Partisan polarization seems like it purchased a lifetime pass in this city.
This won’t sit well with Kumbaya aficionados -- those looking for congressional Republicans and Democrats to walk arm-in-arm toward a bipartisan Promised Land.
Some think the November elections might produce more bipartisan harmony. Political forecasters predict Republican gains in the November elections. Won’t more parity between the parties forces the two sides to get along? Probably not. Understanding the roots of today’s polarized landscape explains why partisanship won’t be unearthed anytime soon.
The current set of characters in Washington did not concoct today’s political environment, nor will they quickly transform it. Polarization may not be in the legislative water, but it’s now definitely in the lifeblood of Congress.
Yet that’s not all bad either. Partisanship gets a bad rap, but it also produces some important unrecognized benefits.
Voters certainly believe partisanship is around for the long haul. Maybe they understand its upside better than the wishful thinkers. A Rasmussen survey released earlier in August found that 70 percent of U.S. voters expect partisanship to increase in Washington, over the next year, the highest finding since President Obama took office.
University of Texas political scientist Sean M. Theriault, in his book Party Polarization in Congress, outlines the causes of hyper-partisanship and why lawmakers are at no risk of comity contagion in the near term.
Theriault examines changes in American politics over the past 30 years and documents the spike in congressional partisanship since the 1980s. He argues a two-step process caused polarization.
First, the electorate changed. Partisanship increased among lawmakers’ constituents as redistricting created homogeneous electoral populations, districts that were far more solid Republican or Democratic. Voters also “sorted” themselves into more distinct ideological camps. Over the past two decades, Theriault argues, Republicans became more uniformly conservative and Democrats increasingly liberal. And, finally, party activists became more ideologically extreme.
But those electoral changes only explain part of the puzzle. Transformations in Congress caused the rest. “As the constituencies have polarized and sorted, fewer and fewer members are cross-pressured between what their constituencies want them to do and what their parties want them to do. As these preferences become increasingly aligned, rank and file members have ceded more power to their party leaders,” Theriault writes. “As their power has grown, so have party leadership’s burdens to produce legislative victories.”
In other words, leaders had to deliver. Theriault demonstrates that legislative leadership increasingly used parliamentary procedures to accomplish political objectives, which contributed significantly to heightened levels of polarization. “These procedural debates, which are more frequent these days, are especially divisive,” he argues.
This one-two punch of a “sorted,” more partisan electorate, along with legislative leaders deploying all the procedural tools to win for their “team,” created the polarized environment that envelops Congress today.
It’s unlikely a single election will dislodge these patterns, given the increased polarization in both the electorate and the Capitol over the past two decades.
Yet polarization is not without some redeeming qualities. In the late-1960s presidential candidate George Wallace famously remarked, “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties.” Scholars and pundits also bemoaned the lack of distinction between the two sides.
As Matthew Levendusky writes in The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans, “For most of the twentieth century, the primary concern of party scholars was not that politics was too polarized. Rather, it was that politics was not polarized enough.” He notes that the American Political Science Association actually advocated stronger, “more responsible” parties “in the European model: ideologically divided parties that presented voters with programmatic choice so voters could appropriately reward success and punish policy failure.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Still, despite polarization’s alleged warts, sorted parties now help voters clarifying each side’s positions on critical issues. This is a side of polarization that generates less attention. As Levendusky writes, despite a lot of focus on its negative side by scholars and the media, “…whatever else it may generate, elite polarization helps voters participate more effectively.”
Conservatives should also root for polarization to hang around for a while. Even though each side will probably check the other’s major initiatives, more balanced party power probably means less government activism and even a creep toward smaller government compared to the last two years.
Understanding polarization’s origins helps explain why legislators aren’t going to be singing Kumbaya anytime soon. Thank heavens.