A House Divided: Polarization and Partisanship


May 14, 2010

This commentary originally appeared in Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 14, 2010.

"I do not love Congress," Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said earlier this year, blaming the partisan gridlock in Washington with too much ideology and not enough practical problem-solving, for his decision not to seek re-election.

From my vantage point as the president of the RAND Corp., I can't help but agree. Over the 35 years I've spent in or observing Washington, it has become a less analytical and more ideological place.

We deal with this challenge daily at RAND. We're in the "what works" business. We expect that decision-makers want first to get the facts on the table and then apply their political skill, which will certainly include their worldview, to finding solutions. But we've been seeing less and less of that over the past 3½ decades.

Since the early 1970s, the distance between the two major parties in both the House and the Senate has nearly doubled. Political moderates—individual members who frequently cross party lines on votes—have now all but disappeared.

Certainly, ideology should play a role in public policy decisions. But when many policies—regardless of their merits—are simply off-limits for ideological reasons, then the nation as a whole has a problem.

Worries about partisanship are nothing new. The anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution argued that intense partisanship would shatter the new Republic.

In "Federalist 10," James Madison countered that the Republic would "refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country." The Federalists opposed the "right to instruct"—to allow constituents to instruct their representatives on how to vote—on the grounds that it would eliminate broad consultation among representatives, deliberation and compromise. They prevailed.

The nation would survive many deep crises. Political polarization was particularly high after the Civil War, but moderated in the early 20th century. The main ideological difference between the two parties has been over the role of government in the economy. What is striking is that views on "lifestyle issues"—guns, abortion, gay rights and religion—and on crime and punishment and on national security are now closely aligned with economic positions.

Why should I be able to predict with confidence that someone who wants to expand government-provided health care will also be in favor of gay rights, and of negotiating with Iran over their nuclear program rather than threatening a military strike? Or why should I be able to accurately predict the opposite?

A principal reason is the geographic sorting of voters. In "The Big Sort," Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing show how migration is producing communities that are increasingly homogeneous in terms of education, race, income and way of life. As people choose new communities, they seek out places with folks like them.

That doesn't just mean we get neighbors with about the same incomes who are willing to pay the same taxes. People also move in to communities that offer them things they like, such as bike paths, high-end coffee shops, good hunting, golf courses or a particular church denomination.

There is plenty of research that demonstrates that association only with like-minded people produces groupthink and poor decisions. People in homogeneous groups become unaware that there could be acceptable alternatives to their own ideas.

As the big sort has proceeded, the constituencies in congressional districts have become more strongly conservative or liberal. Some House or Senate members, whose views mostly do not change much over time, get out of step with their constituents' views and are eventually replaced. The moderates have been the biggest victims of this process.

It is almost certainly true that the effects of geographic sorting are reinforced by a proliferation of mass media that has allowed people to sort themselves into information groups of the like-minded. People tune into those radio or TV channels, or read newspapers, visit websites and circulate e-mails that comport to their point of view. In effect, they go to places where their tribe's creed is espoused and elaborated for the particular issue of the day.

Is this a form of the "right to instruct," which the Federalists opposed? Lawmakers from ideologically homogeneous districts and states veer off the party line at their peril. If they do, they are frequently subjected to harsh attacks in the media and on activists' websites, and often threatened with a primary challenge. They are, unofficially, being instructed.

I don't have any fixes to offer. A process with roots as deep as political polarization is unlikely to be reversed easily. This means that our nation is in for an extended period of political warfare.

Countries at war seek to dehumanize the enemy, to underscore its supposed moral defects, in order to motivate the troops. In politics, the same applies. This doesn't augur well for solving the problems, foreign and domestic, that beset us.

James A. Thomson is president of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy- and decision-making through research and analysis. He is the author most recently of "A House Divided: Polarization and Its Effect on RAND," (2010).

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