Party Polarization in the Health Care Debate

Despite months of negotiations, Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus was forced to introduce his long-awaited health reform bill without gaining the support of even one Republican senator. At first glance this outcome seems puzzling.

All three of the Democrats in the “Gang of Six” were to the right of the Democratic median in the Senate; two of the three Republicans were to the left of the Republican median, and one, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, is the most liberal Senate Republican. It was plausible to think that this group could find some common ground.

So what happened? In fact, the Finance Committee impasse reflects historical trends that have been building for decades. The analysis of political scientists such as Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, Nolan McCarty, and Jeff Lewis shows that party polarization—the ideological gap in Congress between Democrats and Republicans–is at its highest level in more than a century. Today, for the first time in modern history—maybe ever—the most conservative Democratic senator is to the left of the most liberal Republican. There is literally no ideological overlap between the parties. This structural fact dramatically lowers the prospects for a “coalition of the center”; there are fewer people within hailing distance of the center than there used to be.

In an effort to understand these developments, Brookings and the Hoover Institution joined forces in the fall of 2005 for a multi-year study bringing together some of nation’s best scholars, journalists, and public opinion researchers. The results, presented in two Brookings books Red and Blue Nation? Volumes One and Two) trace rising polarization to sources such as the civil rights movement (which shifted many Southern Democrats to the Republican party), Vietnam (which destroyed the post-World War Two consensus on foreign policy), the Great Inflation of the 1970s (which undermined the reigning Keynesian orthodoxy and sparked the rise of supply-side economics), and the surge of cultural issues such as abortion and gay rights into the political arena. Episodes such as Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Florida election controversy, and the Iraq war only exacerbated partisan bitterness.

Barack Obama campaigned tirelessly against this hyper-partisanship and entered office pledged to end it. The past nine months have reminded him, and the rest of us, just how deep and entrenched the divisions are and how hard it will be to narrow them. As a result, an increasing number of ordinary Americans seem to be saying “a plague on both your houses.” It may well be that only a popular revolt against our polarized politics can bring this era of bad feeling to an end.