Path to Polarization: The Party Isn’t For You, America

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Democrats and Republicans alike say they want to cooperate with each other, but in reality their actions in recent years make voters think partisanship has become the mantra of the political elite in both parties.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner even said he “rejected the word” compromise on an episode of 60 Minutes in 2010.

Senate cloture motions

ANES survey asked if there is a difference between two parties

Congressional Approval 2012Gallup’s Congressional Approval poll, Sept. 2012.

The tiffs range from silly — like the conflict with Republicans last November over the date for President Barack Obama’s address on jobs to a joint session of Congress — to downright detrimental. Take the turmoil surrounding the federal government’s debt ceiling. Moody’s Investor Service has suggested a debt downgrade if Congress can’t come up with something by January.

Since 2007, the U.S. Senate with a Republican minority has had to vote 385 times to shut off fillibusters, often on routine legislation.

Americans have noticed and they don’t like what they see.

In 1966 more than half of respondents saw no difference between the two major parties, according to the American National Election Studies. But now, almost 8 out of every 10 Americans see a difference. Even with an August Gallup Poll survey showing Americans’ Congressional approval ratings at an all-time low of 13 percent, elected officials still fail to mend their ways.

But experts say a plethora of other pressures — from party organizations, interest groups, and campaign donors — are just as, if not more, influential to Congress as are the average Americans they represent.

The number of interest groups nearly quadrupled to about 22,000 between 1959 and 2001, according to “Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy,” a reference published by Pearson, the international education publisher.

With the growth of interest groups since the 1960’s and their acceptance into the two major parties, problems have arisen.

“It creates politicians whose primary care is for the group, not the voter,” said John Zaller, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies representation.

That doesn’t mean politicians don’t care about their constituents, Zaller said. Average voters just aren’t very good at paying attention. They don’t monitor elected officials like interest groups do.

“Voters have a blind spot, but they aren’t blind,” he said.

Politicians are keenly aware of being punished. As soon as they sense trouble, they back off, Zaller said. But this still gives them and their party a lot of freedom.

An Inevitable Occurrence

Zaller said the country’s founders originally did not want political parties. In fact, they created the Electoral College and three branches of government in part to dissuade factions from forming.

But their fears came true. Each party tries to build a majority, neither of which is big enough on their own, Zaller said. So parties partner with interest groups, despite wanting different things.

“This is exactly what the Founding Fathers didn’t want,” Zaller said.

But parties and factions are now fixed entities in America. Although the parties are as different as night and day, that wasn’t always the case. In 1950 the American Political Science Association suggested the parties become more responsible and distinct from one another.

Julianna Pacheco, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said parties were similar, even in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It wasn’t until Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights movement that politicians started aligning on racial issues, she said.

Today, parties are also divided by morality issues like abortion and gay rights.

The American Political Science Association said “overlap is bad for democracy,” Pacheco noted. “History has given us what we’ve asked for.”

She added that there is a debate over whether the separation of parties was really beneficial to democracy at all.

Jamie Carson, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who studies redistricting and polarization, said he believes the suggestion for more distinct parties was meant to increase responsiveness, not polarization.

“(They) would be very upset with what they see today,” he said.

But why did the parties become more polarized?

I’ll take my guys, you can have yours

A Tennessee Supreme Court case in 1962, Baker v. Carr, ruled that states could redraw voting districts to enhance equality of votes.

Former blue-dog Democratic Rep. John S. Tanner — who served Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District for 22 years — said he remembers the case, and when legislators were able to begin drawing districts.

Former Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.)Former Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.)

“It didn’t take long for people to find out this was pretty good for politicians,” he said. “I’ll give you all your guys, we’ll give them all mine and we will both be happy.”

Tanner said he sees redistricting as a major cause of the current gridlock because after the 2000 census, only about one-fifth of the 455 seats in the house faced tight races.

“Under this system politicians get to choose their voters, rather than the voters choosing the politicians,” he said.

Barry Hollander, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, said the redrawn districts often turn into strangely shaped areas that are strongly Republican or Democrat.

“Congress is so polarized in part because the districts in which they come from have never been more polarized,” he said.

With districts that are strongly Republican or Democrat, it is more difficult to be a moderate candidate, Hollander said.

“It was supposed to be a representative district (where) you put your country first,” said Tanner. “What it has done is almost force people to put their party first and the country second.”

Carson said that although redistricting is one part of polarization, it can’t be the only cause. Because the Senate is also increasingly polarized, other factors contribute to the divisiveness.

Pick em’ Early, Pick em’ Right

Key among them is the primary nomination process.

David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, said polarization has increased in Washington since party elites stopped choosing candidates. Now, that task is left to voters.

