Beyond the Spoils
In an Age of Polarization, What Makes a Policy “Successful”?
By Diana Epstein and John D. Graham
Diana Epstein is a doctoral fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School. John Graham is dean of the school and a professor of public policy.
America’s two major political parties have grown further apart on ideological grounds in recent decades, deepening a divide known as polarization. The split has been especially apparent among “political elites,” such as U.S. Congress members, party activists, and other influential players. But ordinary voters, too, have sorted themselves more tightly into parties that align with their core beliefs.
As the parties have moved further apart, there has been a marked decline in legislative centrists who can bridge the parties and broker crucial compromises. Within each party, the members of Congress have become more homogeneous in their voting and underlying beliefs. The potential for compromise on serious national problems has been diminished.
Polarization has many possible causes, including the partisan realignment of the South, the rise of new interest groups, the growth in income inequality, the balkanization of the mass media, and changed congressional procedures. Polarization has many consequences: some positive, some negative, some empirically supported, and some only hypothesized.
We need a better understanding of how polarization affects the daily lives of U.S. citizens through legislation, regulations, and judicial decisions. We need to pay special attention to how polarization is complicating long-term policy challenges, such as Social Security and health care reform, that can be resolved only through bipartisan collaboration. We should ask whether polarization is changing how scientific and analytic information is — or is not — being generated and used by decisionmakers. In sum, we need to rethink what constitutes a “successful” public policy in a polarized political environment.
Scholars and the popular press have documented an increasing divide between the two major political parties since about 1960.
Who Is Polarized?
Scholars and the popular press have documented an increasing divide between the two major political parties since about 1960. The phenomenon appears to have occurred both among the political elite and among the political grassroots, and we suspect there is significant interaction and two-way causality between the two.
Political scientists define polarization in Congress as the ideological distance between the “median member” of each party in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. Ideological distance is usually measured by congressional roll-call votes, with each member being assigned a composite score between –1 (most liberal) and +1 (most conservative), based on all votes in a given session. Figure 1 shows the distribution of House members on this scale, with the 87th House (of 1961–1962) on the top and the 106th House (of 1999–2000) on the bottom. Based on this scoring system, it appears that almost no one in 2000 occupied the middle ground.
Figure 1 —
Judging by Roll-Call Votes, It Appears That Almost No One in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 Could Claim Middle Ground
SOURCE: Based on data from Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 2nd ed., Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, Jeremy C. Pope, New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.
NOTE: Overinterpretations of roll-call votes should be avoided, since votes reflect a mixture of policy preferences, pressures from constituent and party leaders, and strategic considerations.
Figure 2 —
The Number of Competitive U.S. House Seats Has Fallen Steadily Since the Nation’s Centennial
SOURCE: Red and Blue Nation? Vol. 1: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics, Pietro S. Nivola, David W. Brady, eds., Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2006; originally from “Re-evaluating the Theory of Surge and Decline: Seat Change Requires Competition,” James E. Campbell, Chad Hankinson, Walter Koch, paper prepared for the annual meeting of the New England Political Science Association, Portland, Me., April 29–30, 2005. Used with permission.
NOTES: Marginal seats are those decided within a range of 45–55 percent of the two-party district vote. Elections since 2000 are included in 1976–2000.
Evidence of growing polarization among ordinary American citizens is mixed. The number of Americans who perceive themselves to be moderate has stayed relatively constant over the past three decades. However, polling data indicate that a sizable percentage of the electorate has moved further apart on certain salient issues, such as taxes, the role of religion in public life, foreign policy, and the use of military power.
The presidency of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq have produced some of the most extreme levels of polarization ever recorded in the history of popular polling in terms of presidential approval ratings and support of military actions. In 2004, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on support for the war reached 63 percentage points; this split was much higher than it was for the wars in Korea, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and even Vietnam, where the partisan gap averaged only 5 percentage points. The United States does not have a history of widespread partisan polarization in foreign policy, and so the recent split over Iraq represents a significant break from the past.
More voters are sticking consistently with their respective parties, as evidenced by the recent sharp decline in ticket splitting (voting for candidates of different parties in the same elections) and fewer close congressional races. Fewer candidates win elections in districts and regions that lean toward the other party, and fewer House seats are decided within a narrow range of 45–55 percent for each candidate (see Figure 2).
History and Causes
It would be inaccurate to suggest that today’s polarization is unprecedented. The parties were even farther apart in the late 19th century, following the Civil War. However, unlike past eras when the parties tended to polarize on only one major issue at a time (for example, slavery or civil rights), the list of issues that divide the parties today seems to have grown larger over time since the early 1960s.
Southern realignment is one of the most potent explanations for polarization. With the sharp decrease in white Southern conservative Democrats, the increase in Southern Republicans, and the demise of Northeast Republicans, the parties have become not just more ideologically homogeneous but also more regionally concentrated.
The increased influence of party activists is another important source of polarization. These activists — many of whom belong to new interest groups focused on issues of rights or morality — assert a large influence on the selection and election of candidates because of their disproportionate turnout in party primaries and caucuses.
The effect of gerrymandering is debatable, because parallel trends have occurred in both the House and the Senate, and Senate boundaries are fixed.
Partisan gerrymandering may make congressional districts less competitive and reduce the incentive for safe incumbents to listen to opposing views. However, the effect of gerrymandering is debatable, because parallel trends have occurred in both the House and the Senate, and Senate boundaries are fixed.
