The Deep-Seated Roots of Divisive U.S. Politics
Policy + Politics

The Deep-Seated Roots of Divisive U.S. Politics

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

The government shutdown did not happen by accident. It is the latest manifestation — an extreme one by any measure — of divisions long in the making and now deeply embedded in the country’s politics.

At some point, presumably, the current standoff will end. The federal government will reopen, the ceiling on its borrowing power will be lifted and some stalled legislation could pass. Some sense of normalcy will return to official Washington.


But it also could be a new normal, as confrontation remains commonplace and true compromise rare. Meanwhile, the ideological, cultural and political differences that led to this moment of extreme governmental dysfunction are almost certain to shape elections and legislative battles in the near term.

That is the conclusion of politicians, political strategists and scholars who have been living with a deepening red-blue divide in America that they say has made this era of politics the most polarized in more than a century. However bad it may have seemed in the 1990s, the last time there was a shutdown, or after the contested presidential election in 2000, or a decade ago during a divisive war, the fundamentals are worse today.

Some may rightly blame politicians in Washington for behaving badly, but in reality the clashes in the nation’s capital reflect conflicting attitudes and values held by politically active, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats across the country. Add to that a faction of conservatives in the House who are determined to disrupt business as usual and the current stalemate in Congress becomes almost unavoidable.

The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago. Many activists describe the stakes in apocalyptic terms.

Pete Wehner, an official in the White House under President George W. Bush, said there is now a huge premium among the most conservative wing of his party to fight for the sake of fighting. “People feel like we’re losing our country,” he said. “That’s not my view, but it is the view of a lot of people, and it moves them to be pugilistic, to be more combative and more confrontational. They believe there’s a huge amount at stake.”

In the states, the red-blue divisions have for now produced governments largely controlled by one party or the other. In Washington, they have produced a divided government and could continue to do so for some years to come. Nothing in politics is permanent, but Democrats now enjoy some advantage in the electoral college competition, while the alignment of congressional districts gives Republicans the upper hand in controlling the House. Divided government has resulted in a breakdown in governance.

Another major factor in the current stalemate is the degree to which the country has polarized around the Obama presidency. Conservatives see the president as someone who came to office preaching unity and post-partisanship but who has been, as one Republican put it, a hyperpartisan with an agenda deliberately designed to increase the power of the federal government. There is virtually no middle ground when it comes to assessments of President Obama.

There seems to be no easy way out of all this, absent some large external shock to the system. But the system has been shocked any number of times over the past two decades — from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the massive recession in 2008 — and each time has quickly reverted to partisan conflict. Nor did the election of Obama in 2008 or his reelection in 2012 bring about any real truce. In fact, it has resulted in the opposite.


In the current standoff, Republicans are more at risk of suffering any political fallout or public backlash. That is because of the insistence by hard-line conservatives in the House, who are deeply opposed to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, that their leaders adhere to the tactics that led to the shutdown.

Many Republicans outside the House, and some inside, are uneasy about the shutdown and fear it could badly damage the party. Still, most of them share with the hard-liners the same hostility to the president, his health-care law and the bulk of his agenda. Their disagreements are more over tactics of shutting down the government to stop the new health-care law, not ones of philosophy or ideology. Democrats, for their part, are determined to hold the line in this and future battles.

That is why a solution to the shutdown and the debt ceiling does not lead to a resolution of the issues that separate the parties. “I don’t really see a way out of it in the very short term,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively on polarization. “We’re stuck in it. There was a time when it was possible for the parties to work together, because the divide between them was much smaller. Now we’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible.”

The 2012 election between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney was billed as a great debate between competing views of government and a moment when voters could signal a clear direction for the country. 

Instead, the election continued the status quo in Washington, with neither a slackening in partisanship nor a narrowing in the philosophical gap between the parties. If anything, it reinforced rather than eased the divisions that existed. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, described 2012 as “the most partisan, nationalized . . . election in at least six decades.”

Over the past two decades, the percentage of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who support their party’s presidential nominee has ticked higher and higher. In the past three elections, according to American National Election Studies data cited by Jacobson, 89 or 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats backed their party’s nominees. Three decades ago, those percentages were considerably lower.

What made 2012 more significant was the degree to which voting in House and Senate elections followed a similar pattern. In each case, nine in 10 partisans backed their party’s candidates for either House or Senate races.


The 2012 election represented a high point for trends that have increased polarization. In the 1980s, another period of divided government, a quarter of the electorate voted for president one way and the House or Senate another way. In 2012, only about 11 percent of voters in the ANES studies cited by Jacobson said they split their tickets.

What’s important about this is that there is now almost no intersection between the coalition that elected the president and the one that elected the majority in the House. Members of Congress have far less incentive to compromise with a president of another party if they know they are not dependent in any significant way on that president’s supporters.

“If you look at the people who elected Obama and the people who elected the Republicans in the House, there’s very little overlap,” Jacobson said. “They owe their victories to very different constituencies, to folks who are pretty divided on every political issue.”

For comparison purposes, look at the makeup of the House at the time of the last government shutdown, in late 1995 and early 1996. Then, 79 Republicans came from districts won by Bill Clinton in 1992’s presidential race — a third of the entire GOP conference, according to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. Today, just 17 — fewer than 10 percent — are in districts won by Obama last November. (There are only nine Democrats in districts won by Romney.)

The Cook Report team has created an index to measure the partisan leanings of every congressional district. What the most current analysis shows is the degree to which members of Congress represent even more ideologically polarized districts than in the past.

At the time of the last shutdown, Wasserman said, not quite one-third represented districts where the Republican vote was 10 points or more above the party’s national average. Today, more than half of them are in such districts.

