Thursday, August 22, 2013


By Ronald Fox

In this second part of my essay on the partisan divide, I will discuss several factors I believe have contributed to America’s extreme polarization, beginning with those most frequently mentioned and ending with what evidence points to is the most important causal factor.

It is conventional wisdom, shared amongst politicians, media sorts, and a large segment of the American public that the sharp polarization that plagues American politics is a result of gerrymandering. This is when state legislatures, which in most states are responsible for drawing district boundaries after the decennial census, craft districts that guarantee victory for one party or the other. These so-called “safe districts” dominate our electoral landscape. By making districts more homogeneous and less competitive, it is argued that candidates are consequently freer to take more extreme positions, pandering to their bases while ignoring moderate and independent voters.

Pandering to one’s ideological base has become mandatory; to do otherwise runs the risk of inspiring a spirited and ideologically “purer” primary challenger. So, it is argued, with competition reduced gerrymandered districts reward extreme wings of both parties; moderates are squeezed out and the two parties become more deeply partisan and polarized. In this environment partisanship rigidifies and compromise becomes a taboo. This theory sounds so plausible it is no surprise so many  embrace it. Unfortunately, it is not supported by evidence. Research by Nolan McCarty and other political scientists has shown that gerrymandering has, at best, had only a small effect on polarization.

It is true that most Congressional districts in the United States are safe, in fact about 90% of them, but this doesn’t explain polarization. Safe districts began to materialize in the 1960s and 1970s, long before our current era of sharp polarization. More obviously, the US Senate, which is not subject to districting, is currently only slightly less polarized than the House. So its polarization must come from causes other than gerrymandering.

If gerrymandering were a cause of polarization, one would also expect that small states with only one Congressional seat, and thus not subject to districting, would be more inclined to elect more moderate candidates. Evidence does not bear out this assumption. McCarty’s research suggests that hyper-partisanship is not a result of how district lines are drawn, but rather a product of the behavior of individual elected officials. Driven by party activists, Republicans and Democrats are representing their districts in increasingly extreme ways, the former more than the latter, as I will later discuss.

Polarization was initially triggered by the regional realignment that created a solid Republican South and similarly solid Democrat Northeast, as well as growing partisan gaps between rural and urban communities. At the same time, it appears that people are moving to be around others like themselves, which offers a better explanation for growing district homogeneity that district line manipulations. These long term trends have produced safe districts as much as any conscious gerrymandering of district lines. So Congressional districts are overwhelmingly safe, but this is more a result of population migrations than gerrymandering.

To be sure, partisan district manipulation does contribute somewhat to polarization by protecting and shaping more safe districts for each party and adding to the power of ideological party activists, especially in the primaries. But the role of safe districts in causing today’s deep partisan divide should not be overstated; they exert only a modest influence. Accordingly, electoral reforms such as open primaries and redistricting by non-partisan commissions, such as were recently implemented in California, are not likely to significantly lessen the uncompromising polarization that plagues contemporary politics.

Ideological Dogmatism
The election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in Britain ushered in an era of free market economics, which strongly rejected the Keynesian model that had dominated since World War II. The ideological battle line between free market worshipers and advocates of government management of the economy became sharper and more focused. This set the stage for an ideological divide that would dominate political discourse in America.

Free market Republicans want tax cuts and limits on public spending and the regulatory state, which they see as necessary for economic growth and prosperity; they urge a diminished government role in the economy (at least in their rhetoric). Democrats in general have less faith in the capacity of the free market alone to bring about prosperity and economic fairness for all; they seek a more activist government committed to stimulating consumer demand, providing social safety nets for our neediest citizens, and protecting consumers from harmful products and environmental practices. Nothing new in these differences, but over the last three decades, these ideological positions have deepened, making it more difficult to find common ground on how, and even if, government should raise and spend revenues.

To be sure, other subjects also shape today’s ideological divide, but with economic and fiscal issues accorded a high priority for importance by most American households, the ideological divide over how best to manage the economy has become more intense and consequential. Republican and Democrat followers, each inclined to think about things entirely from the lenses of the party with which they identify, believe in the absolute correctness of their economic visions. Facts are seen as things that can be manipulated, or at least interpreted, to serve desired ends. The debate has taken on a zero-sum quality, leaving little room for compromise.

New Political Players
Up until the early 1980s, among the most important skills in winning and being successful in public office was a mastery of human dynamics: an ability to read people and be engaging and gregarious in social settings. Such skills were critical in election campaigns, which tended to be labor-intensive affairs in contrast to today’s expensive, high tech extravaganzas. Successful politicians in the past were skilled in forming coalitions and making deals to move legislation. It was common for politicians to spend social time together away from the legislature with members of the opposite party. All-night poker games were regular affairs. It was at many of these informal settings that many political deals were made.

