It has become conventional wisdom that contemporary American politics is deeply and debilitatingly polarized. But is this supposition true? If it is true, how and to what extent is it true? And what, if anything, can and ought to be done about it?
Scholars and political observers generally agree on three key points about polarization. First, the U.S. Congress is more polarized ideologically than it was a generation ago: The ideological overlap between the parties has all but disappeared, and the rise of “safe” districts with partisan supermajorities has tended to push politicians away from the center. Second, while activists in both parties have long been polar opposites, the ideological gap between them has widened in recent decades. And third, with declining regulation of the media, mass media outlets have become more numerous, diverse and politicized. All three phenomena, moreover, are mutually reinforcing.
If all this is true—and it is—what’s left to argue over? The principal bone of contention is the extent to which polarized views among political leaders and activists are reflected in the population at large. Even here there is some agreement on key trends. While there is no evidence of significant change in the electorate’s overall ideological balance during the past three decades, fewer self-identified Democrats or liberals vote for Republican candidates than they did in the 1970s; fewer Republicans or conservatives vote for Democratic candidates; and rank-and-file partisans are more divided in their political attitudes and policy preferences. Also, religiosity (not to be confused with the denominational hostilities of the past) is becoming a telling determinant of political orientation and voting behavior: All else equal, the more often individuals attend church, the more likely they are to regard themselves as conservatives and vote Republican.
The unsettled questions are about how far or how deep these trends go, and how much difference they make to the overall functioning of the political system. Do substantial segments of the electorate, not just political elites, tend to cluster consistently into opposing ideological camps that differentiate the respective agendas and candidates of the political parties? The answer is a mixed one: As we illustrate below, the severity of the country’s “culture wars” is overstated, but some significant fissures have opened in the nation’s body politic, and they extend beyond politicians and partisan zealots.
The fissures are interesting in themselves, but the actual harm they might do is debatable. Many fear the worst, that polarization accounts for gridlock over major national priorities and that American politics and government are becoming less engaging, responsive and accountable to the citizenry. We are warned that the health of vital public institutions—Congress, the courts, the Executive Branch bureaucracy, the news media—is endangered, that incivility threatens established norms of pragmatic accommodation, even that civil strife is just around the corner.
We are not persuaded. Most claims about the ill effects of polarization do not stand up under scrutiny. In the first place, polarized politics is one thing, close division or partisan parity quite another. A presidential election may be closely divided without being deeply polarized, as in 1960, or deeply polarized without being closely divided, as in FDR’s 1936 victory over Republican Alfred Landon. It is often said that the electorate has been both deeply and closely divided during most of the past decade. This is true to an extent, but the claim that the interaction between deep and close division creates inertia is not. As George W. Bush’s first term demonstrated, a minority presidency with a razor-thin congressional margin can still achieve significant legislative successes even amid polarized politics, at least as long as the majority party is purposeful and unified.
Just as polarization is not synonymous with partisan parity, neither is it synonymous with “culture war.” Intense political conflict can occur along many different dimensions, of which the cultural dimension forms only one. Political turmoil or tranquility is not just a function of society’s “cultural” tensions.
Of course, that is not to deny culture’s prominence in recent analyses of American politics, nor to minimize the impact of perceptions. The nation’s elections are hyperbolically described as holy wars between “red” and “blue” states, pitting the devotees of “moral values” against their doubters. Visual gimmickry has also played a role in exaggerating and misleading many people about the extent, nature and significance of attitudinal polarization. The red-versus-blue election maps—indicators of the Electoral College—are static images using rough aggregates. Partisan differences may be widening on key issues, and they may have a geographic dimension, but charting such changes without oversimplifying them is no easy undertaking.
Our argument here proceeds in four phases. First, we establish some basic facts about the nature and extent of polarization in American politics. Second, we look at the dynamics of polarization in more depth, asking particularly about the roles of opinion leaders and both geographical and ideological sorting. Third, we discuss the causes of the shifting political realities we have identified. And finally, we evaluate claims made about the overall significance of these facts and trends.
A plurality of the U.S. electorate professes moderate political persuasions. In 2004, 21 percent of voters described themselves as liberals, 34 percent as conservatives, and 45 percent as moderates.1 These numbers were practically indistinguishable from the average for the past thirty years. Contrary to an impression produced by an overheated and underinformed punditry, the moderate middle swung both ways in the 2004 election: 54 percent went to Kerry, 45 percent to Bush. In fact, President Bush secured re-election because of his improved performance among swing voters such as married women, Hispanics and Catholics—not just aroused Protestant fundamentalists.
Nor did a widely anticipated “values” Armageddon materialize over the issue of same-sex marriage. President Bush endorsed the concept of civil unions in the course of the campaign, and about half of those who favored this solution voted for him. Initiatives banning same-sex marriages were on the ballot in three of the 11 battleground states (Michigan, Ohio and Oregon), yet John Kerry managed to carry two of the three; by motivating voters and boosting turnouts, the initiatives ended up aiding Kerry more than Bush.