Some observers suggest that Americans increasingly cluster in like-minded communities, with fewer participating in institutions and organizations that bring different kinds of people together. Residential self-segregation by race and class, facilitated by increased mobility, leads to more congressional districts composed of like-minded people.
Income inequality and immigration may be widening the divide. Each of the parties is now identified with particular economic and fiscal policies, and voter income is closely tied to political party identification. Higher-income citizens tend to vote Republican, while those with lower incomes lean Democratic.
Another key trend is the emergence of evangelical Christians with strong links to the Republican Party. Issues driven by religion tend to be those on which it is harder to find common ground.
Meanwhile, a fragmented media market enables citizens to choose sources of information in line with their prior convictions more than ever before. Fewer people than in the past either subscribe to newspapers or watch the national network news, and media companies offer targeted, often adversarial, content to gain market share.
Finally, some scholars attribute polarization to institutional changes in Congress. These include the greater power of party leaders to enforce discipline, control the agenda, and determine committee assignments; more usage of restrictive rules; and a decline in meaningful deliberation.
Is Polarization Good or Bad?
The word “polarization” may connote something bad, but its effects on the country are not entirely clear and may include beneficial, as well as detrimental, consequences.
Polarization probably has some positive effects. For starters, strong and distinct parties present clear options for voters. Clear options may help citizens understand what is at stake in an election, thereby encouraging them to participate. There is considerable evidence that public participation in American politics has increased with heightened polarization. As shown in Figure 3, the turnout of eligible voters in the 2004 presidential election was quite high by U.S. standards, reaching 60 percent and thus returning to a level not experienced since the 1950s and 1960s.
Figure 3 —
As Polarization Has Increased, Voter Participation in Recent U.S. Presidential Elections Has Risen
SOURCE: Based on figure from George Mason University, United States Election Project. Used with permission.
Polarization may clarify political mandates and reward (or punish) leaders who deliver (or fail to deliver) on them. If voters know what a candidate stands for, they may be more likely to hold him or her accountable for following through on campaign promises. Likewise, polarization prods candidates to differentiate themselves on substantive issues, reducing the relative importance of candidate personalities and campaign tactics and perhaps elevating the role of governing philosophies. Better policy might result if each side vigorously makes its case in this way.
But polarization probably has negative consequences as well. Legislative gridlock — leaving important issues unresolved in Congress — has risen since the 1940s. Historically, Congress has enacted the majority of significant legislation when it was least polarized. One study has found that the least polarized congressional term produced between 60 and 166 percent more legislation than did the most polarized terms. Gridlock could also bring greater delays in the confirmation of federal judicial nominations and more vacancies on the bench. Polarization could also undermine unified U.S. leadership in foreign policy, which could in turn damage America’s standing in the world. Closer to home, bitter partisan battles could weaken the confidence of Americans in their government’s ability to solve problems.
Polarization Versus Success
Current studies of polarization do not trace its effects on the daily lives of citizens. To move in this direction, the benchmarks for policy success will need to be modified. The existing literature often defines a successful policy as one favored by the median member of Congress or the median voter, presumably because a democracy should not favor extreme views. However, U.S. history demonstrates that centrist ideology does not always produce the best public policies. Slavery, for example, was not abolished by the work of centrists. We suggest a future research agenda that uses alternative criteria — namely, economic efficiency and distributive justice — to determine policy success.
The focus should extend beyond federal legislation and budgetary allocations. We need an accounting of how polarization affects the quantity and quality of regulations and judicial decisions. We should also examine the effects of polarization at the state and local levels, on the conduct of defense and foreign policy, and on other issues.
Centrist ideology does not always produce the best public policies. Slavery, for example, was not abolished by the work of centrists.
We also wonder if polarization is shifting policy influence away from objective sources and toward the policy shops of ideological think tanks, interest groups, and even the parties themselves. Are policy questions that require nuanced technical and economic information being resolved increasingly on partisan grounds? It might be useful to examine exactly how scientific information is or is not currently being used.
If we want to reduce polarization, we might require measures aimed at both elites and the lay public. Some measures might reduce polarization per se, while others might mitigate only its adverse consequences. Before interventions are attempted, much more needs to be learned about the positive and negative consequences of polarization and the proposed remedies. Here are some of the key ideas and possible solutions that have been put forth:
- Encourage more centrists to serve in Congress. Methods include opening up the primary process to greater numbers of independent voters, making congressional districts competitive rather than “safe,” and altering congressional procedures to strengthen members relative to party leaders, who tend to be highly partisan.
- Create a more deliberative process by allowing fewer filibusters, mandating minority participation in conference committees, or simply altering Congress’s schedule so that members work two full weeks at a time in Washington and then take two full weeks to go home to their districts. An additional option is to create more bipartisan commissions to tackle the tough, long-term problems that are currently gridlocked and for which neither party wants to assume sole responsibility.
- Increase political participation among moderate citizens by increasing voter turnout, capitalizing on demographic trends such as the growing Latino population, and engaging more citizens in local politics and deliberative democracy exercises.
- Reward balanced media coverage to alter the influence and tone of the mass media. For example, a rating system could score each network on the quality and objectivity of its coverage. America could also invest in civic education so that schoolchildren are taught to distinguish substance from impassioned nonsense.
Before we meddle with democracy, we need to compare how the proposed solutions fare on the criteria of economic efficiency and distributive justice. It will not be easy to launch research into these questions, but polarization has become a force powerful enough to require answers. In the meantime, we should take comfort in the fact that the framers of the U.S. Constitution designed a political system that has already survived several waves of intense partisan polarization. The country will likely survive this one as well.