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Zelizer's Book Corner: Can We Move Beyond Polarization in Washington?

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Sean Theriault Party Polarization in Congress (Cambridge University Press)

Can we move beyond polarization in Washington?

Every election season, we ask this same question. Politicians promise that conditions will be different once they are in power, people will get along and civility will be restored. "I work with Republicans and Democrats to get things done," explained George W. Bush in his 2000 acceptance speech, before he became one of the most polarizing presidents in recent history. Democrats promised the same thing after taking over Congress in 2006. They are not alone. Every time that we have heard these promises from candidates, polarization only seems to become stronger.

Traditionally, there have been two views of polarization. The first view suggests that polarization is driven by personalities and by the historical context in which it occurs. This view believes that change is possible, if only new politicians can be brought to Washington. The second view suggests that polarization is inevitable, driven by institutions, anzd has deep historical roots in American political history.

The first view might be described as the "throw the bums out" prescription. This is the most satisfying for many voters because it provides a concrete solution to the problem. Once we change the cast of characters, the argument goes, the new arrivals will change the way things work in Washington. However, the historical record does not tend to endorse this view. The problem is that the new boss usually looks like the old boss. The trend since the 1970s has been that polarization has steadily grown more intense regardless of which party or which person maintained control of power.

The second view might be called the "Charles Sumner/Preston Brooks" theory. Here, I refer to the story told in every Civil War class about the famous moment in 1856 when one member of Congress, Preston Brooks of South Carolina, beat another, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, into a bloody pulp on the floor of Congress due to their differences over slavery. According to this theory, polarization is always how Washington works. It is a pipe dream to think that anything can be different.

Political scientists find that the reality lies somewhere between these two views. Sean Therialt's Party Polarization in Congress is an excellent place for readers who want to start thinking about the challenge of polarization in a more rigorous and systematic fashion. Building on the work of other congressional scholars, Theriault demonstrates that polarization in Congress has clearly become worse since the 1970s following a sixty year period (from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the middle of the 1930s) when the parties converged on a number of key issues.

Theriault makes a significant contribution to the discussion about polarization that should impact both policymakers and voters. Focusing on Congress, he pinpoints specific causes behind polarization rather than concluding that this is "just the way that things work." The first cause has to do with the geographical sorting of voters along partisan lines. In congressional districts around America, voters have moved closer to neighbors with similar political views, leaving fewer outliers in any given place in the country. "As the constituents are geographically sorted," Tehrialt explains, "members from their respective political parties are increasingly representing different constituencies with different underlying demographics."

The result is that there are fewer centrists in either party. Whereas twenty five percent of Democrats identified as conservative in 1972, the number declined by half in 2004. Meanwhile, Theriault finds, the percentage of liberal Republicans fell from 13 percent in 1972 to under 6 percent in 2004.

Some of the causes behind polarization are nearly impossible to tackle, such as demographic changes. But gerrymandering and the structure of the nomination processes are malleable practices that create incentives for legislators to play to the most extreme elements in their electorate. Other factors examined by Theriault are institutional. As legislators represented districts where most people were in agreement with his opponent, they were willing to delegate power to the party leaders in Congress so that the leaders would have more tools (generally restrictive rules) to push for the party agenda. Congressional party leaders found themselves with all sorts of weapons: closed rules in the House that severely constrain debate and Unanimous Consent Agreements in the Senate which allow the parties to impose discipline despite the filibuster. Party caucuses have also more frequently ignored seniority and instead emphasized party loyalty in selecting committee chairs.

Both candidates in this presidential election promised to move beyond partisan gridlock. "The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems," McCain said, "isn't a cause, it's a symptom. It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you." Here Obama finds himself in agreement. As Obama said in his now famous 2004 speech, "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America--there's the United States of America." If president-elect Obama is serious about post-partisanship, he will need to deal with some of the institutional factors that cause polarization regardless of who is in power.

Of course, Democrats might think twice about the traditional critique of polarization. Obama might govern as a strong party leader rather than as a post-partisan. After all, some would say that polarization can be a good thing for America. Strong parties can offer voters clear alternatives and coherent agendas. In fact, political scientists in the 1960s produced a cottage industry of books and articles which lamented the fact that partisanship was so weak in Washington.

President-Elect Obama might think again about some of his earlier rhetoric about post-partisanship and instead try to lead a cohesive and dominating party to redefine the national agenda. His selection of Rahm Emanuel to serve as Chief of Staff suggests that this might be exactly what he's thinking. According to Emanuel's former aide, Politico reported, "he's from the Lombardi wing of the party--he's a guy who wants to win at any cost and will do whatever it takes...." Maybe partisanship is not so bad after all.

More soon from the academy....


Julian E. Zelizer is professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books.