With respect to the most persistent “cultural” wedge issue—abortion—there have been some unexpected twists as well. Republicans are consistently winning among voters (more than 60 percent of the electorate) who believe that policy on abortion should be more restrictive. Republican presidential candidates carried this group in 1996, 2000 and 2004—despite the fact that a clear majority among this 60 percent leans pro-choice and prefers that abortion be “mostly legal” rather than “mostly illegal.” The staunchly pro-life Republican Party seems to be persuading millions of moderately pro-choice voters that its positions on specific abortion policies are reasonable.
In the 2004 election “moral values” turned out to be the leading concern of at most 22 percent of the electorate. For most voters a combination of other issues was more important. And little noticed, the percentage of “moralists” was lower in the 2004 election than in those of 2000 and 1996.
What about the maps on televisions and in newspapers that depict “red” America clashing with “blue”? They’re colorful but crude. Plenty of states ought to be painted purple. There are eight red states with Democratic governors. The bright blue states of California, New York and Massachusetts have Republican governors. Some red states (Tennessee and Mississippi) send at least as many Democrats as Republicans to the House of Representatives. Michigan and Pennsylvania—two of the biggest blue states in the last election—send more Republicans than Democrats. North Dakota is blood red (Bush took 63 percent of the vote), yet that state’s entire congressional delegation is composed of Democrats. On election night, Bush swept all but a half-dozen counties in Montana, but that didn’t prevent the Democrats from winning control of the governor’s office and state legislature—or stop the decisive adoption of an initiative allowing patients to use and grow their own medicinal marijuana.
In sum, just as the actual configuration of public attitudes in the United States is more complex than the caricature of a hyper-politicized society torn between God-fearing Evangelicals and libertine atheists, the country’s actual political geography is rather more complicated than the red-blue maps suggest. For all the hype about the ruptures and partisan rancor in contemporary American society, today’s level of strife pales in comparison with much of the nation’s past. About four decades ago, for example, cities were burning across the United States; a sitting president, two presidential candidates and the leader of the civil rights movement were assassinated; another sitting president was driven from office; and a hail of bullets felled students at Kent State University. By current standards, George W. Bush may be a “polarizing president”, but in comparison with, say, Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon B. Johnson, he looks a lot more like a uniter than a divider.
Opinion Leaders & Mass Publics
No knowledgeable observer doubts that the American public is less divided than the political agitators and vocal office-seekers who claim to represent it. The interesting question, though, is how much of the electorate heed opinion-leaders and harden at least some political positions as a result? Here, it turns out that the tectonic plates of the nation’s electoral politics appear to be shifting more than most careful observers have been willing to concede. Even though the mass electorate has long formed three comparably sized blocs—29 percent identifying themselves as Republicans, 33 percent as Democrats, and almost all the rest as independents—the attributes of the Democratic and Republican identifiers have changed: They are considerably more cohesive ideologically than a few decades ago. It was not unusual in the 1970s for the Democratic Party to garner as much as a quarter of the votes of self-described conservatives, particularly in the South, while the GOP enjoyed nearly a comparable share of the liberal vote. Since then, those shares have declined precipitously. In 2004, Kerry took 85 percent of the liberal vote, while Bush claimed nearly that percentage among conservative voters.
Further, as their outlooks have tracked party loyalties more closely, Democratic and Republican voters have become less prone to desert their party’s candidates. Party affiliation is a much stronger predictor of voting behavior in recent presidential elections than in earlier ones. In 2004 nearly nine out of ten Republicans said they approved of George W. Bush; a paltry 12 percent of Democrats concurred. In an earlier day, three to four times as many Democrats had held favorable opinions of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower.
Of course, the use of the terms liberal and conservative can be squishy—and if, at bottom, there’s still not much difference between the convictions of Democrats and Republicans, the fact that partisans are voting more consistently along party lines tells us little about how polarized they might be. What counts is the distance between their respective sets of convictions. On the issues that mattered in the last presidential election, the distance was considerable—the main one concerning national security and foreign policy.
The Pew Research Center surveys found, for example, that while almost seven in ten Republicans felt that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, fewer than half of Democrats agreed. In October 2003, 85 percent of Republicans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision; merely 39 percent of Democrats did. When asked whether “wrongdoing” by the United States might have motivated the attacks of September 11, a majority of Democrats, compared to 17 percent among Republicans, said yes. Democrats assigned roughly equal priority to the war on terrorism and protecting American jobs or workers (89 percent and 86 percent, respectively); Republicans, in comparison, gave far greater weight to fighting terrorism than to worker protection.
Among active partisans, representing a non-trivial one-fifth of all voters, the gap was even more dramatic. About 70 percent of Democrats, but just 11 percent of Republicans, typically favored diplomacy over the use of force. On major questions of domestic policy, the difference was only a little less pronounced. The issue of health insurance, for example, ranked high for 66 percent of the Democrats, but only 15 percent of Republicans.
Then there is abortion, as divisive an issue as exists in American politics. A majority of Americans today accept abortion under various circumstances, but the majority wobbles when abortion is framed as an absolutely unrestricted right to choose. When people were asked in 2003 whether abortion should be called an act of murder, 46 percent said yes and exactly 46 percent demurred. No doubt, if the question had been directed only at those who identified themselves as Republican or Democratic loyalists, the percentages would have been at least as starkly divided as with foreign policy and health insurance, and the underlying passions even stronger.
