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The Paradox of Partisanship

And why it won't end soon.

11:00 PM, Dec 16, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Many believe partisanship is a toxic compound--sludge that fouls the gears of legislative progress in Congress. Around this time of the year in Washington--when to-do lists are long and remaining legislative calendar days short--overheated congressional sprockets (and tempers) start to smoke.

We've seen evidence of billowing rage this past week. The massive health care spending bill Congress is trying to push through by Christmas is raising partisan hackles.

Calls to end the rancor spike at times like this. "Why can't Democrats and Republicans just get along and do what's right for the country?" many ask. "Where are the statesmen who can rise above this petty and destructive polarization?"

Despite the predictable pleas, prayers and promises, it seldom happens. Although he pledged change, Barack Obama can't kick the addiction either. The president seems incapable of talking about an issue without annoying references to all the problems he inherited. As a result, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the White House remain mired in partisanship, a condition that seems to worsen every year. Indeed, according to a number of scholarly accounts, polarization in the House and Senate has been on the rise since about the 1970s.

These trends raise a more fundamental question. If voters and the media like bipartisanship so much, why do politicians consistently ignore these sentiments? Fascinating new research by two political scientists--Laurel Harbridge of Northwestern University and Neil Malhorta of Stanford University--provides some answers. They presented their results at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in September 2009.

Part of the explanation, according to the two scholars, lies in differences between how citizens evaluate Congress as an institution versus their assessments of individual lawmakers. Just like earlier research has shown constituents "like" their own members of Congress, but might "hate" the institution overall, a similar principle applies here. Most Americans support Congress as a whole operating in a bipartisan manner. Yet Harbridge and Malhorta's research demonstrates this desire breaks down when voters evaluate the behavior of their individual lawmakers.

The duo investigated how citizens of various partisan persuasions (Republicans, Democrats, and independents) evaluate the voting behavior of individual lawmakers in Congress. What they find is one size does not fit all. "Whereas Independents were most supportive of bipartisan behavior, strong Democrats and Republicans actually approved of the members less when they voted with the opposing party." They argue strong partisans may support abstract conceptions of bipartisanship, but not when applied specifically to their own member of Congress.

Their findings shed light on why polarization persists, despite its apparent unpopularity. Many lawmakers represent districts heavily tilted in one direction or another from a partisan perspective. The bulk of these constituents may like bipartisanship as a general behavior, but don't want their representatives to engage in it. For these lawmakers, acting in a bipartisan manner could risk their electoral health.

Moreover, even in more politically balanced and competitive districts, a lawmaker's most active and engaged supporters--his or her base--are likely to indentify more strongly as partisans. In other words, as Harbridge and Malhorta argue, there is an "electoral connection" to persistent partisanship. Those most important to securing a political victory--activists, volunteers, and financial contributors--are the least likely to support bipartisanship in practice.

Harbridge and Malhorta's research contains some implications for partisanship in the current environment as well. Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have drawn sharp ideological lines with Republicans--divisions understood best by each side's strongest partisan supporters. For Democrats, Republicans are "standing in the way" of needed reforms. For Republicans, Democratic policies represent European-style government meddling.

To many Republicans and conservatives, "bipartisanship" in this type of environment is code for government doing even more. After a year of bailouts, czars, government takeovers, spending sprees and huge debt, many self-identified Republicans and conservative-to-moderate-leaning independents think more bipartisan success is not necessarily accomplishment or a positive outcome.

So expect the paradox of partisanship to continue. While many will undoubtedly call for the machinery of Congress to operate smoothly, many important constituents will reward those who throw sand in the gears.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.