When asked about the most important problem facing the United States today, Americans rank dissatisfaction with government over ISIS and race relations. American trust in Congress is at an all-time low; citizens hold it in lower esteem than even big business or the criminal justice system. Despite the existence of problems at myriad levels of government, cynicism toward government has risen as the two parties have proven unable to confront the nation’s core policy challenges. In comparative surveys of polarization, Americans report far greater distance between the Republican and Democratic parties than citizens in other countries, such as France and Greece, report between their leftmost and rightmost parties.
What exactly is meant by polarization, and how is today’s polarization different from the typical partisan divisions that have always existed? The short answer is that changes both in society and in electoral politics contribute to today’s unprecedented levels of partisan acrimony. The stakes in reforming polarization now extend well beyond legislative politics, since current levels of polarization threaten both Executive aspects of governance and long-term economic outcomes, such as income inequality. Fortunately, institutional and procedural reforms that mitigate the influence of a highly ideological and wealthy minority of voters stand a good chance of slowing the growth of the problem.
How Did We Get Here?
Gridlock and obstruction have become commonplace in Washington, DC. The clearest indicator of polarization has been Congress’s inability to pass legislation. The 112th Congress, which spanned the years 2011–13, was the least productive since 1947. The impasse over the debt ceiling and budget led to a government shutdown in the subsequent session. Congress adjourned for its 2015 summer recess with many issues, such infrastructure and immigration, left unresolved. Congressional Republicans have vowed to defund Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act this fall, even if it means another government shutdown. The likelihood that Congress will effectively address major policy issues such as immigration or entitlement reform in the near future is very low.
Politicians actively take advantage of the media spotlight when Congress is in session, obscuring the legislative inaction that has become commonplace. Moderates in Congress complain that negotiation and compromise are nearly impossible in today’s political climate.
Gridlock in Congress is the product of partisan polarization, which has risen steadily since the 1970s. For the better part of the 20th century, polarization between the parties—measured as the ideological distance between legislators of different parties—actually declined. Since the 1970s, however, the distance between the parties has grown, and the average legislator has become less moderate. Democrats have become slightly more liberal in their voting patterns, while Republicans have become much more conservative. Both parties have also become more cohesive: They vote together more often, with fewer instances of crossover voting or bipartisan agreement.
Much of this partisan cohesion is the result of ideological sorting and a reconfiguration of the traditional coalitions forming each party’s base. A century ago, the Democratic Party included Southern conservatives and Northern liberals—a product of historical circumstance that brought together white “Dixiecrats” with urban immigrants and labor unions. The Republican Party, on the other hand, included many Northern and Midwestern moderate conservatives. After the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the rise of “culture war” issues such as abortion, these coalitions changed. Southern Democrats became Republicans and moderate Republicans became Democrats. Southern Democrats who served in the postwar period, such as William Fulbright, Sam Nunn, and Al Gore, Sr., would be unelectable as Democrats today. Similarly, Northern Republicans such as William Weld, Jacob Javits, and Nelson Rockefeller would be unelectable as Republicans.
This tells us why the parties have become more ideologically homogenous. However, it does not by itself explain the rise in partisan tension and obstructionism. Instead, polarization seems to be a product of two interlaced trends: one is an increasingly polarized electorate; the other is an increasingly polarized campaign finance environment. While these explanations are not mutually exclusive, they augur different likelihoods for the success of various reforms.
Polarization in the Electorate
Although Americans express disdain for both parties and criticize Congressional inaction, the American electorate has itself become more ideologically polarized over the same period as have the parties. Public opinion on cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage, as well as issues concerning the size and role of the Federal government, has diverged, and the strength of disagreement has become more pronounced. The ideological distance between the average Democratic voter and the average Republican voter has widened, resulting in fewer overlapping views between voters of any political affiliation.
Polarization is exacerbated by an increasingly segmented media landscape. The decline of print media and the rise of 24-hour cable news and online journalism allow voters to seek information that echoes their views. Conservatives increasingly turn to Fox News; liberals prefer MSNBC or comedy news shows such as The Daily Show. Further, the immediacy of news, particularly through social media, can prioritize political posturing while detracting from a focus on substantive issues.
