Just today I’ve seen two blog posts on a subject I’m absolutely sick of: partisan polarization. Here’s political scientist Eric McGhee with evidence that the structure of primary elections doesn’t affect polarization. Here is Ezra Klein with findings from political scientists Ray LaRaja and Brian Schnaffer on campaign finance and polarization.
Yes, it’s important to note the distance between the parties, and to try to understand what's driving polarization. Fine. I’m not suggesting that research on those issues should cease, or that scholars and journalists should ignore them.
But polarization isn't new. The current manifestation was largely in place by President Ronald Reagan's second term, and in full force after the 1994 midterm election. And it’s not some sort of freakish un-American phenomenon. As many have pointed out, the Conservative Coalition era from the mid-1930s through the early 1960s, when Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans closed ranks in a stable, cross-party alliance, was the real anomaly in U.S. history.
More to the point: Polarization alone doesn’t make good government impossible. In theory, it's no more difficult to find a compromise midway between two numbers that are far apart than between two numbers that are relatively close. The key isn’t the distance between the parties; it’s the willingness to compromise. That isn’t measured by partisan polarization scores. Put another way, government shutdowns don't happen because the policy gap between the parties is large; they happen when one party (or a decisive faction within a party) decides to shut down the government.
Instead of focusing on polarization, I'd like to see more attention paid to how we can help our political institutions perform better given current conditions.
1. Given two parties with strong internal cohesion and little or no ideological overlap, what are the best institutional reforms -- within Congress or elsewhere -- to make Madisonian democracy work? That is, how can we curb the vices of simple majority rule while still enabling efficient government? How can we revive a vigorous, legislating Congress and preserve the influence of individual politicians (and the local and particular interests they represent)? Can institutional reforms promote bargaining and compromise between parties?
2. How can we encourage the political parties (and, yes, the larger problem here is the Republican Party) to value compromise? How can we encourage the parties to renounce Constitutional hardball and become more willing to accept and respect institutional and democratic norms? Why do the parties vary on this hard-to-measure dimension?
The polarization literature is important and useful. However, I can’t help feeling that polarization per se is often beside the point in analyzing Congressional or party dysfunction, and that too much attention is lavished on it.
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