Before the 1970s, the public didn’t participate in the primary nomination process. Instead, party leaders in “smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors” often chose moderate candidates who would appeal to a broad segment of the public.

A young supporter waves a flag at a Romney rally in Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo by Emily Hoerner)

Hopkins said parties in the old days weren’t considered very ideological; winning the general election was the main goal. But when reforms transferred that role to the public, candidates felt freer to move further toward the political extremes. For example, consider the 1972 presidential candidate, George McGovern.

“Party leaders would have said he is a terrible candidate for our party, and he is never going to win,” Hopkins said. “Giving power away to the primary voters might actually contribute to polarization.”

This happens because primary participants aren’t typical people. Instead, they are core activists who tend to be ideologically strong, said Bob Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University and author of “Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness.”

“Those candidates are the ones who get nominated,” he said. “And they have to be nominated to get elected.”

Tanner said this move to the ideological edges causes big problems for politicians.

“These people are very earnest and pure of motive, but they come here politically crippled and unable to go into the sensible center and sit down and work something out for the good of the country,” he said.

Tanner said if they were to move to the center once in office, they would be “blasted” in the next primary. Which is why interest groups have become so important to campaigns.

Cash and Caring

Interest groups provide what has become increasingly important in politics — money, said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

They haven’t always been so volatile. At one time, interest groups had friends on both sides, because the parties weren’t as diverse, he said. But the need for campaign cash forces the parties to have good relationships with interest groups.

“It is easier…for ideologically extreme members to raise money from ideologically extreme donors,” Hetherington said. And that is because members of interest groups care dearly about particular issues.

Zaller, the UCLA professor, said interest groups capture politicians at the early stages of the nomination process. They find people dedicated to their cause and help them to succeed.

“It is cheaper and more effective to capture politicians at the nomination stage than to try to influence them once they obtain office,” he said.

Which is why, Zaller said, politicians have real moral commitments to those interest groups.

Hopkins, the Boston University political scientist, said political parties have accepted interest groups into their midst with open arms.

“The explosion in the number and power of organized interest groups started in the 60’s, around the same time people were saying the parties were becoming weaker,” he said.

Hopkins said voters became more strongly associated with interest groups. And today we see that interest groups and party leaders working together often. “You have these long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial,” he said.

But money and moral commitments aren’t the only thing keeping Congress constrained.

Internal Incentives

Hopkins said 1970s reforms on committee memberships and chairmanships increased partisanship.

Before then, members of the House of Representatives earned committee chairmanships based on their seniority. Under the seniority system, members had no incentive to follow the party on policy or do what the speaker of the House wanted them to do in committees, Hopkins explained.

But now that seniority is gone and leaders are appointing chairs and committee members, members of Congress have every incentive to play along.

Watch: Gridlock on Congress on 60 Minutes

“If you want to be on a key committee, if you want important influence, there is really a strong importance to keep your party happy,” Hopkins said.

Tanner said he saw a large drop in the camaraderie of the two parties when Newt Gingrich became the speaker of the House. When Tanner was elected to the House, Tanner and other freshman representatives attended bipartisan retreats. “We got to know everybody in our class, to work across the aisle,” he said.

But that environment has ended. By the end of Tanner’s tenure, he saw very pieces of major legislation where one party didn’t do “all of the lifting.”

My Way or the Highway

Zaller said this is because parties like to get things accomplished on their own terms, with all their own votes.

Thus, they try to put to put things on their agenda that their whole coalition of party members can accept, he said. And although the public is fed up with partisanship in Congress, they aren’t a Congress members’ biggest fear. Primaries are.

“They’re endangered by their own activists,” Zaller said.

John Pierce, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said in theory parties should move back and forth in response to voters. But we don’t see this because some political leaders don’t want conservative or liberal policies “tainted” by compromise, he said.

Interest groups are coercing party members to the far right or left, distancing themselves from the center where the masses traditionally congregate, Pierce said. The parties then shift, leaving a gap in the middle.

Sam Abrams, co-author of “Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America,” said this movement changes a lot over time. He said the Republican Party has moved too far to the right, and has resulted in them being out of sync with voters.

“It’s kind of like a rubber band. It gets stretched, (the parties) change and move around a lot,” Abrams said.

And Abrams said a change may be approaching.

“There does come a point where the American population gets so fed up that some change will have to happen,” he said.

“Path to Polarization” is a three-part series by IowaWatch assistant editor Emily Hoerner that examines modern-day polarization in American politics. Hoerner did this project as an honors journalism and mass communications student in her senior year at the University of Iowa. Check out the blog she kept while researching and reporting this story.

See also:
Path to Polarization: A Country Divided? Not So Much
Path to Polarization: A Nation in Turmoil, and Trouble