In assessing these deepening disagreements we must also consider the territorial contours of today’s polarization. This is important because if voters tend to migrate geographically toward likeminded voters, the resulting political segregation of Democrats and Republicans could increasingly lock in their differences: A person’s partisan inclinations seem more likely to deepen and endure if he or she is surrounded by fellow partisans.
All things considered, the gulf between the residents of Republican-leaning states and Democratic-leaning states looks less wide than is commonly claimed. But states are large aggregates in which the minority party almost always obtains one-third or more of the vote, a fact that raises the question of what constitutes a significant difference among states. Consider some data from the 2000 election. In red states, those identified as Republican slightly outnumbered Democrats; in blue states, Democrats enjoyed a 15-point edge. In red states, the share of the electorate that was conservative was twenty points larger than the share characterized as liberal. Blue-state residents were 15 points less likely to attend church regularly, 11 points more supportive of abortion rights, 12 points more likely to favor stricter gun control, and 16 points more likely to strongly favor gays in the military. From a practical political standpoint, these and other quantitative differences between red and blue states are large enough to make a qualitative difference in who wins elections.
The results of the 2004 election stand as evidence. Using a slightly different definition of red and blue states (namely, states that either Bush or Kerry carried by at least five points), differences existed in excess of twenty points along numerous dimensions, from church attendance to gun ownership to attitudes on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
There is evidence, moreover, that red states have gotten redder and blue states bluer, at least in the sense that presidential candidates’ margins of victory have widened. In 1988 George H.W. Bush won only 15 states with vote shares greater than five points above his national average and lost only nine states where his share dipped more than five points below his national average. Put another way, 26 states were within a five-point range of the national percentage as a whole. By contrast, in 2004, George W. Bush carried twenty states with vote shares more than five points above his national average, and lost 12 states where he polled five points below it, so that just 18 states fell within the five-point range.
These results reflect a basic trend. In the 1960 presidential election, a near-tie in the popular vote between Kennedy and Nixon, 37 states yielded results within five points of the national margin; in 2000, another election with a razor-thin popular vote margin, only 21 states ended up within this range. These results cannot be imputed just to George W. Bush’s “polarizing” campaign and governance style; in the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, only 22 states were within five points of the national margin, nearly identical to the 2000 result. The fact is that the past three presidential elections have produced three of the four most polarized state results in the past half century (the Reagan-Carter election of 1980 being the fourth).
There is also increasing polarization at the county level. Compare the three closest presidential elections of the past generation. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford by a scant two points, only 27 percent of voters lived in counties where one candidate won by twenty points or more. In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush fought to a virtual draw, 45 percent of voters lived in such counties. By 2004 that figure had risen to 48 percent. Using counties rather than voters as the unit of analysis yields similar results. In 2004, 60 percent of the nation’s counties handed supermajorities of 60 percent or more to either Bush or Kerry. The corresponding figure for Bush-versus-Gore in 2000 had been 53 percent, and merely 38 percent for Bill Clinton-versus-Bob Dole in 1996. In historical perspective, these results may represent a return to a previous average, but they are significant nonetheless.
Depicting the political landscape on the basis of vote tallies for presidential candidates is only one part of the picture, however. The number of congressional districts that split their votes between presidential and congressional candidates has also declined. In 2004 only 59 congressional districts went in opposite directions in presidential and House elections; in 2000 there were 86 such districts, and in both 1996 and 1992 there were more than one hundred. These trends have not been confined to the House. In 2004 the percentage of states won by the same party in that year’s Senate and presidential races rose to a level not seen for forty years, and the percentage of Senate seats held by the party winning that state in the presidential election rose to the highest level in at least half a century. By 2004 the percentage of partisans voting for the other party’s House or Senate candidates had fallen to levels not seen since the early 1960s.
In sum, sizeable blocs in the national electorate of late have not been conducting centrist business as usual. Like the elections of 1960 and 1976, those of 2000 and 2004 were closely contested. Unlike the elections of 1960 and 1976, the past two were slugged out primarily in a small handful of states. Elsewhere, larger shares of voters seem to have gotten sorted into states and counties more strongly predisposed to one side or the other, and the predispositions seem rooted in appreciably different core political beliefs. Such contrasts fall short of proving that Americans are “culture warriors”, but where there is that much smoke there may be, if not exactly a four-alarm fire, some pretty significant friction.
What has happened in the electorate has much to do with how sharply political elites have separated along their respective philosophical and party lines. That separation is not in doubt. In the 1970s the ideological orientations of many Democratic and Republican congressmen overlapped. By the end of the 1990s, almost every Republican in the House was more conservative than every Democrat, and party leaders have leaned increasingly to extremes more than have backbenchers. Outside Congress, activists in the two parties have diverged sharply in recent decades, and proliferating interest groups, particularly those concerned with cultural issues, now ritually line up with one party or the other to enforce orthodoxy. The news media, meanwhile, amplify differences among political leaders and activists, thanks to increasingly politicized talk-radio programs, cable news channels and Internet sites.
What effect is elite polarization having on the mass electorate? One possibility is that Americans as a whole are not shifting their ideological or policy preferences all that much; rather, they are being presented with increasingly polarized choices that force voters to behave in ways analysts mistake for shifts in underlying preferences. The implication is that if both parties nominated relatively moderate, non-polarizing candidates, as they did in 1960 and again in 1976, voters would revert toward previous patterns. Another possibility, however, is that changes at the elite level have communicated new information about parties, ideology and policies to many voters, leading to changes of attitudes and preferences that will be hard to reverse.
