We commend The Post for initiating a forum on polarization, which is indeed the dominant political phenomenon of our time. Consider that for the first time in modern history, in both the House and the Senate, the most conservative Democrat is slightly more liberal than the most liberal Republican. This is more than an interesting scholarly finding; it has consequences for the legislative process. The most conservative Senate Democrat (Ben Nelson) ended up supporting health reform; the most liberal Republican (Olympia Snowe) ended up opposing it. For decades, the operational core of bipartisanship in Congress was the overlap between the parties. Through a long process triggered by the politics of the 1960s, that core has disappeared.
Polarization is not confined to elected officials and political elites. While the American people are not as divided as the parties are, they are more divided than they were a generation ago. As Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz notes in his new book, “The Disappearing Center,” the percentage of the electorate that places itself at or near the ideological midpoint of American politics has shrunk from 41 to 28 percent since the mid-1980s, while the left and right extremes have expanded.
In addition, because people increasingly prefer to live near others who share their cultural and political preferences, they are voting with their feet and sorting themselves geographically. Many more states and counties are dominated by one-party supermajorities than in the past. Contrary to widespread belief, reducing the gerrymandering of congressional districts would make only a small dent in the problem. And unfortunately, homogeneous groups tend to reinforce and purify the views that bring them together: Sorting not only reflects polarization but also intensifies it.
What The Post’s editorial missed, however, is that these developments have not produced two mirror-image political parties. We have, instead, asymmetrical polarization. Put simply: More than 70 percent of Republicans in the electorate identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 40 percent of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal. It is far easier for congressional Republicans to forge and maintain a united front than it is for Democrats. George W. Bush pushed through his signature tax cuts and Iraq war authorization with substantial Democratic support, while unwavering Republican opposition nearly torpedoed Barack Obama’s health-reform legislation. When Democrats are in the majority, their greater ideological diversity combined with the unified opposition of Republicans induces the party to negotiate within its ranks, producing policies that not long ago would have attracted the support of a dozen Senate Republicans.
Consider the episode that The Post cited as Exhibit A for polarization: Sen. Robert Bennett’s commendable work with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden to develop a bipartisan health bill, which was used against him by conservative Utah activists to deny him renomination. The Post failed to note, however, that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell pulled the plug on the Wyden-Bennett initiative well before health reform was taken up last year.
Bennett and other Republican co-sponsors of this bipartisan bill were told in no uncertain terms that the party strategy was to block every major domestic policy initiative of the new administration and not to engage in substantive negotiations that could produce bipartisan majorities on the floor. During the lengthy health debate, not one Senate Republican spoke in support of the Wyden-Bennett bill. Tea Party activists outraged at Republican incumbents for cavorting with the enemy (i.e., Obama and the Democrats) took their cue from Republican Party leaders.
Under these conditions of asymmetrical polarization, Congress can become a haven for obstruction and gridlock rather than deliberation and compromise. David Price, an 11-term North Carolina Democrat and distinguished political scientist, has just published a frank account of the reasons that led Democrats leaders to abandon their hopes of reinstating more open, less restrictive rules of procedure in the House. His essay is required reading for those who want to understand the ground-level dynamics of polarization in action.
This is not to say that Congress is prevented from acting in a less purely partisan manner. When a supermajority of people, of any partisan stripe, wants something to happen — financial regulatory reform, for example — chances are good that it will. But when the people are divided, the most strident voices tend to dominate, and Congress reverts to the all-too-familiar pattern of behavior that has driven its public esteem to a record low. And a Republican Party dominated at the grass roots by angry rejection of all bipartisanship — and of all but the most limited government — may win support in the short term, but it will be hard put to cooperate productively in the serious tasks of governance.