There is also a geographic component to partisan polarization. As Bill Bishop argues in The Big Sort (2008), residential sorting patterns show that Americans choose to cluster homogenously. Republican voters, for example, are likely to live in suburbs and rural areas; they are more likely to be married and to attend church. Democratic voters, on the other hand, tend to live in urban areas, are less likely to be married, and are more likely to hold post-graduate degrees. The political scientist Alan Abramowitz shows in The Disappearing Center (2010) that most Congressional seats were won by small margins (within 10 percentage points) in 1976. By 2012, however, most House races became landslide elections, with Representatives winning by more than 20 percentage points on average. Residential sorting patterns make it less likely that Americans of different political stripes interact, and they may also reduce the likelihood that moderate candidates are elected to office. Partisan gerrymandering alone cannot account for these geographic trends—rather, the concentration of liberal voters in urban areas produces electoral advantages for conservative candidates, since more House seats are allocated to rural and suburban areas.1
The majority of voters remain moderate in their political views, and a growing number of Americans label themselves political independents. As Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams argue in Disconnect: the Breakdown of Representation in American Politics (2009), this moderate center is marginalized by a rising number of intense partisans at both ends of the political spectrum. In a recent report on partisanship, Pew found that the share of intense partisans has surged since 1994. These voters not only agree more intensely with the policies of their respective parties, but they also see the policies of the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”2 Intense partisans display an unwillingness to associate with people whose political views differ from their own; most of their friends share their attitudes. They even object to their children marrying outside their party. New research by Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood confirms speculations by several observers that partisans discriminate against opposing partisans in educational and employment settings, with partisan attachments now functioning like affective group identity markers.3
If polarization is rooted in the electorate, then gridlock is simply a fulfillment of legislators’ representative responsibility. Institutional and procedural reforms that incentivize negotiation and compromise will have a minimal impact if partisan voters punish moderate elected officials. And because factors such as education, income, geography, and race all contribute to intense partisan divisions, it seems unlikely that institutional reforms alone can mitigate these structural causes. However, politicians themselves might be responsible for the rise in intense partisanship. When politicians use rhetoric that demonizes opponents and take positions that are too rigid to allow for compromise, they may encourage citizens to adopt more intense attitudes as well. In other words, voters’ attitudes could be an effect, rather than a cause, of polarization. If so, a focus on political elites, which include donors to political campaigns, activists, and lobbyists, might shed some light.
Americans who participate actively in politics tend to differ systematically from those who abstain. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be more ideological than average voters; this is especially true of primary voters. Further, those who contribute to political campaigns tend to be more partisan and much wealthier than average Americans. The nexus of highly ideological voters and highly ideological donors creates a political class that is responsive to these interests, with clear policy implications: As polarization has risen, so has economic inequality.
Unequal rates of political participation exhibit themselves in the most mundane of political activities: voting. Voter turnout has never been particularly high in the United States compared to other advanced democracies, and it is especially low in the primary elections that determine candidates for Congress and President. Turnout in House primaries hovers around a mere 4-7 percent of voters; turnout in presidential primaries is rarely higher than 20 percent. Primary voters are far more ideological than voters in general elections. Because candidates who lose primary races cannot advance to the general election, voters are sometimes left to choose between ideologically extreme candidates who do not represent majority preferences in a given district.
There is also a strong relationship between income and voters in general elections. Over the past three presidential elections, voters with household incomes above $150,000 were more than twice as likely to vote than those with incomes below $15,000. Turnout is particularly depressed for low-income voters during midterm elections, so the income gap between voters is amplified in these races to the House and Senate.