Most likely, both processes are occurring. On the one hand, choices clearly affect outcomes. The Democratic Party’s nomination of more moderate presidential candidates in 1960, 1976 and 1992 in the wake of more liberal but failed candidacies did shift mass perceptions and behavior. A 2008 presidential contest between, say, Senator John McCain and a Democratic nominee seen as more moderate than Gore or Kerry would likely do the same. On the other hand, the public is influenced as party hierarchies, members of Congress, media outlets and advocacy groups polarize. Voters become more aware of differences between the parties, are better able to locate themselves in relation to party positions, and care more about the outcome of elections. As a result, their partisan preferences and their ideological and policy preferences become better aligned.
Contributing to people’s receptivity to political cues is the increased influence of education. In 1900 only 10 percent of young Americans went to high school. Today, 84 percent of adult Americans are high school graduates, and 27 percent have graduated from college. Those best conditioned to grasp new information about political topics tend to be those with formal education, and as a result they are most influenced by elite polarization.
The interaction between elite cues and voter responses is complex and varied. Voters who have a clear stance on an issue, care intensely about it, and see important differences between the parties over it tend to choose sides accordingly. For voters who care less about a given issue, party identification is the primary driver; when their party changes its position, they change as well. And those voters who do not perceive differences between the parties (a diminishing share of the electorate) will likely change neither their party nor their stance on the issue.
Beyond issue-induced or partisan shifts among voters with prior stances, elite polarization also influences young adults who enter the electorate without fully formed preferences or attachments. Increasingly polarized parties and activists have increased polarization among young adults whose attitudes, once formed, tend to remain stable over a lifetime. For most young adults, partisan polarization not only sorts, but also shapes, basic political orientations and partisan allegiances.
The cue-taking that helps fuse ideology with party loyalty at the grass roots, in turn, reinforces the hyper-partisan style of candidates for elective office and their campaign strategies. Given the increasing proportion of the electorate that is sorted by ideology, mobilizing a party’s core constituency, rather than trying to convert the uncommitted, looks (correctly or not) like a winning strategy, and that means fielding hard-edged politicians appealing to and certified by the party’s base. This electoral connection, and not just the partisan incentives within the House of Representatives, may help account for the increasingly polarized Congress of recent decades. It may also help to explain the tendency of House Democrats and Republicans to move further apart the longer they stay on Capitol Hill.
It would be a mistake, however, to see causality in the relation between changes at the elite and mass levels as a one-way street. Political elites in search of a winning formula anticipate voter responses to changed positions on the issues. The Republican Party’s Southern strategy in the 1960s, for example, reflected a judgment that Democratic support for civil rights had created an opportunity to shift voters and (eventually) party identification as well. The Democrats’ rapid movement from a moderate stance on abortion in 1976 to a less nuanced one by 1984 rested on a judgment that this shift would attract better-educated, younger, more upscale voters who had been activated politically by Vietnam and Watergate.
So there is a feedback loop that mutually reinforces polarized comportment up and down the political food-chain, and this loop has several important implications. For one, the idea that extremists are foisting polar choices on the wider public, while the latter holds its nose, does not fully capture reality. To some extent, polarized politics are here by popular demand. And if that is the case, undoing it may prove not only difficult, but also inappropriate.
Underlying the sharper demarcation of Democratic and Republican identities is a broad assortment of systemic forces. Among the most important of these forces are certain large historical transformations, the changing role of religion, and the way representatives are elected to Congress.
The regional realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties is clearly a key to understanding contemporary American politics. After Barry Goldwater carried five states in the Deep South in 1964, it was obvious that the Democratic Party’s longstanding lock on the region had loosened. The Republican ascent in the South accelerated in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which mobilized black voters and drove additional white conservatives out of the Democratic Party. As the Democrats lost their conservative Southern base, they consolidated strength among more liberal constituencies, particularly in the Northeast and eventually California. At the same time, Republican moderates began losing their traditional foothold in New England, diminishing the party’s internal ballast against harder-line conservatives. The GOP, now anchored in the South and West, became more orthodox.
The Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 exacerbated party divisions. In 1972 neither party’s platform even mentioned abortion. In 1976 both parties held moderate (and virtually interchangeable) positions. Over the next two presidential cycles, however, activists in the two parties moved farther apart, and by 1984 the party platforms had settled into the polarized postures that have persisted over the past two decades.
Ronald Reagan then further sharpened the Republican agenda, championing bold tax cuts, the retrenchment of the welfare state and, not least, a more muscular national defense than Democrats advocated. The Vietnam War and the following détente era that stretched into the early 1980s shattered the bipartisan unity that had prevailed in foreign policy through much of the Cold War. The Democrats moved left: Their standard-bearer in 1972, George McGovern, proposed slashing the U.S. defense budget by a third. Soon after, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate proposed drastic reductions of U.S. forces in Europe. By 1983, when the Reagan Administration was determined to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe to counterbalance a provocative and destabilizing Soviet deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the Democratic majority in the House adopted resolutions supporting a nuclear freeze. Deviations like these signaled to the party bases a growing contrast, one that reached its starkest manifestation seven years later when Iraq invaded Kuwait and most Democratic senators declined to authorize the use of force against the aggressor.
