Americans Hate Partisan Politics, But Is It Their Own Fault?

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The polarization of politics is one of the definitive characteristics of 21st century America. Back in January, Gallup survey data found that 65 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the country’s system — the highest percentage on record since the research firm first began tracking the “Mood of the Nation” in 2001. Even in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rate of dissatisfaction was lower, with just one in four individuals expressing disapproval with the effectiveness of government. Now, the government’s perceived inefficiency outstripped the economy, health care, low job creation, national defense, and the federal budget as the greatest problem with the United States. While Gallup particularly highlighted the size and power of the federal government as the greatest concern of respondents, equally important to the nation’s dissatisfaction is how partisan politics have become in recent years. Partisan gridlock has “tarnished the government’s image among both” Republicans and Democrats, noted that Gallup report.

It is fair to say that the numerous problems plaguing the country — slow economic growth, lagging job creation, the faltering health care reform — all shape how Americans view the government. But there is an important distinction to make. The nation does not feel that its leaders have been hit with insurmountable obstacles that they are trying to solve, but instead Congress and the president appear to have become sidetracked by partisan battles that have taken on more importance than the myriad of issues at hand. American politicians are finding it necessary to subscribe to an “us versus them” mentality. The results of this type of thinking were on full display last October when the federal government shut down for 16 days because of Congress’ inability to agree on spending. Ideally, a divided government benefits from the counterbalances the political parties provide; one party will restrain the other’s impulse to ideologically overreach. But if neither party will negotiate, the results are ineffective governance.

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“With Democrats and Republicans more ideologically separated than ever before, compromises have become scarcer and more difficult to achieve, contributing to the current Congress’ inability to get much of consequence done,” explained Pew Research, introducing its examination of congressional polarization. Political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, using a metric that places every senator and representative on the same set of ideological scales, found that congressional parties experienced decades of relatively little polarization until the mid-1970s, when they first began pulling apart. Now, Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction — which concluded in 1877, with federal troops pulling out of Southern states in return for congressional Democrats awarding the disputed election to Rutherford B. Hayes. The result of this polarization is that the “central increasingly cannot hold,” as stated by Pew.

Comparatively, Poole and Rosenthal noted that regional distinctions — such as the division between Northern and Southern Democrats over civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s — have declined in importance. Or, more exactly, those ideological differences have “merged into the overall liberal-conservative divide.” Research shows that congressional votes are now almost “purely one-dimensional; political ideology accounts for about 93 percent of roll call voting choices in the 113th House and Senate,” concluded Pew.

Before the partisan gap began to emerge, there was substantial overlap between how liberal and conservative lawmakers voted; in 1973-74, 240 members of the House of Representatives fell along the political spectrum between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican, while 29 senators fell in the same zone. By 1983-84, only 10 senators and 66 representatives populated the center. By 1993-94, the overlap between liberal Republican and conservative Democrats had narrowed to nine representatives and three senators. By 2011-2012, there was no overlap at all. An obvious feature of growing congressional polarization is the disappearance of moderate-to-liberal Republicans, primarily in Northeast, and of conservative Democrats, mostly in the South.

The question driving Pew’s Research on polarization — and others like it — is what drove the split, and whether polarization in Congress preceded or followed the polarization of the American public. However, the results are clear.

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Thomas Mann — a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institute — and Norman Ornstein — a political scientist at  the American Enterprise Institute  – described how burgeoning polarization has damaged the legislative process. In an excerpt of their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Mann and Ornstein “documented the demise of regular order, as Congress bent rules to marginalize committees and deny the minority party in the House opportunities to offer amendments on the floor; the decline of genuine deliberation in the lawmaking process on such important matters as budgets and decisions to go to war; the manifestations of extreme partisanship; the culture of corruption; the loss of institutional patriotism among members; and the weakening of the checks-and-balances system.”

As Mann and Ornstein explained, congressional polarization had endangered political compromise, and a lack of compromise means a lack of legislative action. A study conducted by Pew Research last December concluded that “the first session of the 113th Congress has passed into history, it seems appropriate to take another look at its productivity, or lack thereof.” The current Congress has passed just 55 “substantive measures” in 2013, which substantially lower than what any Congress has produced in the last two decades. By comparison, 63 such laws were passed in 2011, the first year of the 112th Congress — according to the Library of Congress’ THOMAS website and the White House’s log of signed legislation.

While Speaker of the House John Boehner has argued Congress “should not be judged on how many new laws we create, we ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal,” the logic seems faulty. The main law Republicans want repealed — the Affordable Care Act – is still in effect, and in fact, Congress has not repealed a single law. “It bears noting that that would require passing a repeal measure,” added Pew.

One Pew study suggests that the problem is the polarization of the American people. While 56 percent of respondents said that they prefer politicians who express willingness to compromise, both “across-the-board conservatives and across-the-board liberals say the end result of compromise should be that their side gets more of what it wants.” That response reveals an important characteristic of the American voter. So-called ideological silos are becoming more common on both the left and the right, meaning that more voters hold “down-the-line” political views. The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, increasing from 10 percent to 21 percent. That is why the ideological overlap between the two parties has shrunk. Now, the average Republican is more conservative than 94 percent of Democrats, up from 70 percent twenty years ago, while the median Democrat is more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans, a jump from 64 percent.

Plus, conservatives are especially more inclined to say most of their friends share their political views. Furthermore, self-reported voting rates are higher among those Americans on the right of the political spectrum than on the left. However, self-reported voting rates higher among those on the left than in the middle.

Since it is the voters that take a comparatively active role that are growing increasingly polarized, lawmakers are under pressure to not compromise. “But polarized senators and representatives — reluctant to compromise with the other side to start with — won’t get much pressure [to compromise] from the partisans back in their home states,” reported Pew. To be clear, the majority of Americans do not hold uniformly conservative or liberal views. But the center is shrinking, and those with mixed ideological views are not necessarily “moderates.” Rather, those in that group express very conservative or very liberal opinions, depending on the specific issue. That is why a number of important policy debates — like those on immigration, gun control, and healthcare — create as much political zeal in the ideological center as on the left and the right.

“Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want,” wrote Pew. “Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”

The voices of the “most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans” are growing more negative. With partisan antipathy on the rise, the share of Republicans who have “very unfavorable opinions of the Democratic Party” has increased from 17 percent to 43 percent over the past 20 years. In a similar fashion, the share of Democrats with very negative opinions of the Republican party has doubled from 16 percent to 38 percent. Of course, a key element of this growing antipathy is that the vast majority of survey respondents say the “opposing party’s policies represent a threat to the nation’s well-being.”

The piece of data from Pew’s survey that highlights just how embedded polarization is in America is the fact that conservatives and liberals do only hold different political views, but they also want to live in different communities, associate with like-minded people, and value ethnic and religious diversity in their neighborhoods differently.

A key question Pew did not answer was why are voters becoming more polarized. Likely, a number of factors have led to this problem. Some have argued that growing income inequality has pushed voters to separate camps. It has also been postulated that because Republicans and Democrats have argued the same issues — government debt, immigration, military power — in the past several elections, voters have become well-acquainted with the established views of each party and therefore party allegiances have become entrenched.

But the evidence shows that the increase of partisanship has impacted American public opinion, voting patterns, and the political debate throughout the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

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