voters to have a clear choice to make. Polarization itself is not necessarily a problem; rather, it’s the phenomenon associated with it– like betrayal and lack of compromise– that are unpopular ideas.
Lastly, what have you enjoyed about being a professor and getting to engage with this type of research? Do you have any advice for students who aspire to work in academia?
I can’t imagine anything being more professionally satisfying than getting to answer questions that are interesting to you. As a professor, you are able to do this constantly, whether it is through your own research or syllabi and course building. As for advice for students aspiring to go into academia, I think the colloquia and seminars here give you a good opportunity to practice research skills. They introduce you to the process of doing this kind of research and will get you thinking about what kind of questions you think are important. Overall, research-based classes at Barnard and Columbia provide a good opportunity to hone research skills, and get familiar with different topics.