The end of the Cold War also abetted American political polarization by ushering in “the age of low politics.”2
Henry J. Aaron, James M. Lindsay and Nivola, eds. (Brookings Institution Press, 2003). Relieved of the need to pull together in the face of an external threat, the parties could now afford to pull apart—to wrangle about every manner of domestic issue regardless of how parochial, petty or picayune. Luxuriating in their holiday from foreign affairs, the congressional parties indulged in long and bitter quarrels over matters such as raising the minimum wage by a few cents or the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. (For all but four House Republicans in 1998, impeaching the President had become an idée fixe. One wonders whether their zest for it would have been as great if the autumn of 1998 had been, say, the autumn of 1962, when the world stood at the brink of nuclear war.)
The extraordinary parity of the competitors has also intensified our partisan squabbles. With the parties so evenly matched, unusually small margins now make the difference between winning and losing the presidency, the House or the Senate. With so much riding on marginal changes in party support, both sides claw to gain an edge by any means available. Hence, if the GOP can add a few seats to its House majority by manipulating congressional district lines in Texas, the opportunity is seized without hesitation. When the Democratic opposition spots a chance to trip up or hold up a Republican president’s judicial nominees, it doesn’t hesitate either. When competing in a dead heat, anything goes.
The news media, too, thrive on the perpetual feuding, because partisan machinations, stridency and acrimony make good copy. This is nothing new, of course, but several factors have heightened it in recent times. The mainstream media—the three old-line broadcast networks and the national newspapers—have more rivals; indeed, the number of Americans receiving their news from network television or daily newspapers has been declining steadily as Internet outlets, talk-radio stations and cable channels pitching to narrow cultural and politically attentive audiences have proliferated. This niche-oriented industry increasingly resembles a high-tech cousin of the combative partisan press of the 19th century—a development further facilitated by the repeal of the fairness doctrine in 1987.
It is not obvious which side—politicized journalism or its audience—is the principal agent driving the deeper wedges here. The news media are cultivating their particular partisan and ideological markets, but they are also responding to the emergence of those markets. The latter, in turn, reflect changes underway in the mass electorate, of which the role of religion is perhaps primus inter pares.
Religion has always played a prominent role in U.S. politics. The claim that it is more important than ever before remains to be demonstrated. At one time, denominational distinctions—Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, Baptists and Lutherans—had a strong partisan cast. Those patterns have waned, but a new one has emerged: The contrast between the voting behavior of the most active worshippers and everybody else in the last four presidential elections has widened compared to modern historical levels. From 1952 through 1988, Democratic presidential candidates tended to fare only about two percentage points worse among regular churchgoers than among voters who attended church infrequently, if at all. Starting in 1992, the religion gap grew to nearly 12 points on average. The most religiously observant voters, almost irrespective of denomination, leaned hard to the Republican nominee in the 2000 election and even harder in 2004.
The reason is straightforward: Religious observance and political preference are now powerfully correlated. More than half of those who attend church weekly call themselves conservatives, four times the percentage who regard themselves as liberals. What has sent regular churchgoers to the right is the undeniable impact of the abortion issue, most notably, but increasingly also other social and cultural concerns such as sex education and school prayer.
Faith-based forces have not necessarily polarized the political parties more than have other factors, however. The divorce between the adherents of “hard” versus “soft” stances on questions of national security, for example, is no less consequential. Moreover, potent faith-based constituencies do not always skew a party’s policies to the right. Religious conservatives in Republican ranks, for example, have favored increasing anti-poverty programs, even if it means more debt or higher taxes, as well as stricter environmental standards and more foreign aid to combat HIV/AIDS.
Also, pure polarization implies a symmetrical dynamic, in which more or less equally robust blocs of voters on both sides of the political spectrum gravitate toward the poles. But while religious traditionalists are flocking to the Republican Party, “the true loyalists” (in pollster Stanley Greenberg’s phrase) of the Democratic Party include millions of Protestants, “modernist” Evangelicals, Vatican II Catholics and non-Orthodox (but not therefore secular) Jews. Indeed, while losing the Evangelical Protestant vote by more than three to one, John Kerry split the Mainline Protestant vote down the middle with George W. Bush. This reality probably constrains the Democratic Party from embracing a maximally secular agenda.
The concentration of fervent fundamentalists at the core of the Republican Party unquestionably matters. At a minimum, it has ensured that key symbolic issues—Roe v. Wade, end-of-life decisions, “intelligent design”, bioethics and so forth—form a distinct partisan fault-line. And the effect of such issues for the party bases seems unlikely to diminish soon, unless cross-cutting concerns that traditionally animated voters—most notably, economic ones—became formidable again. If that does not happen, cultural themes with their religious overtones will likely remain prominent.
In the 15 election cycles for the House of Representatives following World War II, one party or the other gained an average of 29 seats. In the past 15 elections, the average switch was 12 seats. By 2004 less than 10 percent of the House was being seriously contested. The composition of even gigantic delegations proved immutable: None of California’s 53 seats changed parties in 2004, for example. Competitive districts across the country are vanishing.
