There is an increasing consensus among political scholars as well as communication scholars that our political system has become increasingly polarized and dysfunctional in recent decades.
Here is an example of a book title that illustrates the concept. In 2012 Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote a book entitled-“Its Even Worse Than It Appears: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” Mann and Ornstein argue that we have developed parliamentary style parties in an American political system that is not compatible with parliamentary style parties. What do they mean by parliamentary style parties? In a parliamentary system, political parties tend to be ideologically focused and tend to have very strong standards of internal discipline and unity. In a parliamentary system the majority party or the majority coalition. more often the latter, have full reins in the government. These countries have checks on legislative power such as the Constitutions and courts, but there are few barriers in place to prevent the majority party or coalition from carrying out its mandate.
In our system, however, passing laws is much more difficult. Much of the time we have a President of one party and legislators of another party controlling one or more of the wings of Congress. Moreover, when one party controls the House of Representatives and the other party controls the Senate, passing legislation can be quite arduous. Moreover, the United States Senate has a feature, that though never discussed in the Constitution, is regarded by minority parties as a powerful tool–the Senate Filibuster. In order to shut off debate on any particular law or bill, a total of at 60 or more votes must be assembled. In other words, if the minority party has at least 40 votes in the Senate, it can effectively keep legislation that it does not like from coming up for a vote. There are very few times in the history of the United States that one party has had a filibuster proof majority.
Traditionally, the number of items that were subject to the filibuster was rather limited by the fact that there was considerable overlap in the ideological preferences of the two parties. In other words, though there were ideological differences between the parties, there was considerably more diversity within the parties than there was between them. This was shown in the research that I had you read concerning the overlap between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. In the 1980s in the House of Representatives nearly 350 legislators fell in this interval. Likewise in the Senate, there were ordinarily 40 or more Senators that fell into this area of overlap as measured by legislative votes. This means that creating and sustaining a filibuster was relatively difficult.
However, charts that you read for last week showed that very clearly there has been a steady disappearance of this middle ground. By 2013 we found that there were only 4 legislators in the House of Representatives and No overlap in Senators. If you look at trends and change, this is an absolutely astonishing development. With the disappearance of the middle ground, the political parties have become much more homogenous in an ideological sense and it has thus become easier to sustain filibusters in the Senate.
This raises the question. What could be driving this change–causing the middle to melt away so quickly? Whatever it is, it must be a powerful force or set of forces.
One obvious possibility is that the disappearance of the political middle in Congress merely reflects increasing polarization in the country as a whole. While it is true that longitudinal comparisons of survey responses show some significant polarization in the electorate, it has bee very modest compared to the rate and degree of polarization of our legislature. Moreover, there is a very large number of political independents that has been growing in recent years who decline to affiliate with either of the two main political parties (up to 30% of the electorate). This trend alone suggests that the polarization of the public as a whole has been somewhat limited.
Others have suggested that the change is brought about gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the age old practice in United States history of State legislators attempting to draw up legislative districts that are “safe”. In other words, legislators draw up districts that make it very likely that the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate is going to prevail in most elections. This contributes to polarization some would maintain because members of Congress often do not face significant competition from the opposing party in their legislative district, they become more concerned with fending off primary challengers within their party. According to this line of reasoning, this drives legislators to increasingly lean right or increasingly lean left depending upon the make-up of their district. This probably happens to a certain degree, but if this were the main force driving the Congressional polarization, it would only apply to the House of Representatives and not to the Senate. In Senate races there are no boundaries drawn as the competition is spread out over each state as a whole: from election to election, the area from which a senator is elected remains the same. However, similar degrees of polarization have occurred in both the House and the Senate. Clearly, gerrymandering cannot be the primary factor driving political polarization.
So what other factor can best explain these changes? Here I simply offer you an explanation that I heard Congressman John Yarmuth of Kentucky’s 3rd legislative district (It covers most of Jefferson County). At a public forum here at U of L last year Representative Yarmuth noted that campaigns have become increasingly costly in recent decades. The average Representative has to raise nearly $2 million every two years to compete in the next election, where for Senators this figure is something over $10 million. This requires your members of the Senate and House of Representatives to spend more than 20 hours a week calling people for donations–each and every week of the year. He noted further noted that in most cases there is simply not enough well-heeled contributors in most Congressional districts or states to sustain this kind of fund raising. Hence, our legislators are required to those 100 or so zip codes in the United States where the real wealth lies. In other words, our Kentucky Senators have to call places like Hollywood, California or Silicon Valley or Wall Street or Washington D.C, to get the donations they need. Indeed, analysis of the contributions coming to the candidates in the current Senate campaign shows that the majority of funds have come from out of state sources.
But how would this drive polarization? Congressman Yarmuth said, “Well the folks in Silicon Valley have no intrinsic interest in matters related to Kentucky or any particular district in Kentucky. Moreover, it is well known that people who are true political partisans, those who are more conservative or more liberal than the average citizen are more likely to contribute as well. So what are the people on the other end of the phone interested in? They are interested in supporting someone who will be a consistent straight party line vote.”
In other words as campaigns have gotten more expensive, the dependence on the ideologically charged portions of the electorate for campaign donations creates a huge incentive for candidates to drift to the right or left further than they might otherwise. Without campaign contributions to fuel campaigns, especially television commercials, it is very difficult for any candidate to get a campaign off of the ground. There are other factors that some think has made this trend even more pronounced such as the unfettered spending created by outside political action committees as permitted by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling from 2010. If anything, however, that court decision came long after most of the polarization of Congress had already occurred. If Congressman Yarmuth is correct, it is going to be rather difficult to reverse this pattern of polarization and the gridlock that it has tended to produce. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, however, conclude that figuring out how to moderate this system is one of the most critical tasks we must face if we want to restore health to the legislative branch of our government