Partisanship is here to stay – and that’s not such a bad thing

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.

Gary AndresOp Edsop-edOpinion

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott listens at a rally to commemorate the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside City Hall on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Will the Biden Administration help SF speed up police reform?

City has struggled to implement changes without federal oversight

Lowell High School (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Students, families call for culture shift at Lowell after racist incident

District to explore changes including possible revision of admissions policy

Alan Wong was among California National Guard members deployed to Sacramento to provide security the weekend before the presidential inauguration. (Courtesy photo)
CCSF board member tests positive for COVID-19 after National Guard deployment

Alan Wong spent eight days in Sacramento protecting State Capitol before Inauguration Day

Due to a lack of votes in his favor, record-holding former Giant Barry Bonds (pictured at tribute to Willie McCovey in 2018) will not be entering the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the near future.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Ex-Giants star Barry Bonds again falls short of Hall of Fame

After striking out yet again in his bid to join Major League… Continue reading

San Francisco firefighter Keith Baraka has filed suit against The City alleging discrimination on the basis of race and sexual orientation.<ins></ins>
Gay black firefighter sues city for discrimination

A San Francisco firefighter who says he was harassed and discriminated against… Continue reading

Most Read