Exactly what has eroded congressional electoral competition is the subject of much debate. Some point to the way districts are delineated. Increasingly sophisticated computer software has enabled partisan political cartographers to map with pinpoint precision the spatial distribution of voters, and then to gerrymander boundaries to their party’s advantage. Others stress the power of incumbency: The capacity of incumbents to bankroll their re-elections is at an all-time high. Still others emphasize the dynamics of voluntary political segregation: Politically homogenized districts develop when voters move to be near fellow partisans.
Whatever the reasons for non-competitive elections, the profusion of one-party districts tends to drive centrists out of Congress. In non-competitive districts, candidates have little incentive to reach out to voters across party lines, but instead appeal to the base, thereby preempting potential primary challenges from the extremes. In such circumstances, the direct primary (or the threat thereof), not the general election, becomes the defining political event. In theory, the natural tendency of candidates competing for single member districts in a simple two-party electoral system (such as that of the U.S. House of Representatives) is to move toward the center. But the balloting in primaries often discourages this convergence. The electorate in these contests tends to be small (under 18 percent, even in presidential primary years), unrepresentative and highly motivated. Candidates protect their flanks by positioning themselves further to the left or right of the general public on issues that primary voters regard as litmus tests.
Interestingly, the number of Democratic Party primaries for House seats has remained about the same since 1964, but the number has risen since then on the Republican side. The unintended consequences of the direct primary in American elections have given pause to political scientists since V.O. Key began calling attention to its polarizing risks some fifty years ago. Particularly where interparty competition is lacking (as in many congressional districts), the direct primary clearly stokes the fires of polarization.
Does Polarization Matter?
When all is said and done, these developments are cause for concern only if they imperil the democratic process, the bedrock of its governing institutions, and the prospects of attending to urgent policy priorities. It is not entirely clear that they do so.
Some of what passes for dysfunctional polarization may be little more than the downside of unified party control of the Executive and Legislative branches. Unified government—as in five of the first six years of the Bush presidency, and the first two years of the Clinton presidency—permitted partisans to move their political agendas further to the left or right than would otherwise have been possible. Divided party control of government, on the other hand, compels accommodation. The GOP’s Congressional victories in 1994, for example, pushed Clinton toward the center. If the Democrats had regained at least one chamber of Congress in 2004, the result would have been to force Bush farther onto middle ground in his second term. Divided government, in short, can temper a “polarizing” president.
But whether such tempering is always for the best is debatable. (Try to picture a tempered Abraham Lincoln “triangulating” with a Democratic House or Senate in 1862.) Partisan polarization has its advantages. Inasmuch as the Democratic and Republican parties differ more visibly, they offer voters “a choice, not an echo”, to borrow Barry Goldwater’s phrase. There is something to be said for a clear choice. Was the public philosophy of the Democrats more intelligible when the party had to accommodate Southern segregationists under its tent? For years observers lamented the lack of a “responsible” party system in the United States; now, with the political parties more coherent, centralized, unified and disciplined—in sum, a bit more reminiscent of the majoritarian style in some European parliamentary regimes—some of the same observers rhapsodize about the days of Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee and their old incongruous ad hoc coalitions, deference to seniority and debilitating filibusters, occasionally weaker legislative party leadership, and often sloppy bipartisan compromises.
But what if the public agenda is being hijacked by polarized militants who rule the parties or, at any rate, densely populate their bases? Surely, as many critics have argued, there have been glaring episodes of this sort. The Clinton impeachment imbroglio was one. In December 1998 the House of Representatives voted to sack the President, with 98 percent of the Republican members concluding that Clinton’s conduct rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. This verdict of “the people’s house”, however, did not align with the views of the people. From the eruption of the year-long sex scandal in January 1998 through the end of the Senate trial in February 1999, every national poll showed the public opposed to impeachment and conviction, typically by margins of two to one. Last year’s congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo case provided another unsettling illustration of how Congress could lurch in one direction while lopsided majorities in public opinion polls leaned the other way.
Policy outcomes have occasionally seemed disconnected from public preferences in less ephemeral controversies, as well. For many years, passage of national energy legislation was held hostage in part by an unresolved dispute of far greater interest to strict environmentalists than to average motorists: namely, whether to permit exploration for oil and gas anywhere in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Similarly, a minority view currently governs stem cell research. As much as 58 percent of the public would allow research that might result in new cures for diseases rather than preserve the human embryos used in the process. Yet opponents have held the upper hand so far, limiting government-funded research to embryonic stem cell lines in existence prior to August 9, 2001.
Exhibits like these are proof to many critics that the political process is now routinely out of touch and unaccountable. Political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson have argued, for example, that mainstream popular sentiments failed to inform, much less decide, virtually every major GOP policy initiative of the George W. Bush presidency.3 The Medicare prescription drug bill, Bush’s energy legislation and his proposed reform of Social Security—these adventures and more—were all pushed relentlessly, they say, on a non-consenting public.
But arguably just the opposite has been the case. The addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare was a Bush campaign promise in 2000. More than anything else, its inspiration came from his strategy of “compassionate conservatism”—an effort to attract middle-of-the-road voters by co-opting the Democrats on an issue dear to them. The Bush Administration’s energy proposals reflected, for the most part, precisely what American consumers really demand: continued production of low-cost energy, and no meaningful pressure to conserve it. Bush’s Social Security plan went nowhere partly because it met unified resistance from the Democrats, but more fundamentally because most Americans opposed it. As for foreign policy—including the Iraq project—the approach to foreign affairs was put to a referendum in the elections of 2002 and 2004, and passed. None of these upshots was an affront to popular sovereignty.
