Partisanship is not a new phenomenon in American politics, neither are the things that divide us: Rich/poor, black/white, young/old, red/blue. Yet there is a sense and a fear that these divisions have come to reflect cracks in the fabric of our democracy. What had previously bound us in a common ambition and outlook—a love of country based on a shared knowledge of how and why it began, an identification with an auspicious beginning that called for us to comport ourselves in the very ideals and aspirations of our founders—has been worn thin by a partisan divide.
Partisanship in its most current and virulent form can be traced back to the erosion of the New Deal coalition in the 1960s and 1970s, as white southerners and northern white ethnic voters clashed with a new democratic coalition of African American voters. The Voting Rights Act prompted more conservative elements of the Democratic coalition to move toward the Republican Party—an ideological realignment away from the center that evolved over a number of decades. In turn, moderate to liberal voters previously aligned with Republicans, moved toward the Democratic Party. Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ in 1972 or the 1990’s of Republican capture of the House are elements of a steady progression toward an ideological polarization that has warped the loyalties of voters. It is in this vein that a regimented and reflexive opposition has emerged, as party line voting remains at the highest in a century.
Yet as it currently stands, there may not be a monolith in each corner, hybrids of fiscal conservative and social liberal muddle the way in which we have traditionally viewed these divisions. There are indeed important cross-pressures behind the hyper-partisanship that has come to define our political system that speak to a number of important questions about contemporary American politics. Indeed, how do these crosscurrents affect our conception of partisan politics? Is today’s world too complex for a two party system? How can we elect representatives who are interested in governing? The conundrum may lie in the fact that each party increasingly appears as an obstinate bloc, incapable of compromise, yet affected by fluid forces of hybrid voters. Moreover, these cross-pressure voters are not your typical independents, but rather ‘disaffecteds,’ (who might be closer to what we understand to be libertarianism).
This disappearing center is at the core of political gridlock and partisanship. The increasingly diverse composition of the parties contributes to the polarization of the voter, which in turn, prompts politicians to tailor their positions to meet this growing rift. Ideological shifts have also been initiated for strategic reasons by party elite, who are attentive those segments of the voting public that are most vocal and consequently, most polarized. One should certainly not seek to remove the blame for the partisan stalemate from the shoulders of our representatives. Rather, it is important to note that this gridlock may very well begin with the voting public.
Racial integration has occurred concurrently to the polarization of U.S. counties and state legislatures—evidence of the notion that the current partisan trend began with the fragmenting of the New Deal Coalition in the 1970s. As we become more mobile, with greater access to information, we move into communities that reflect our values, lifestyle and political views. This has led to a series of feedback loops that reinforce entrenchment into political camps. Indeed, there exists subtle competition between and within groups to appear more ideologically conservative or liberal than their political fellows, leading to a movement toward the poles within each party. Dissonance is suppressed as rational and cogent argument becomes a liability at the political extremes and legislative compromise becomes nearly impossible. Thus, partisanship is indeed, in part, a voter phenomenon.
There is a broad fear that partisan vitriol has begun to pose a threat to our economic well-being and recovery and perhaps even our ability to innovate. Indeed, political paralysis seems to have become the new normal of democratic governance—the sine qua non of the way in which we interact and shape our electoral coalitions. In a sensible republic, democratically elected leaders come together in a manner of compromise, and arrive at a set of solutions. Legislation is passed, cooperation and thorough debate around critical issues flourish. Yet the republic in which we currently live operates in a vastly different universe, rewarding dissent over accord, fringe over mainstream. Moreover, in their engaging book, Polarized America, Princeton political scientist Howard Rosenthal and the University of Georgia’s Keith Poole develop a variety of indices that track political polarization on the national level. Their findings should come as no surprise to any casual political observer, yet strikes at the heart of the economic inequality that has captured the spirit of today’s youth. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street protests go hand in hand with polarization we see at the national level. Wealth begets political influence, which in turn, high jacks the political forum, demonstrating how political division may be an intractable byproduct of voters’ increasing economic isolation.
Anyone interested in the subject of political polarization in the U.S. should browse the series of articles on “the great divide” published in the Austin-American Statesman. They provide a useful primer on contemporary political gridlock and help us understand how the ‘tail wags the dog’ during the presidential primary races. Polarization and political fluidity may be in concert in contemporary political scene. Neither party has the base of solid support to win a national election, so partisanship may be deceptive in terms of political victory.
Democracy does depend upon a certain degree of polarization, which aids in electoral choice. Yet the pattern of overheated rhetoric is certainly not constructive and is a double edged sword for the electorate, at once helping to bring a clear choice between parties and candidates and increasing voter participation and turnout, while paralyzing constructive reform and debate. For example, suppose that the country has intractable problems that cannot be solved by one party alone—our fiscal woes may serve as an apt example. Polarization makes it much more difficult to arrive at ‘yes.’ We need a politics of problem solving rather than a politics of the filibuster—allowing a determined minority to block the will of the majority. This can be addressed through institutional reform, rather than trying to ‘fix’ our inability to compromise. As the partisan divide widens, attempts to cull a bipartisan coalition becomes increasingly difficult.
We have moved toward a series of dysfunctional, balkanized camps of political blocs—reflecting neither serious engagement with pressing issues or measured debate around cooperative legislation. There is treasure in our powerful differences that can spark creativity and deliberation. If the irony of a democracy is that it may suppress voter engagement when citizens increasingly see both sides of an issue, and then let’s find our way back to a happy medium. Bend the framework of our democracy to get us working again and marginalize those who seek discord, rather than those who seek compromise.
Robert is freshman at Fordham College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org