Partisan polarization seems like it purchased a lifetime pass in Washington, D.C.
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 bipartisan harmony. Political forecasters predict Republican gains in the November elections. Won’t more parity between the parties force the two sides to get along? Probably not.
The current set of characters in Washington, D.C., didn’t concoct today’s political environment, and they won’t quickly transform it. Polarization may not be in the legislative waters, but it’s now definitely in the lifeblood of Congress.
Yet, that’s not all bad. 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 this month found that 70 percent of U.S. voters expect partisanship to increase in Washington, D.C., during the next year, the highest finding since President Barack Obama took office.
University of Texas political scientist Sean M. Theriault, in his book “Party Polarization in Congress,” outlines the causes of hyperpartisanship and why lawmakers are at no risk of comity contagion in the near term.
Theriault examined changes in American politics in the past 30 years and documented the spike in congressional partisanship since the 1980s. He argued that a two-step process caused polarization.
First, the electorate changed. Partisanship increased as redistricting created homogeneous electoral populations, districts that were far more solid Republican or Democratic. Voters “sorted” themselves into more-distinct ideological camps. During the past two decades, Theriault said, 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,” Theriault wrote. “As their power has grown, so have party leadership’s burdens to produce legislative victories.”
In other words, leaders had to deliver. Theriault demonstrated that legislative leadership increasingly used parliamentary procedures to accomplish political objectives, which contributed significantly to heightened levels of polarization.
Yet, polarization is not without some redeeming qualities. In the late 1960s, presidential candidate George Wallace famously said, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties.”
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.
Today, despite polarization’s perceived warts, ideologically sorted parties now help voters clarify each side’s positions on critical issues to participate more effectively.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.