In campaign finance, the disparity between wealthy and low-income citizens becomes especially pronounced. The proportion of campaign contributions from the very top income earners, the top 0.01 percent, has risen from about 15 percent to more than 40 percent in the past three decades. Some of these billionaires, such as Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and Thomas Steyer, have become household names because of their perceived influence in local and national (and, in Adelson’s case, international) politics. There are now multiple ways for wealthy donors to influence electoral outcomes. While the amount they can contribute to individual campaigns remains limited, donors can give to political action committees, 527 organizations, and political parties. The rise of super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts in campaigns, also allows corporations, nonprofit groups, unions, and wealthy individuals to influence election outcomes.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United led to fears about the undue influence of corporations in elections. But wealthy individuals are more likely than corporations to expend resources through campaign contributions, and individuals are also more ideologically extreme than corporations. Political scientists comparing different campaign financing schemes in the states have found that states with higher limits on individual contributions have more polarized state legislatures. In states where there are lower limits on how much individuals can give, or in states where more campaign financing is done through parties, politicians are more moderate. Analysis of corporate giving has also shown that corporations tend to contribute strategically to campaigns, giving money to whichever candidates stand a good chance of winning. Corporations also devote far more resources to lobbying legislators once they have been elected to office.
The disproportionate political activism of the wealthy would hardly matter if the preferences of the wealthy aligned with those of middle- and low-income voters. However, the wealthy favor lower taxes, less economic regulation, and deeper cuts to social welfare programs than do average Americans.4 Their political activism then translates to policy outcomes. Larry Bartels, in Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2008) and Martin Gilens, in Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2013), show that members of Congress are far more responsive to the interests of their wealthy voters than to the interests of the poor and middle classes. On a range of policy issues, legislators supported policies favored by the rich, even if their more numerous constituents from lower-income groups opposed such policies. This bias toward the preferences of the wealthy does not even take into account the power of organized interests, such as corporate lobbies and interest groups, in Congressional and bureaucratic policymaking.
Given the disparate participation of intense partisans and affluent individuals in politics, it seems more likely that polarization is more a product of the institutions and rules that govern participation and representation than a product of citizens’ preferences overall. Fortunately, this bodes well for reform prospects. If polarization is a product of who participates in politics—if it stems from party activists and wealthy donors—then regulating campaign finance can go a long way to reduce the influence of the affluent. Requiring disclosure of dark money to super PACs and similar groups could also provide voters with information about the ideological extremism of candidates for office. Reforming the electoral system through eliminating winner-take-all, as Larry Diamond recommends in his essay in this issue, could accomplish two goals. First, it could encourage candidates to moderate their positions in campaigns in order to capture more votes. Second, it could encourage those who currently abstain from voting to turn out on election day, blunting the numeric advantage of intense partisans.
Institutional reforms such as those recommended by Francis Fukuyama could also encourage members of Congress to seek negotiation and compromise. When the costs of gridlock are nil, as they were in the budget debates of 2013, legislators have little incentive to find common ground. But if legislators delegated authority to non-partisan commissions or enacted sanctions for failure to pass a budget, they would more likely reach agreement. There are ways to encourage compromise, even in highly partisan environments.
Polarization, Governance, and Inequality
Whether the roots of polarization lie mostly in society or in elite politics, it seems unlikely that polarization will soon subside given current trends. If anything, it is likely to worsen. While a certain amount of polarization is built into America’s constitutional framework, the combination of divided government, interbranch conflict, and partisan gamesmanship presents major challenges to governance in the United States. Political reforms that reduce polarization are necessary not only to increase compromise in Congress, but also to restore public faith in American institutions and combat rising economic inequality.
Polarization affects legislative productivity, with serious consequences for governance. There is the simple matter of deliberation and compromise in Congress, which polarization renders nearly impossible. Without an effective way to ensure policy passage, political leaders turn to ad hoc workarounds through the Executive and Judicial Branches. President Obama has responded to Congressional inaction on climate policy by enacting new rules on coal emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. When Congress could not reach agreement on an immigration bill last year, the President issued an Executive Order granting temporary legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants. Even supporters of these measures acknowledge that by circumventing the legislature, Obama’s actions detract attention from the need for Congressional action by providing conservatives with a rallying cry against Executive Branch overreach.
