Admit It, Political Scientists: Politics Really Is More Broken Than Ever

Scholars restrain themselves out of fear of being seen as partisans, but what's happening now is different, and false equivalence is no virtue.

The widespread public belief that our political system is dangerously broken is often met with skepticism among longtime students of American politics. “We’ve seen it all before,” “this too will pass,” “nothing can do done about it anyway” say the scholars. I understand and sympathize with that defensive posture. I’ve spent decades in Washington explaining and defending the American constitutional system in the face of what I considered to be uninformed and ill-considered attacks on Congress and our way of governing. I’ve also worked scrupulously to avoid any hint of partisan favoritism.

There are, in theory, good reasons to be skeptical of doom saying. Other democracies struggle trying to deal with similar problems; the United States has overcome similar periods of subpar performance and political dysfunction throughout our history; and our political system has adapted to new circumstances and self-corrected. There’s something else going on here, too: How would political scientists justify ourselves if we didn’t contest the conventional wisdom of mere pundits and journalists? We have a positive political science to conduct and are properly critical of half-baked diagnoses and ungrounded normative speculations on how to cure our governing maladies.

But I believe these times are strikingly different from the past, and the health and well-being of our democracy is properly a matter of great concern. We owe it to ourselves and our country to reconsider our priors and at least entertain the possibility that these concerns are justified—even if it’s uncomfortable to admit it.

Let’s start with some basics. The parties in Congress are as polarized—internally unified and distinctive from one another—as any time in history. And the 2012 electorate was the most polarized ever (or at least since the start of the American National Election Studies in 1952). For perhaps the first time in American history, the two dominant ideologies have captured the two dominant political parties.

With Barack Obama in the White House and Democrats and Republicans each controlling one chamber, Congress has ceased to operate as an effective legislative body. Deliberation and compromise are scarce commodities, not the coin of the realm. The contemporary Congress bears little resemblance to the “textbook Congress” of the 1950s and 1960s or “the reform Congress” that followed. Individual members are no longer the most useful unit of analysis for understanding congressional behavior and policymaking. Parties are the key actors, and they respond more to their activist bases than to the median voter. Public approval of Congress and trust in government have plunged to record depths. Growing concerns about economic and political inequality are rooted in real increases in the concentration of income, wealth, and opportunities for influence.

None of that is controversial. But other ideas are hotly disputed among political scientists or ignored altogether.

The most important and problematic feature of today’s polarization is its partisan character. To treat polarization as “mere sorting” is to trivialize, if not miss entirely, the biggest development in recent decades. Polarization reflects first of all the striking ideological differences between the parties, evident most sharply among elected officials and among party activists, but also clearly evident among voters.

But it reflects more than just sincere ideological differences. The rough parity between the parties fuels an intense competition for control of the White House and Congress. The stakes are high, because the ideological differences are large, and because both parties have a realistic chance of gaining or maintaining control. This leads to strategic agenda-setting and voting, even on issues with little or no ideological content and a tribalism that is now such a prominent feature of American politics.

The supposed promise of linking more tightly party and ideology was that it would offer more clarity and accountability for voters. As Austin Ranney forecast in his prophetic dissent to the famous 1950 American Political Science Association Report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” those benefits are likely to come at a high cost.* Ranney argued that more ideologically coherent, internally unified, and adversarial parties in the fashion of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy would be a disaster within the American constitutional system, because of its separation of powers, separately elected institutions, and constraints on majority rule that favor cross-party coalitions and compromise.

That mismatch between parties and governing institutions is exacerbated by the fact that the polarization is asymmetric. Republicans have become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition. The evidence of this asymmetry is overwhelming.

Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal provide the strongest evidence for this asymmetry among members of Congress. They find that the ideological distance between the parties grew dramatically since the 1970s, but that it would be a mistake to equate the two parties’ roles in contemporary political polarization. The Tea Party has moved the GOP even further from the political center, as these charts of House and Senate partisanship show:

Evidence for asymmetry goes well beyond roll-call voting. Changing Republican Party positions on taxes, Keynesian economics, immigration, climate change and the environment, healthcare, science policy, and a host of cultural policies are consistent with the pattern. So too are the embrace of hardball strategies and tactics involving parliamentary-style opposition, the rise of the 60-vote Senate, government shutdowns, debt-ceiling hostage-taking, and nullification efforts not seen since the antebellum South. Historian Gregory Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin traces the key intellectual and political developments in the transformation of the GOP from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. In The Party Is Over, former Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren provides a rich and colorful insider’s perspective on the radicalization of the Republican party in Congress. And Norm Ornstein and I in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks document how the asymmetry developed from Newt Gingrich in the 1980s to the present. Asymmetric polarization has found its way to the public: Republican Party voters are more skewed to their ideological pole than Democratic Party voters are to theirs.

Yet many political scientists, like most mainstream journalists and political reformers, refuse to even acknowledge or take seriously the case for asymmetric polarization. It makes us uncomfortable because some people will characterize the idea as partisan, even if it accurately captures reality. We do the public a disservice to say less than we believe to be true and avoid research directions that might produce “unbalanced” results. Insisting on false equivalence in the media or the academy is no virtue.

Much of what we have written about parties and Congress doesn’t fit contemporary conditions. As John Zaller and his colleagues from UCLA have theorized and demonstrated, parties are less collectives of election-minded politicians responding to the median voter than networks including interest groups, activists, and donors with clear policy demands. The imprint of these networks on the public has weakened the argument that voters are mostly moderate, pragmatic and independent.

Districts that vote for presidential and House candidates of different parties are vanishing. So are states with U.S. senators representing both parties. Divided government is today a formula for inaction, not an opportunity for bipartisan legislating. There is no reason to be smug about our past findings or certain we’ve seen it all before.

What we know from our research is that there is no easy way out of the mess we are in.

Change our institutions to fit our new-style parties? Beyond reining in the filibuster, this would entail far-reaching constitutional reform that is likely to remain in the realm of intellectual debate.

Alter the electoral system to produce somewhat less polarized parties? There are lots of ideas worth pursuing in the states, but short of major changes such as compulsory voting or some form of proportional representation, the evidence suggests that they would produce at best modest results.

Encourage independent or third-party candidates appealing to a vast moderate center in American politics? Been there. Done that. A definite nonstarter.

More wishful thinking about delegation to nonpartisan or bipartisan groups? Enough already!

Perhaps more promising are approaches that focus directly on the parties as they exist within our constitutional system. One-party government seems an essential first step, one that can sustain itself in office long enough to put in place and begin to implement a credible governing program. The second is nudging the Republican Party back into being a genuinely conservative, not radical, party that aspires to win presidential as well as congressional elections over the long haul. The third is dampening the intense and unrelenting competition for control of Congress and the White House, which is itself an historical anomaly.

With demographic changes continuing to unfold to the benefit of the Democrats, it is not hard to see them retaining and increasing their advantage in presidential elections. Controlling the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is more challenging. Democrats might have an opportunity to regain unified control in 2016, if the 2014 midterm elections leave them within grasp of Senate and House majorities two years later. But holding those majorities in 2018 would be an even more difficult task.

How about another run of unified Republican Party government? Some argue the best way to bring the GOP back to reality is to put it in charge and make it accountable for its actions. Others fear the policy consequences of unconstrained extremism. Perhaps a more reliable way of bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream is a few more decisive presidential defeats. That might create the conditions for the emergence of new Republican ideas less detached from reality and new efforts among some coalition partners to challenge extremist forces in primary elections. Sadly, those extreme candidates are no longer limited to Tea Party members; there are found throughout the so-called Republican Party establishment.

I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is one. In spite of a lot of terrific research we still have work to do fully diagnosing our strikingly dysfunctional government and speaking forthrightly what we believe to be true.

* This sentence has been edited for clarity.