Hyperpolarization Plagues U.S. Politics, Freezes Policymaking

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Hyperpolarization. It sounds like a science fiction plot device — after a supernova bombards the spaceship with cosmic rays, the crew is gradually paralyzed by a mysterious condition. It is, in fact, a real biological term for the increase in a negative electric charge in a cell’s membrane.

But in politics, it carries a different negative connotation. When The Diplomat spoke with political scientists during the 16-day government shutdown in October, they warned that the United States is confronting real peril as our democracy becomes hyperpolarized, a process by which the electorate and our politicians have increasingly gravitated toward the far reaches of the political spectrum, crippling good governance.

G. Bingham Powell Jr., a comparative politics professor at the University of Rochester, called severe polarization in a governmental arrangement such as ours “a devil to deal with” and said it has been on the rise in the United States.

Washington is stuck in a morass because of high levels of polarization in America’s political system, Powell said, citing both formalized coalitions and a balance of power among diverse branches of government — and rules blunting the wills of simple majorities in those institutions (also see “Minority Rule: Democratic Safeguard or Source of Political Dysfunction?” in the November 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat). The combination means it is “really hard to make policies,” he said.

Powell is hardly alone in this diagnosis.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post wrote during the government shutdown that the nation may have entered a “new normal” of hyperpolarized politics that could “shape elections and legislative battles” for years to come. The recent crisis, then, is “the latest manifestation — an extreme one by any measure — of divisions long in the making and now deeply embedded in the country’s politics,” he wrote.

But this “new normal” may be showing signs of cracking. After months of hedging on the issue, Democrats finally took aim at the Senate filibuster to rein in what they say is excessive Republican obstructionism. On Nov. 21, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to do away with filibusters for executive and judicial nominees, meaning a simple majority of 51 votes is now needed for confirmation (Supreme Court nominees and other legislation can still be filibustered).

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Photo: Fresh Idea / Fotolia

Republicans say Democrats will regret the move when they’re in the minority; Democrats counter that they had no choice, given that the ongoing GOP refusal to confirm any of Obama’s appointments had nothing to do with their qualifications and everything to do with wanting to keep the president from filling court vacancies. While the move upended Senate tradition, the use of the filibuster has reached an unprecedented level in recent years, as Obama himself pointed out.

“Over the six decades before I took office, only 20 presidential nominees to executive positions had to overcome filibusters. In just under five years since I took office, nearly 30 nominees have been treated this way,” the president said, noting that this is “not what our founders envisioned.”

While the new rule only applies to judicial and executive nominees, it could herald the end of the institutional comity for which the Senate is known — and the end of the filibuster itself. That’s because Reid has shown that all it takes is 51 votes to undo the longstanding practice. As Ezra Klein of the Post pointed out, “The moment one party or the other filibusters a consequential and popular bill, that’s likely the end of the filibuster, permanently.”

It’s also likely the start of a new wave of hyper-hyper polarization. First, a caveat, though: It is important to make a distinction between “polarization” and “partisanship.” They are not exactly the same, though they are closely related, and there is much interplay between them.

Matthew Green, an associate professor of politics at Catholic University, told The Diplomat that the two major American political parties “are absolutely as divided as they’ve been in over 100 years,” but he also emphasized that the Republican Party itself appears to be increasingly fragmented, in part, due to the same forces. This, he said, has posed an even greater impediment recently than the gulf between the parties. In other words, polarization hasn’t just increased partisanship, but it also has created rifts within the party structures, particularly in the lower chamber where the GOP is in the majority.

“House Republicans are so divided that there’s a complete breakdown in leadership — there’s a lack of direction,” Green said. “It is what’s causing our government to have difficulty enacting legislation.”

Powell explained the effects of this phenomenon in terms of the government shutdown this way: “If the two big parties were fairly close together, then even if you didn’t have [the tea party] wing in the Republican Party, the rest of the legislators could work out an agreement. But this faction inside the [House] Republicans are able to wag the dog because their colleagues in the rest of the party are more willing to go along with them than they are willing to compromise with the Democrats.”

To further complicate matters, on some particular issues, such as national security, there have been recent signs that the parties are less clearly divided now than in the past decade. In the push for armed U.S. intervention in Syria, for example, both Republicans and Democrats came out strongly for and against airstrikes, which made for some strange bedfellows.

So, as is always the case in politics, there are currents and then there are countercurrents.

Now, let’s round up the usual suspects for what might be causing polarization.

For one, gerrymandering is often blamed for the paralysis gripping the House, and it may be contributing to some of the party fragmentation in the GOP, especially as extremist elements defy party leaders.

Unlike the Senate, where each state sends exactly two legislators to Washington, the House is composed of 435 representatives from districts that can morph into new shapes every 10 years after a national census, as long as those districts have approximately the same number of citizens residing within their boundaries.

In practice, the drawing of these districts is very often politically motivated to benefit one party or the other. In many cases, the resulting — and sometimes bizarrely contoured — boundaries create congressional seats that are considered “safe,” or that are highly unlikely to produce an election in which both parties’ nominees really stand a chance. What this means is that the decisive contest for that congressional seat is not the general election in November, but the party primary. And this can cause representatives to be fearful that straying from partisan orthodoxy will invite a more ideologically pure candidate to pillory them in the next nomination contest. Gerrymandering can thereby lead both to a party sending its most extreme members to Congress and to representatives already in office who see little incentive to reach across the aisle.

