Congressional Polarization – Causes and Effects

The recent discussion about raising the U.S. debt ceiling has demonstrated just how polarized American politics has become. While but a few years ago we could legitimately claim that both Democrats and Republicans were “pretty much the same” the same cannot be said today.

I ask two key things –

Why has Congress become so polarized? And what are the consequences of this polarization?

First, it is worth pointing out that polarization did not begin with the talks on the U.S. debt ceiling; nor with the emergence of the Tea Party or the election of Barack Obama as some would have us believe. This has been a discernible trend in American politics since the 70’s with a decline of the center-ground as political elites grow ideologically apart on both economic and moral issues. That dirty word – ‘ideology’ – has come to play a more important role in American parties and both Democrats and Republicans offer distinct differences in approach. 

It may not be just political elites growing more polarized but also the electorate. Anthony Downs (Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957) wrote that politicians will naturally try to appeal to the median voter. If the median voter is located on the center, left, or right, they will try to appeal to the largest group so as to win votes. Likewise if most voters are moderates politicians will seek to emulate the position of the electorate so as to win elections. Could it be that politicians are simply responding to public sentiment?

One of the most visible causes of polarization is the increase in elected southern Republicans and the consequent decline of conservative Democrats. That political parties are now more geographically defined with the Democrats in the north and Republicans in the south we see less convergence around the political center ground and greater degrees of polarization. This southern realignment means that the parties and the dividing lines between them become clearer. It also made each party more homogeneous so they could pursue more partisan policies.

The divide between Republicans and Democrats is exacerbated with each party representing a specific economic profile – typically Democrats poorer and Republicans richer. That they represent those economic constituencies forces a greater divide between the parties on economic issues and can mean, such as in the case of the debt ceiling talks, neither side is willing to capitulate for fear of grossly offending those they represent.

But so too the media can be seen as fanning the flames of partisan conflict – with the commodification of the mass media and as they wish to attract viewers or sell newspapers they have adopted a sensationalist discourse. That these extremes may be the only represented views in the popular mass media forces people to adopt similar adversarial perspectives. Aside from changes in the public sphere there are institutional changes in Congress which make polarization more significant – such as more powerful party leaders like Boehner who enforce party discipline and who are also able to control the policy agenda.

So too party activists are today much more divided by specific emotive issues (gun control, abortion, etc) and as they are responsible for the selection of candidates they are a force for polarization – after all a candidate must appeal to those activists responsible for voting in a primary who typically occupy extreme views on one subject matter or another. In a primary this forces the candidates to adopt views which are in nature adversarial which preferences the selection of more extreme candidates to satisfy the needs of more extreme activists. This results in a more polarized Congress.

Then naturally I turn to the effects of polarization. The crisis on the debt ceiling with one side inevitably unable to agree with the other on an issue of importance tends to conjure up negative opinions on polarization. But is it necessarily so? The effects of polarization, divided governance, need not necessarily be deemed a negative in the American context. Consider that the whole political system is one designed to fragment power across the political spectrum. America is by its very nature a divided democracy. Why should we expect politicians then to act in a way that is not divided?

There are positives which emerge – clearly it is a positive that voters are being presented with a clear choice and that there are clear differences of opinion. This is said to enhance political involvement and increase mobilization. It is also easier to hold politicians accountable where they are clear and direct about their political preferences. It may also enhance the quality of our democracy as politics is more focused on issues rather than personalities. This opens up space for more rigorous political debate.

While some benefits there is evidently the problem of legislative gridlock. This also undermines the power of the President and especially his prestige overseas. Clearly too in this specific case with the debt ceiling it may well have exceedingly negative consequences with the U.S. defaulting on its financial obligations.

In the past with two polarized sides compromise has been reliant on moderate Republicans and Democrats to mediate and influence those on the extremes of their party. However with the specter of Southern Realignment moderate Republicans and Democrats are virtually an endangered species. This makes compromise a lot less likely because there is nobody to mediate nor incentives to do so with party leaders rewarding the obstinate. Ultimately, in this case it may be down to the public to mediate their politicians and force them to make concessions.


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