Nowadays politicians need to be good at winning elections. This means being good fund raisers, if they’re not personally wealthy, and skilled at working the press. Since image is critical in our media age, all politicians need to nurture a positive image. Image mongering requires great time and skill. One needs to be a good public speaker, know how to evade and obfuscate questions, speak in sound bites, and create catchy photo ops.

As image and money are the necessary ingredients to a successful political career, politicians spend an inordinate amount of time on the tasks of raising money and nurturing a favorable image, usually away from Washington. This leaves far less time than in the past for social interaction with colleagues, especially those from across the aisle, who are now perceived as enemies. With incivility pervading our wider political culture, it is no surprise that partisan divisions have become increasingly venal and rancorous. There are simply too few political rewards for moderation and compromise; in fact, just the opposite prevails, as both parties have vigilante-like watchdogs looking for any straying from the “party line.” The absence of bipartisan, personal relationships leaves little human capital to fall back on when cooperation is called for; rather, it helps stiffen oppositional resolve. 

The Uncivil Political Culture
Mainstream and social media have also helped widen and poison the partisan divide. Endless personal attacks, often based on falsehoods, half truths, misrepresentations, and distortions harden partisan animosities. Most responsible is the venom that spews forth from right wing radio and TV talk show hosts, though there are also liberal talking heads that ridicule and disrespect opposing political viewpoints. Nasty attacks against government and specific politicians, and the use of incendiary language (e.g., “feminazis,” whores, fascists, anti-Christ . . . ) to ridicule opposing viewpoints has engendered deep hatreds and poisoned our political discourse.

As the Pew research Center has found, no news outlet has been more responsible for poisoning the political atmosphere and contributing to asymmetric polarization than Fox News. Cynicism that pervades mass political media has had a corrosive effect on our political culture, to such an extent that it is now fashionable to hate government and demonize one’s political opponents. The anger and incivility that has come to dominate the political culture in America has pervaded our governing institutions. The polarizing dynamics that have led to the deep party divide have also impacted the American public. If politicians are rigid and uncompromising, can we expect the wider public to be different?

The overwhelming majority of voters today identify with one of the two parties. Most of these hold negative views of the other party. The pure independent voter who doesn’t identify with either party, whose votes often used to determine the outcome of elections, has declined significantly, now constituting barely a tenth of the electorate. Disrespectful and vitriolic political behavior begets more of it. We might be shocked when an elected official shouts “you lie” to a sitting president giving a State of the Union address, but such disrespect is in the nature of our political times.

Money in Politics
Before 1980, electoral campaigns were relatively cheap, labor-intensive affairs. Campaign money was a factor in elections, but not all determining. Beginning in the early 1980s campaigns began to go high tech. Tons of cash was necessary to pay for expensive campaign consultants, media time, and slick hit pieces. As the cost of elections grew exponentially, the importance of money in campaigns followed.  The clout of money givers exploded.

The Citizens-United v. Federal Election Commission decision opened a virtually unregulated arena for super PACs, independent groups, and 501 (c) groups to influence voters. They could make and air “independent” political ads, most often negative and based on falsehoods or out-of-context misrepresentations, aimed at swaying voters to their candidate or cause. There are no laws requiring disclosure of the source of funding for such independent ads and none to ensure truth in political advertising. These ads, funded primarily by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, have come to dominate election campaigns, with the result of intensifying anger and bitterness among followers of both political parties. As such they have contributed to the intense partisan animosity that grips many party faithful. The ill feelings linger long after the campaign, finding expression in various political processes.

It is no secret that elected officials have become increasingly dependent on large campaign donors and allied independent groups. Money buys access, which is just a step away from buying a vote or a favor. Big money givers want a return on their investment. This can mean a lucrative tax break, an exemption from an environmental regulation, a subsidy, or as is often the case, a grateful legislator’s commitment to work to beat back a proposed law that threatens the financial interest of the donor.

Our governing system offers a multitude of opportunities to stop something from happening. As the old adage goes, “anyone can wreck anything.” In the film The Distinguished Gentleman, Congressman Thomas Jefferson Johnson, played by Eddie Murphy, listens to a lobbyist telling him about special interest groups ready to throw money his way, and it doesn’t even matter what position he takes because there’s money for every stance. Johnson (Murphy) stops the lobbyist mid-sentence and asks: but Terry, if there’s money for each side, how does anything ever get done? The lobbyist answers: “It doesn’t; that’s the beauty of the system.”

This scene keenly captures the role of money in our legislative gridlock. With legislative rules providing many choke points to prevent legislation, and moneyed interests having the power to fight on even if they lose at the legislative level, for example at the administrative and judicial levels, it is indeed extraordinary if anything substantial ever gets done. The gridlock inherent in our law making and administration system fits well with today’s hyper-partisanship. It only takes a tiny minority, in some cases only one person, to wreck something.

