US Ideological Polarization Bestows Fewer Bills, Heightened Policy Focus

EspañolIf “con” and “pro” are opposites, is Congress the opposite of progress? This old Capitol Hill joke came to mind as I reviewed the Pew Research Center’s recently published report on “Political Polarization in the American Public.”

The report confirms what we all suspected: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” This phenomenon deserves our critical reflection, because the polarization of US politics along ideological contours has led to charges of a dysfunctional government where policy differences are irresolvable and nothing gets done.

In some ways, this is a continuation of the topic of “factions” broached in 1787 by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Federalist Papers 9 and 10.

Political divides can come about for reasons other than ideology, such as favor-seeking, following a charismatic leader, mass-media influences, and the like. However, the new US divide seems to be truly about political ideology, specifically about what constitutes the legitimate role of government in our lives.

The Pew Survey shows that the proportion of US Americans who express consistently “conservative” or consistently “liberal” (progressive) opinions has doubled over the past two decades. In other words, we have become much more rigidly ideological, and the ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished.

Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the “right” of the median Democrat, compared with 64 percent 20 years ago. And 94 percent of Democrats are to the “left” of the median Republican, up from 70 percent in 1994. As partisan animosity has increased in each party, the constituency with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled in a rising tide of mutual antagonism.

Scholars argue over whether political polarization originates with the political elites in a top-down method, or with the population in a bottom-up fashion that reflects the public’s ideology and voting preferences. Take your pick, but the fact is that, when polarization occurs, political leaders are likely to take more differentiated stances. Is this good or bad?

Ideology has a bad rap, and the term ideologue first earned a pejorative bite when Napoleon Bonaparte used it to convey the pettiness of his political opponents. However, an ideology is a coherent system of ideas that live on some basic assumptions about reality. The implications of political polarization are not necessarily clear. From this perspective, the ideological polarization of US politics may include some beneficial as well as detrimental consequences.

From the vantage point of those of us who favor limited government, legislative inaction that prevents the growth of governments is a good outcome. If an outrageous and detrimental US National debt of over US$151,000 per taxpayer is government efficiency, then gridlock may be preferable. On the other hand, public division on foreign affairs may undermine a nation’s tenacity, strengthen enemies, and dishearten allies.

Before we all rush to demonize indiscriminately the ideological polarization of US politics, let’s consider how it may increase the accountability of politicians to voters. When addressing the issues facing the nation, meeting each other halfway, as is often suggested, does not necessarily lead to high-quality legislation.

In a polarized environment, elected officials must take more distinctly defined, and hopefully principled, stances on policy issues. Their campaign promises will remain more visible, and they will have less maneuvering room to finesse and avoid voter censure.

According to some political scientists, another positive consequence of polarization is that it leads to the casting of more policy-oriented ballots. That is, when voters have more clear-cut choices, they will focus more on the differentiated substantive policy views of the candidates than on their personal attributes. The political discourse then becomes more about the political ideas rather than the age, gender, or other physical characteristics of the caudillo.

Political polarization increases gridlock in our legislative processes and reduces the amount of legislation enacted. Clearly, our political elites must govern effectively and take care of the business of the people. That, however, does not correlate directly with the enactment of vast amounts of new legislation. Let us acknowledge that no new legislation is, in itself, a legitimate and cogent legislative action.

This article first appeared in Spanish with El Nuevo Herald.

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