Why polarization could persist in Congress

WASHINGTON — Many issues will come into play in the 2016 election, but among the most important is whether the next president and the Congress that will convene in January 2017 can break through the partisan polarization that has turned Washington into a gridlocked island.

The presidential candidates, no doubt, will present themselves as capable of making the system work and being determined to do so – offering a potentially fresh start after the political standoff that has marked the Obama presidency and those before. But there are questions:

Would the inauguration of a new Democratic president change the behavior of recalcitrant hard-liners among the House Republicans, who have sought to block almost every major initiative from President Barack Obama and whose tactics led to last year’s government shutdown?

Would a Republican president be beholden to those hard-liners, or would he or she seize control of the conservative agenda to chart a different governing path?

But above all, will the next president, whether Democrat or Republican, cultivate the kind of productive relationships with opposition-party leaders and others in Congress that Obama has failed to develop? Perhaps. But the reality is that deeper forces are at work that could well frustrate the hopes, aspirations and pledges of those who seek the presidency in 2016.


Personalities matter, but structural rigidities also matter. The polarization of U.S. politics has been some years in the making and extends now from the behavior of elected officials in Washington to the general population of politically interested Americans across the country. Unraveling it will take more than good intentions.

The reality is that the two major political parties not only have strong differences about major issues, but because of the makeup of their coalitions, now approach the governing process in Washington from almost irreconcilable positions. And both claim a measure of public support for their approach.

The obstacles also include rising animus between politically engaged Republicans and Democrats, which has widened the gap between the two parties. Related to that, partisanship increasingly shapes perceptions of what’s working and what’s not, creating parallel rather than intersecting worldviews.

These are some of the conclusions from two papers presented at the recent American Political Science Association (APSA) meeting in Washington.

Anyone who has watched Congress recently can see how Republican hard-liners in the House have changed the governing environment. Thomas E. Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, described this in their 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” as “asymmetric polarization” — Democrats playing by traditional rules; Republicans playing by new and unconventional rules.

Mann and Ornstein, along with others, pin the blame for dysfunction on the GOP. Republicans point to Obama’s policies and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s tactics as related causes of the gridlock, but it’s been the arrival of tea party Republicans that changed the equation.

In their APSA paper, Matt Grossmann, of Michigan State University, and David Hopkins, of Boston College, looked at this issue of asymmetry by trying to explain not only why there is such a gap in the way Democrats and Republicans today approach governing and legislation, but also the prospects for a return to more comity and productivity.

Grossmann and Hopkins write that Democrats represent a “coalition of social groups making specific programmatic demands on government.” That provides incentives to Democratic elected officials to push for legislative and administrative actions that address societal problems and that “simultaneously appease this diverse set of interests and appeal to the larger majority of the mass public.”

In contrast, they say, today’s Republican Party is dominated by small-government ideologues. Because the conservative base is “skeptical that government action can ameliorate social problems,” GOP elected officials “treat policymaking as a broader fight over the proper size and scope of government.”

The result is that Democrats want to enact new programs, which Republicans see mostly as more liberal activism and a further expansion of government. Republican lawmakers are therefore content “with inaction or legislative gridlock.”

Grossmann and Hopkins argue that public opinion reinforces each side, which encourages the current behavior.

As has been said before, the country is philosophically conservative and operationally liberal. A majority “agrees with conservative preferences” on the size and scope of government, the authors write, “even as it favors the liberal position on most specific issues.” Legislatively, there’s not much intersection between the two approaches.

Democrats tend to be united behind specific initiatives and therefore are more productive when they are in power. Republicans are under pressure by their electoral coalition “to undertake symbolic acts” that speak to their small-government philosophy (recall the many votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act that had no chance of being passed) “rather than deliver legislative accomplishments to their constituencies.”

There are political risks to both parties. Democrats’ preference for legislative activism, the authors note, can produce a backlash against big government. Obama has certainly experienced the sting of that kind of reaction.

But Republicans have had little success in power rolling back what Democrats have done because they lack public support to eliminate or cut popular programs. Nor have Republicans found a way to satisfy public desire for Washington to address big problems without stirring up opposition in their base, as House GOP leaders have found repeatedly over the past few years.

“The Republicans have been a more ideological party for decades and their ideology (limited government) is a difficult one for the leadership of a governing party,” Grossman said in an email. That’s why there have been few examples over the years of active, conservative governance.


Marc Hetherington, of Vanderbilt University, and Thomas Rudolph, of the University of Illinois, explore what they call “the polarization of trust” as a major factor in the growing gap between the parties. They argue that polarization is not so much ideological – the two parties have long had philosophical differences – as it is pure partisanship that prevents greater consensus.

This partisanship is driven by conflicting views about government and harsher perceptions of the opposition. “People are motivated to see their own positions as moderate and responsible,” they write. “It is those on the other side who they would like to see as extreme.”

This concept has drawn increasing attention recently. The Pew Research Center’s large survey released this year talked about how extreme partisans see those in the other party in increasingly negative terms. Alan Abramowitz, of Emory University, has written about this as well in his work on polarization.

Hetherington and Rudolph draw a direct connection between these negative evaluations of the opposition with decreased trust in government by partisans on one side when their party is out of power. They cite one finding from 2010 in which 50 percent of self-identified Republicans said “they never trusted in the government in Washington to do the right thing. Never.”

Political elites make judgments about government’s performance through a selective, partisan lens. During George W. Bush’s presidency, when offered a choice of evaluating his government “on criteria helpful or harmful to the GOP,” Democratic partisans focused on things that made Bush look bad; Republicans focused on those that made him look good. Objective facts need not apply.

“The public did not create polarization in Washington,” Hetherington and Rudolph say, “but it does allow it to persist.”

If the prospective 2016 presidential candidates hope to make the system work better, they ought to be thinking now about what, if anything, they could do in office to change these realities – and whether they’re prepared to buck their own parties to do so. Good intentions will not be enough.

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