America has always been divided. From our very founding as a nation, the Federalists and Antifederalists debated vigorously, and often quite uncivilly, about the proper role and limits of the federal government. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, attacked New York Governor and Antifederalist George Clinton by calling him “thick skulled and double-hearted,” accusing him of opposing “everything which does not bear the marks of self.” These divisions continued through Antebellum American until they manifested in our great and tragic Civil War and the death of over 600,000 Americans.
At the same time, depending who you ask, some say that America is not polarized now. I concur, to some extent. In a past article, I outlined Morris Fiorina’s argument that it is the American political class (ie. politicians, donors, and activists) that is polarized, not the American public as a whole.
Nonetheless, even if we are not as divided as it may seem with some much needed historical perspective and nuance, the American political process is by many measures more dysfunctional than ever. Take, for example, the historic rise of cloture motions (motions to end filibusters) in the U.S. Senate, seen below. Starting in the 1970s, exacerbated in the 1990s and jumping significantly in 2008, filibusters (marked by accompanying cloture votes) have shifted from being used sparingly by a minority party with a strong belief on an issue of major importance to a tool used to delay and obstruct all matters.
Or consider the blatantly political federal government shutdowns in 2013 by Republicans over the Affordable Care Act and in 2018 by the Democrats over DACA. While there was a serious government shutdown led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s (an early indicator of the dysfunction to come), the few instances of shutdown before these were short and directly related to budget/spending disagreements. Such brinksmanship is not without consequence. Partisan debt-ceiling crises and complete fiscal irresponsibility in regards to the United States’ long term deficits and debt resulted in the first ever federal government credit downgrade from AAA to AA+ in 2011. In the words of Standard & Poor, American governance and policymaking has become “less stable, less effective, and less predictable.” In their view: “the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge.” It is no wonder, then, that Congress’ approval rating sits around 20%.
Many, including myself, are asking what is causing these exceptional levels of polarization and dysfunction. Luckily, in their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein offer a convincing explanation. Their answer: maps, media, and money.
Location, Location, Location
The term “ideological bubble” has been thrown around frequently, especially after the 2016 Presidential Election. These bubbles have come about both naturally and intentionally. In their book, Mann and Ornstein discuss how migration of Asian and Mexican Americans, for example, have contributed to the creation of the Democratic strongholds of California, Oregon, and Washington. In a similar vein, they discuss how the migration of Republican-oriented senior citizens to the sunbelt from the Northeast (aided by the widespread adoption of air conditioning, allowing for the toleration of summer in the South) has resulted in the disappearance of the moderate and Liberal Republicans in the Northeast. These macro trends are complimented by micro decisions of Democrats and Republicans alike who prefer to live in neighborhoods, counties, and states where “others share their values and interests.” You may have heard similar rhetoric yourself.
Population flows within our country are nothing new—although the ease of mobility and self-selection by political ideology may be. However, coupled with the pernicious practice of gerrymandering, these trends can be destructive. In the words of Mann and Ornstein, migration and gerrymandering: “contribute to party polarization by systematically shaping more safe districts for each party, thereby helping to create homogenous echo chambers, to make party primaries the only real threat to representatives; and to enhance the power of the small number of activist ideologues who dominate in primaries.” As in real estate, the number one rule of political polarization may be location.
Today’s media environment is very different than that of the 20th century. As Mann and Ornstein note, in the 1950s, three television stations captured 70% of Americans as regular viewers and were relied on as primary news sources. Conversely, in 2010, there were 2,200 broadcast television stations, 13,000 over-the-air radio stations, 20,000 magazines, and 25+ million online blogs. In this fragmented media environment, securing and maintaining an audience requires controversy and sensationalism; it results in “infotainment” instead of information.
This media environment is dangerous in many ways. It results in an absence of a common set of facts from which productive dialogue must necessarily start. It leads to overrepresentation of the polarized Right and Left and to false perceptions that these are the only tenable viewpoints. It leads to a lack of understanding—ideological bubbles in media and cyberspace to complement our geographic homogeny—which translate to “us versus them” thinking and, in more recent years, true contempt for the “other side.” I could go on. All of these impacts are harmful for effectively functioning government.
Money in Politics
Lastly, Mann and Ornstein detail how an increasing supply and demand of money in politics has contributed to our current political dysfunction by reducing legislative independence and incentives for collaboration. Regulations regarding financial contributions in federal elections were first created in the 20th century, including contribution limits and public disclosure requirements. These regulations were expanded in 2002 under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold), which attempted to limit “soft money” (contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals) as well as “issues adds” (advertisements that do not attempt to explicitly elect or defeat a candidate, but advocate for specific issues in such a way to influence the election outcome).
However, in 2010, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission fundamentally altered the role of money in politics by ruling that corporations and unions were free to make unlimited independent expenditures in elections for public office. As a result, in the post Citizens United world, political operatives now have more opportunities to shape legislative outcomes with huge sums of money.
Citizens United impacts political polarization and dysfunction because it increases the role of money in politics, resulting in the perpetual fund-raising phenomenon of Congress today. Instead of spending time with colleagues and attempting to govern, members of Congress must devote inordinate amounts of time to raising campaign funds. Additionally, the increase of money in politics has disproportionately assisted special interest organizations in impacting governance, through implicit or explicit promises of campaign donations based on specific policy actions or inactions.
Albert Einstein once said that “the formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution.” This is fortunate, in some sense, because there are no simple solutions when it comes to reducing the polarization and dysfunction of our current political moment. However, by attempting to understand the problem, we can make a first, small step. This polarization is not like others. We need to recognize that and start to decided what we are going to do about it.