Partisanship and Polarization: Overblown!

Recently, newspapers and blogs have been full of stories regarding the polarization of Congress along ideological lines and that this has created gridlock in Congress. For example, POLITICO had a story warning that things were only going to get worse. They used, as an example, the recent decisions by Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) to not run for reelection in 2012. Additionally, they cite the examples of Orrin Hatch’s problems securing the Republican nomination in Utah and Richard Lugar’s problems in Indiana. In short, they make it appear as if Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Richard Lugar, and Orrin Hatch are the poster faces of bipartisanship. Of course, these people are also generally party pariahs to one group or another within their respective parties.

There are several factors proposed for the alleged rise in partisan behavior. Cable news and the 24/7 cycle feed off of sound bites. There are well-funded activists on both sides, the role of PACs, and special interest groups that hold varying degrees of power within each political party. All of these conspire to create their own illusions of the direction of the party. Richard Lugar is portrayed as either “the establishment,” a “relic”, or an “unreliable conservative.” While it is true that some who are considered “moderates” within their party are dropping out or being voted out, this tendency in politics is not new. There is no doubt that in 2014, we will hear of insurgent campaigns against Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham. And the GOP is not immune from this “pruning process.” Liberals tried to eliminate Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in 2010 by enlisting labor unions. That same year, more than half the so-called Blue Dog Democrats lost their election efforts with another five deciding not to run this year and two more in Pennsylvania suffered primary defeats (Tim Holden and Jason Altmire).

One study found that in 1972, 40% of Senate Republicans and 33% of those in the House could be described as “moderate.” Today, the figures are 10% in the Senate and 10% in the House. Similar trends were found among Democrats as their moderate ranks dropped from 40% in the Senate in 1972 to 15% today and from 27% to 12% among House Democrats. At one time, both parties were big tents that attempted to accommodate the views of various factions within the party. However, those who were not in the political base of either party have declared their political independence. Over the past 40 years, there has been practically no change in the amount of people describing themselves as moderate. However, over those same 40 years, party loyalty has decreased. This de-alignment of the electorate has left “moderates” vulnerable to defeat, especially in nomination battles since it is here where the base of the party has the most influence. It is why there are two sets of statements from candidates: one for the primary/nomination and one for the general election- the so-called Etch-a-Sketch effect.

I decided to see if, in reality, Congress (those actually elected) are more partisan and if there is greater polarization today than in the past. To do so, using a variety of criteria that included outside sources, Congressional votes, candidate views on issues, and special interest group endorsements, individual members of Congress (House and Senate) were assigned a value of their relative “liberalness” or “conservativeness.” I then used that criteria to compare trends from the 107th to the 112th Congress, roughly the last 12 years.

Not only were trends discerned, but the data also lent itself to a gauge of the divide between liberals/Democrats and conservative/Republicans. The average difference over 12 years was .337. The current Congress shows a divide of .362- certainly above average but essentially the same as the 108th Congress. In fact, the greatest divide- .488- occurred in 111th Congress and the second worst was the 110th Congress- both under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, not John Boehner.

Looking at how individuals within each camp fared, we discover that from 2006 to 2008, Democrats elected to the House moved very slightly to the left while Republicans moved slightly to the center. From 2008 to 2010, the same trend was seen except the difference for liberals was more pronounced while that of Republicans demonstrated yet another very slight move towards the center.

When it comes to Congressional gridlock, most fingers point to the Senate. However, the 12-year average over the divide between parties is .972. The figure for this Senate is .881, below the historical average. It is interesting to note that conservative Republicans surged in the 108th Congress and then basically stagnated until the current 112th Congress when their numbers actually dropped to the levels of the 107th Congress. Meanwhile, among Democrats we see a general liberalization in the Senate before dropping slightly in the 111th Congress, then surging again in the 112th Congress. This flies in the face of the prevailing notion that the election of Tea Party candidates to Congress- the House and Senate- have radicalized the GOP. In fact, the greater effect can be seen as radicalizing the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party. Part of this trend is probably attributable to the fact that a great proportion of Democratic moderates suffered defeats in the 2010 midterms leaving only a smaller pool of the more liberal Democrats in place. However, if the Tea Party and insurgent GOP candidates were really as conservative and radical as the detractors assert, then the Republicans replacing those moderate Democrats should push the GOP to the right. That has not happened. In reality, in 2010 although conservative Republicans certainly had success, a equal or greater number of “moderate” Republicans also had success.

Although Congress appears dysfunctional at times compounded by gridlock, it is actually performing as designed- with deliberation. At times of great national crisis, Congress does, in fact, act. Whether that was the reaction to the Great Depression, World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor, or in the wake of 9/11- all true national crisis- Congress has performed as designed. The opposite would be Obamacare. Despite over a year of debate punctuated by back room dealing, there was no Congressional or even national consensus to move forward on that monstrosity of a law. The result was resorting to the budget reconciliation process.

The problem with this discussion, especially as concerns the Senate, is that in order to break the gridlock it places too much emphasis and power into the hands of too few Senators who just happen to be described as “moderate.” Decisions made and legislation passed by a de facto Senatorial junta are no better than those made by a dictatorial President.

In conclusion, the best that one can take from this is that the American electorate is not so much embracing hard core conservatism as they are repudiating liberalism. Either way, conservatives win. Whether hardcore or moderate Republicans are elected, it is 100% improvement over the liberals exemplified by Barack Obama.