Party Activists and Polarization
For what appears to be the most potent explanation, I turn to research conducted by Thomas Mann and Normal Ornstein. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, conclude that partisan polarization is a result of ideological shifts that have occurred within both political parties, though the core of the problem, they acknowledge, rests with the Republican Party.

In their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, they conclude that “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Poole and Rosenthal have similarly found in examining Congressional voting that Republicans are now more conservative than they have been in more than a century. This shift to the extreme right has made it nearly impossible to find common ground on most pressing issues.

Mann and Ornstein cite the mobilization of social forces after the legalization of abortion, the anti-tax movement launched by California’s Proposition 13 in 1978, the rise of conservative talk radio and the emergence of Fox News and right-wing blogs as the larger forces pushing the GOP to the extreme right. Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Rush Limbaugh, and later the Tea Party movement, were instrumental in purifying a more extreme conservative ideology and infusing it with a virulent anti-Washington, anti-liberal, anti-Democrat Party tone. They especially note the role played by Gingrich, who as Republican minority leader in the early 1990s laid out a strategy to take over control of the House that relied on increasing public dissatisfaction with the Congress to set the stage for tossing out the incumbent Democrats.

In his strategizing, this required obstructing all important Democrat initiatives and openly opposing President Clinton. Mann and Ornstein argue that Gingrich was instrumental in crafting a unified, parliamentary-style minority party, which was used to stymie and damage a president of the other party. Aided by super-majority requirements that have resulted from manipulating legislative rules, it has become easy to oppose and obstruct. The Gingrich revolution unleashed forces that destroyed the comity that once existed between the two parties. His legacy lives on.

The post-McGovern Democrat Party moved to the left on such issues as fiscal policy, welfare and immigration reform, same-sex marriage, and environmental protection, but this has been a gradual realignment resulting mainly from the defection of Dixiecrat Democrats to the Republican Party. This shift has established the Democrats as primarily as a center-left party.

To be sure, Democrats have not been bastions of cooperation, but they have shown a much greater inclination to compromise than Republicans. This was even true during the much despised George W. Bush years, when they worked with him on the No Child Left Behind Act, supported his post-September 11 initiatives, provided key votes for his tax cuts and financial bailout of the banks. They have been steadily drifting toward more centrist positions on many issues in recent years and have given ground on social spending, pension, healthcare, and immigration reform, gun control, and taxes. The contrast with the present GOPs anti-compromise dogma is striking.

The election of Barack Obama provided a convenient target for GOP wrath. Nearly every presidential initiative is met with Republican rancor, ridicule, and near unanimous opposition. Republicans who dared stray from the “party line” faced severe punishment, which often included well-financed, more ideologically “pure” primary challengers from the right. The message was clear: Democrats are the enemy; anything proposed, supported, or even similar to something Obama wants is to be automatically opposed. Any mistake or misstep by the Obama Administration is to be magnified and kept alive in the public mind. It’s as though, Republicans want the worst to happen so they can exploit it for partisan gain. The long-standing legislative tradition of meaningful deliberation and debate, balancing interests, respecting adversaries and solving problems has been victimized by GOP politicking for partisan gain. In this, the American people have been the big losers.

Other Factors
To be sure, there are other factors that have contributed to the ideologically polarized ideological makeup of the Congress.  These include growing income inequality, hostility toward immigrants, and free-trade deals that have negatively impacted congressional districts with heavy concentrations of manufacturing jobs.  These factors will be explored in a future post.

Safe districts, ideological dogmatism, new political players, an uncivil political culture, the growing importance of money in politics, have all contributed to current American political polarization, but the main reason partisanship has become so rigid and vitriolic is because extreme conservative activists have pushed the Republican Party to the far right. As Mann and Ornstein argue, “On financial stabilization and economic recovery, on deficits and debt, on climate change and health-care reform, Republicans have been the force behind the widening ideological gaps and the strategic use of partisanship.”

GOP leaders have followed lock-step to their party’s most strident voices. Following Newton’s Third Law, Democrats have responded to GOP ideological fealty by also becoming more internally unified and ideologically distinctive than they have in many decades. Ideological rigidity is passed off as “standing on principle,” which in practice means disregarding evidence which counters, and even contradicts, preordained beliefs. Principle has thus become a recipe for deadlock. Aided and abetted by legislative rules, such as the filibuster and holds, the gridlock is endangering the very foundation of American democracy. It will take a virtual voter revolution against ideologically extreme candidates and intransigent legislators who reject dialogue and compromise, as well as wholesale reform of election rules and governing procedures, to turn things around. Such is the challenge of our times.

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