This issue has been an especially sore spot for many Democrats since 2010, when Republicans had a bumper year in the harvest of seats in state legislatures across the country — the local elected bodies that are, in many places, responsible for drafting the shapes of U.S. congressional districts. Recent gerrymandering has made it more difficult for Democrats to win elections, they say, and more likely that hidebound conservatives and tea party radicals will be elevated. Of course, gerrymandering is a practice that’s almost as old as the United States, has a long bipartisan tradition, and has artificially boosted loyal Republicans and Democrats for years, though at times disproportionately.

David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, recently suggested that what we read and watch has mutated over time to mimic the safe seats in Congress. “The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse,” he wrote, mentioning thinly veiled partisan cable channels and the proliferation of one-sided political websites that help make up the so-called media echo chambers, amplifying convictions people already hold.

James Carville, the Democratic strategist and political commentator, voiced a similar criticism in an op-ed in the Hill: “Today, conservatives can get all their information from conservative outlets, and liberals can get all their information from liberal outfits. And you can spend your whole life never being challenged, never having to hear or think about or confront viewpoints that are different from your own.”

Carville’s piece, like Carr’s, was reacting to a profile of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in New York magazine in which the conservative judge revealed that he restricts his news intake to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and talk radio, which lean rightward. Carr and Carville see this as emblematic of how people today burrow into a media cubbyhole where dissenting views seldom reach. The rapid rise of social media seems to have greatly enhanced this tunnel vision.

Perhaps the greatest direct change in politics recently, though, also may be the fiercest driver of polarization. The laws governing campaign funding have been thoroughly upended by new legislation and rulings in just a few short years.

Campaign finance was a big issue as recently or as long ago as the 2000 presidential election — “soft money” as a buzzword sounds almost quaint now. The discussions ultimately resulted in the reformist McCain-Feingold Act a couple of years later. This measure was meant to curtail the influence of special interests — such as corporations, unions and nonprofits — by limiting the ways that the money they donated to a party could be used and by setting new limits on advocacy ads.

However, much greater change came after the Supreme Court ruled on a series of cases that challenged portions of the law and other Federal Election Committee regulations, most prominently in the Citizens United case in 2010.

Today, corporations, unions, organizations and individuals with deep pockets can pay to play in elections more than ever before because they can contribute unlimited amounts of money to outside special committees, or super PACS, that can influence voters through a variety of means, including advertisements directly targeting candidates, which was prohibited before.

This means that any citizen or group with a lot of cash can have a tremendous impact on the political discourse, even if they have a very narrowly focused agenda that doesn’t line up with either the mainstream elements of the party or the majority of the voting public. Advocates called the turnaround a victory for free speech, while others fear it will lead to oligarchy. Because campaign spending overall has skyrocketed in recent years, politicians are learning to live with (and off of) these funders to stay competitive.

Green of Catholic University sees today’s political polarization and the breakdown in cross-party cooperation as “being driven by outside groups that actively recruit and fund extreme candidates,” among other factors, including an increasingly partisan media. “To raise more money, the more extreme you are,” Green said.

“Another major factor in the current stalemate,” wrote Balz, “is the degree to which the country has polarized around the Obama presidency.”

The question of how much Obama has shifted politics is — like everything else in the polarization debate — of the chicken-or-the-egg variety.

Gallup polling has shown that in each of Obama’s first four years in office, he has recorded some of the highest disparities in approval ratings between the two parties — last year, 86 percent of Democrats approved of Obama compared with only 10 percent of Republicans. The previous three years showed similarly astounding gaps. To add credence to the argument that polarization is bigger than any one man, however, the 2012 numbers tied Obama with President George W. Bush’s fourth year in office for the largest discrepancy ever recorded by Gallup. The last two presidents, in fact, both consistently had record-high disparities in approval ratings by party.

As the nation’s first black president, it seems extremely likely that the issue of race has affected the political climate since Obama took office, but to what degree is very hard to quantify, though anecdotes abound.

What is clear is that the two parties have become starkly divided along color lines, as Balz pointed out.

“The Republican Party is almost entirely dependent on white voters,” Balz wrote, citing exit poll statistics revealing that 90 percent of the votes that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney received last year were from white voters, while 44 percent of Obama voters were nonwhites.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party is grappling with ways to expand its base beyond older white voters, a shrinking demographic, to attract minorities, younger voters and women.

But it is impossible to pinpoint which of these factors has led to what many call a state of hyperpolarization, or even whether we can accurately measure just how polarized the electorate and politicians have actually become compared to other points in American history. But we do know that the startling dysfunction in Washington is weighing policymaking down. The nation looks like a sick man. What is the cause? Is there a cure? Is it really ill, or is it all in the head?

That remains a mystery. But we may not be alone in suffering from this elusive ailment: Our neighbors to the north have reported similar symptoms.

Eight years ago, fewer than half of Canadians identified with a particular political orientation, Frank Graves, the president of EKOS Research Associates, a polling firm, told the Montreal Gazette last year in an article about deepening political divisions in Canada. He noted that now, seven out of 10 Canadians define themselves as on the political right or left.

“In terms of the whole panoply of issues, from foreign policy to economic policy to crime and justice policy to issues about parliamentary democracy, I have never seen Canadians this polarized,” Graves said.

Maybe what’s sapping the United States is contagious.


About the Author

Luke Jerod Kummer is the congressional correspondent for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 2013

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