But it is not just that Republican districts have become redder. Democrats’ districts are bluer, as well. In 1995-96, the median Democratic seat was about 6.7 points more Democratic than the national average. Today, that figure has jumped to 11.2 points. Wasserman notes that the partisan leanings of the median Democratic district actually rose more than in the median Republican district.


That doesn’t mean Congress is locked in concrete. Twice in the past four elections, the House has undergone a change in party control. What those shifts did not produce, however, was any easing of the partisan warfare.

What frustrates many Democrats is the fact that their House candidates actually won more popular votes in 2012 than the Republicans — 1.4 million more — but still ended up in the minority. Many cite redistricting practices as the major culprit and call for reforms that would take the redistricting process out of the hands of partisan state legislators, which advocates say would produce far less polarization in Congress.

While it is true that the takeover of state legislatures by Republicans in 2010 gave the party some advantage in the redistricting wars, there is a consensus among those who have studied the makeup of the House that redistricting is a smaller factor than is sometimes popularly described.

“In 2012, redistricting was not actually the crucial factor in Republicans’ ability to hold the majority,” said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University whose blog, The Monkey Cage, appears on The Washington Post Web site. “And the increasing polarization happens mainly between redistricting cycles, not because of redistricting.”

One reason for the shape of things is the distribution of the population. Democrats are now packed more closely in urban areas. Republicans are more evenly distributed across suburbs, exurbs and rural areas. That means Democratic House candidates win by large margins, but many of those votes are in essence wasted. For many years now, more congressional districts favored Republicans than Democrats. But that advantage is more important today because loyalty to party has a greater influence on how people vote.

The bunching of Democrats in urban areas is clearer from a look at county-by-county results from last year’s presidential election. Obama won just 705 of the nation’s 3,153 counties. But Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst of political trends, points out that the president won “the bulk of those counties that really mattered.”

Obama won 35 of the 39 counties with populations of 1 million people or more. He won those counties by a margin of 8 million votes. He lost the rest of the country by about 3 million.

Ideological polarization in the House is wider than it has ever been. The last time it approached today’s levels was after the Civil War, in the late 19th century. Nolan McCarty, a political science professor at Princeton University, has helped chart those changes, along with the scholars who first created the index, Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University.

Calling the period during Reconstruction “a highly polarized time,” McCarty said: “Our measures today are far worse than we observed then. We’re almost at the point where we can’t measure further increases.” 

Today, there is almost no overlap between the voting behavior of the most conservative Democrats in the House and the most liberal Republicans. That’s in part because there are few ­moderate-to-conservative Democrats and ­moderate-to-liberal Republicans left in the chamber.

It also is a reflection of the fact that members from districts that are more evenly balanced ideologically now vote the way their colleagues from highly ideological districts vote. In other words, there is a big difference in the way Republicans and Democrats represent relatively neutral districts.


“Even in districts that turn over a lot, the gap between Republicans and Democrats in those districts has grown tremendously,” McCarty said.

Much of this has resulted from well-documented changes that have made each party more homogenous than in earlier eras. Two shifts account for many of these changes. The first is the realignment of the South, which has become solidly Republican. The second is the realignment outside the South with the decline of the liberal wing of the Republican Party in the Northeast and Midwest.

The parties also are more divided racially than before. The Republican Party is almost entirely dependent on white voters. Nine of every 10 votes Romney received were from white voters, according to exit polls. Democrats are increasingly dependent on support from nonwhite voters. Obama got 44 percent of his votes from nonwhite voters.

The GOP base, reflected most recently in the rise of the tea party, has become strongly anti-government. At the same time, the Democratic coalition is more pro-government, and many of its constituents are dependent on government programs. It is little wonder that there is scarce common ground between the parties on issues about the size and scope of government.

Many polls in the past few years have charted the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats in their attitudes about government’s role. Republicans have shifted more to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left, but on both sides passions are stronger than they were two decades ago.

“The two parties long ago ceased to agree on the policies that promote economic growth and the appropriate role for government in society,” said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. “It is this increasing divergence on fundamentals around which the American political system has reconfigured itself.”

For many conservatives, the word “compromise” in Washington means a continuation of the direction government has taken since the New Deal, only a little slower. The tea party members in the House want to change course entirely.

In this battle, they are re­inforced by a constituency now more powerful than party committees, or what is often called the party establishment. This new group includes conservative activists at home; talk radio and television hosts; and outside groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. They can threaten apostates with primary challenges, a danger of much more concern to incumbents in safe districts than a general election.

Divided government at a time of polarization frustrates governing and makes short-term fixes more difficult. The power of the most conservative faction in the House to create the current stalemate over funding the government underscores the risks of the new alignment.

The absence of a center in today’s politics significantly complicates coalition building. “How do you build a coalition from the center out when there’s no one in the middle?” Abramowitz asked. “Reaching across the aisle means reaching pretty far.”

There are some reforms to the political process that might bring modest improvements over time. Making redistricting less partisan would be one step but probably would not produce dramatic changes. Some advocate open primaries, though the jury is out on the significance of such a move. In the Senate, there has been talk of reforming the filibuster to prevent the abuses seen in recent years, but this change seems unlikely.

What the future holds is subject to debate. Depending on how the shutdown-debt ceiling battle ends, it could shake the status quo, creating a voter backlash — right now Republicans are more blamed for the standoff than Obama and the Democrats. It could help to resolve the intraparty GOP conflict that has been simmering since the 2012 election as Republicans argue over how to win back the White House. Or it could result in yet another lowering of confidence in government and political leaders.

Much lies in the hands of the public. If at some point enough Americans decide they no longer want a country as divided as it is now, they could vote to give one party overwhelming control of the machinery of government. That has happened before in the country’s history. Maybe the aftermath of the shutdown will produce that kind of decisive shift. If not, then the status quo could stretch through several more elections.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post

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