The critique of policymaking in a polarized political environment has to take a different tack: The trouble, perhaps, is not that the government is out of step with the people, but that it’s not getting much done in their interest.
The public may not relish the hard choices needed to ensure the solvency or soundness of the Social Security system, but serious policymakers have to make them anyway. The public may not welcome the pain that a genuine energy conservation plan inflicts, but policymakers do society a disservice if they perennially chicken out. It may be that intensely partisan politics throw up additional roadblocks to certain unpopular measures that a responsible government ought to undertake for the public good. We will circle back to this important consideration later, but for now it is enough to note that the conventional supposition that political polarization necessarily breeds policy paralysis is questionable at best.
Whatever else the overall legislative record of recent years may show, sclerosis has not been one of its distinguishing characteristics. Reform of the welfare system, substantial tax reductions, big trade agreements, a significant expansion of Federal intervention in local public education, important course corrections in foreign policy, reorganization of the intelligence community, a major campaign finance law, new rules governing bankruptcy and class-action litigation, the formation of a new cabinet department, massive enlargement of Medicare—for better or worse, all these milestones were achieved despite polarized politics. Indeed, some of these achievements probably were only possible because of disciplined (“polarized”) voting by the congressional majority party. That was certainly true of the 2003 tax bill, for example. Several, though, occurred because partisan polarities, while significant on many issues, were not consistently so dramatic and all-encompassing as to bring the wheels of government to a stop on other issues.
It is not always easy, as a matter of fact, to find much daylight between the official postures of the parties. Take the Republicans. There was a time when limited government was a distinguishing aspiration of Republican presidents and congressional leaders. That austere orientation lost allure after January 1996, with the debacle of the government shutdown. Today, big spending and big bureaucracy are hallmarks of the politically chastened GOP. Witness the party’s complicity in the largest expansion of an entitlement program (the Medicare drug benefit) in forty years; the profligacy of the Republican-controlled Congress on everything from highways to farm subsidies to Hurricane Katrina reconstruction assistance; the king-sized Department of Homeland Security; the stiff statism of the USA Patriot Act; and No Child Left Behind’s Federal intervention in local education policy.
The Democrats, to be sure, have dissented on more than a few high-profile matters—for example, by defending the status quo for Social Security, second-guessing the Bush Administration on Iraq, and preferring to nationalize end-of-life rules for fetuses but not for the sources of embryonic stem cells or for patients in vegetative states. But more than is commonly acknowledged, the two parties also appear to have crawled toward common ground on a number of sensitive issues. However hard it was for many Democrats to swallow, say, welfare reform or the North American Free Trade Agreement in the mid-1990s, these once-defining disputes had cooled by the end of the decade. Similarly, the crime issue, which the Republicans exploited so effectively in the 1988 election, subsequently lost much of its partisan luster. Helpfully, crime rates declined, but the Democrats also inoculated themselves by enacting a far-reaching anti-crime bill in 1994.
In the 2004 election cycle no serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination proposed overturning the 1996 welfare law or NAFTA. For all their gripes about tax cuts “for the rich”, the Democrats effectively embraced much of Bush’s tax reduction. True, Senator Kerry favored raising the top tax rate on incomes above $200,000 back to 39.6 percent, but that would still have been a far cry from the 70 percent rate that President Reagan slashed. The Democrats fumed that a $1.35 trillion deficit loomed on account of the Bush Administration’s fiscal policies. But Kerry’s proposed tax and spending package was estimated to spill about the same amount of red ink ($1.3 trillion). Bush came out against same-sex marriages—but so did Kerry.
There has also been enough partisan convergence to secure key pieces of legislation. The 2001 tax cut would not have passed if 12 Democratic senators hadn’t voted for it. In the House that autumn, too, 193 Democratic lawmakers joined 260 Republicans to pass the Patriot Act, and 129 Democrats sided with 255 Republicans to create the Homeland Security behemoth. Fifty-two Republicans voted with 246 Democrats to enact the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. In both chambers, Republicans and Democrats voted in almost equal numbers to adopt the No Child Left Behind scheme. In July 2002 the Sarbanes-Oxley rules for corporate governance were enacted almost unanimously by both chambers.
Displays of bipartisanship, often yielding decidedly centrist results, have not stopped there. With enough Republican defections, majorities in both chambers declined to approve a constitutional amendment barring gay marriages. The Central American Free Trade Agreement would not have been ratified in the summer of 2005 if 11 Democratic senators had not voted with the Republican majority. A nearly unanimous Senate voted to set new limits on the interrogation of detainees suspected of terrorism. Liberal interest groups and Evangelicals have teamed up to lobby for projects like the Aspire Act, an anti-poverty bill cosponsored by former Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA). The Republican-led House—a body alleged to be the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Christian Right—passed a stem cell research bill more liberal than the Bush Administration’s policy. Government, in short, is not gridlocked.