Another way that Congressional inaction burdens non-policymaking institutions with policymaking functions is through the courts. The constitutionality of Obama’s Executive Orders on immigration is now being challenged by immigration foes. The courts have become a critical arena in which legislation can survive or fail, drawing out the policy process. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, for example, have gone beyond Congressional efforts to defund or roll back health insurance by relying extensively on litigation. So far, the Affordable Care Act has withstood two major legal challenges, the first over the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and the second over the wording of a provision concerning subsidies for individuals on state and Federal health insurance exchanges. Even the Voting Rights Act, which was reauthorized by President George W. Bush in 2006 with a 98–0 vote in the Senate and a 390–33 vote in the House, is under threat after the Supreme Court found provisions of it unconstitutional in 2013. Leaving important policy issues to be resolved by the Executive and Judicial branches creates real problems of democratic accountability, since it is our elected representatives in Congress who are tasked with formulating policy.
Polarization has accelerated problems with governance and accountability in the United States, particularly when considering these trends comparatively. The institutions of the U.S. Federal government have always been relatively weaker than those in other advanced democracies. Most European and OECD countries have parliamentary systems and non-partisan bureaucracies; their methods of policy passage and implementation are more efficient than those in our presidential system. The World Bank, which measures government effectiveness by looking at a state’s quality of public services and the degree to which its civil service is free from political pressures, finds that the United States is much less effective than West European democracies, and that its effectiveness has declined since the 1990s. The U.S. system also fares worse on indicators of voice and accountability, which measures the extent to which citizens can participate in selecting their government.
One of the primary challenges posed by poor governance is that America also outranks its advanced democratic counterparts on various measures of economic inequality. While income inequality has been on the rise for many decades, it has now become more visible and politically salient. Just as American institutions have long been known to be weaker than unitary systems in other advanced democracies, America has also long had higher degrees of income inequality. However, American inequality has risen much more sharply than in countries like Canada, Britain, and Norway, which have also experienced a widening gap between rich and poor. The United States also now has the lowest rates of social and economic mobility among developed nations.
Why are these comparative indicators important? Because there is strong evidence that governance and economic outcomes are at least partly a consequence of worsening polarization. Our polarized political environment accommodates the preferences of those intense partisans and affluent individuals who participate. As a result, there is a striking correlation between polarization and inequality—not just today, but also historically, with both polarization and inequality declining in the first few decades of the 20th century, then rising together after 1970. While widening inequality has many causes—including poor and unequal educational opportunities and structural changes in global and national economies abetted by an array of technological shifts—economic outcomes are also the product of policies that have reduced social safety nets and lowered taxes, the exact policies favored by the wealthy donor class. Further, even if polarization has not directly contributed to income inequality, the two exacerbate one another in contemporary politics. Income inequality corresponds to inequality in participation and representation, and a polarized Congress is in turn less likely to take on long-run economic policy challenges.
In discussions of political solutions to polarization, the stakes are higher than simply bipartisanship in Congress. A polarized political system makes it impossible for the Federal government to accomplish most of its policy objectives. It also precludes the kinds of soul-searching deliberation necessary for our representative institutions to tackle important political issues. Polarization alienates moderate voters and candidates, further reducing the likelihood that political elites will take up the banner of reform. The task of mobilizing a constituency for reform must appeal to more than a desire for functioning politics; it must appeal to a desire to restore the democratic principles of American government.
1Jonathan Rodden and Jowei Chen, “Unintentional Gerrymandering: Political Geography and Electoral Bias in Legislatures”, Quarterly Journal of Political Science, Vol. 8, Issue 3.
2Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American Public” (2014).
3Iyengar and Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization”, American Journal of Political Science (July 2015); see also Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes, “Affect, Not Identity: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization”, Public Opinion Quarterly (Fall 2012) and David Brooks, The Social Animal (Random House, 2012), pp. 320–3.
4Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans”, Perspectives on Politics (March 2013).