Even if the contemporary Congress has been productive, its deliberative process may not be pretty—and many are convinced that the sausage-making, if not the sausage itself, is much uglier now than it used to be. Lawmaking by “stealth” has supposedly become standard operating procedure, resulting in less transparency, more cooking of cost-estimates and budget numbers, greater use of sleepers tucked into omnibus packages, closed rules, the drafting of legislation in oligarchic conference committees and imperious exclusion of the parliamentary minority. How much of this is true?
One simple gauge of the impact of heightened partisanship on congressional deliberations is a measurable increase in petulance. In floor debates, for instance, the number of words ruled either out of order or “taken down” rose after 1985. The incivility is vexing, yet surely some of what Democrats regard as high-handed and uncivil conduct has simply to do with the Democratic Party’s uncustomary minority status. On the other hand, some things have changed. When in October 1987 Democrats extended a budget vote from the customary 15 minutes to thirty, Republicans led by then-Representative Dick Cheney alleged a serious abuse of power. Since 2001, however, House Republican leaders have sometimes held votes open for hours to enable the majority to secure enough votes for a win. Still, many of the Democrats’ grievances are reminiscent of those harbored by House Republicans before 1995 who spent professional lifetimes marginalized. These parallels aside, an unfamiliar degree of majority party cohesion, discipline, bicameral coordination and central control is bound to beget a discontented minority.
There is, of course, much irony here. Unhappy Congress-watchers nowadays lament the same “new” institutional practices that liberal observers fifty years ago would have welcomed. Consider: Today, many lament the end of the seniority system (for Republicans) for committee chairmanships. Ambitious members seeking these jobs tend to be hardliners who have ingratiated themselves to the party leadership. A half century ago, the complaint among progressives was that Congress could not move priorities such as civil rights legislation because party leaders and caucuses were powerless to dislodge obstructionist Southern chairmen of the key committees.
A crucial component of deliberative activity in Congress is the oversight function. Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch has faltered in the past half-dozen years. Some missteps by the intelligence agencies and bureaus charged with homeland security, for instance, might have been averted if congressional watchdogs had performed their duties more conscientiously. But how much of this abdication can be imputed to “polarization”, as opposed to the effects of unified party control of both branches, is no easy call. Some argue that partisan polarization impedes lawmakers from adequately scrubbing, sanitizing or simplifying their legislation. The prescription-drugs provisions are cited as a particularly egregious example. But how does this charge stack up against the counterfactual? Suppose the half-trillion-dollar drug bill had not been flogged by GOP powerbrokers but crafted instead in a convivial bipartisan fashion. It might have emerged just as flawed, and it would almost certainly have been even more extravagant.
Today’s sorry legislative stories should also be benchmarked against yesterday’s. Think back to the Carter years and the stupendously convoluted National Energy Act of 1978, or further back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society’s Community Action Program and the Model Cities law. Those enactments were legendary for their unanticipated complications and unwanted consequences. It is easy, in other words, to fall victim to the Golden Age fallacy about Capitol Hill. The entrenched Democratic barons who dominated the Legislative Branch four or five decades ago were just as capable of making a hash of congressional projects—and they often did, with fatal consequences later on, say, in the floodplains of Louisiana.4
All this suggests, at a minimum, that the much-bewailed partisan divide in American politics does not impair the democratic policy process as much as many believe. To say that the impairment has been exaggerated is not to conclude, however, that there is no impairment at all. Increased polarization of the political parties does carry risks, of which four are paramount. First, it complicates the task of addressing certain long-range domestic policy problems, particularly those that cannot be solved without altering the established distribution of benefits in the modern welfare state. Second, it can unhinge the implementation of a steady, resolute foreign policy and national security strategy. Third, partisan excesses can damage vulnerable institutions, not least the judiciary. Fourth, partisan antagonisms, and especially the slash-and-burn tactics that polarized parties routinely adopt, can erode public trust in government, even as it motivates more people to engage in the political process and to vote.
This last point raises an interesting possibility. If polarized parties can get 120.3 million Americans to cast ballots as in 2004—the largest number in U.S. history—why worry? Because a healthy civic culture ought to do more than stir up voters. It should build their trust in the nation’s political institutions. It is in this respect, alas, that querulous partisanship can become corrosive. An abundance of nasty campaign advertising, negative news media slants and outbursts by truculent politicians does not necessarily discourage people from voting, but a citizenry ingesting so steady a diet of partisan vitriol may nonetheless grow disenchanted and cynical.5 People may vote, but more in anger than in sorrow, and certainly not with faith in the efficacy of democratic politics to effect genuine, positive social change. Polarization may be exaggerated and misunderstood. But it is not invented, and its implications, though different from those often supposed, are not trivial.
Editor’s Note: The polling data and research in this article have been drawn from a wide array of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, The Hill, Political Science Quarterly and numerous scholarly and journalistic texts, as well as independent research. Complete citations will accompany the authors’ forthcoming book.
William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck, The Politics of Polarization (Third Way, 2005), pp. 3, 25.
Pietro S. Nivola, “Can the Government Be Serious?” Henry J. Aaron, James M. Lindsay and Nivola, eds. (Brookings Institution Press, 2003).
Hacker and Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of Democracy (Yale University Press, 2005).
For an eerie reminder of this epoch and its underside, see Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser, “The Slow Drowning of New Orleans”, Washington Post, October 9, 2005.
See E.J. Dionne Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).