The Credit Downgrade and the Congress: Why Polarized Politics Paralyze Public Policy

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There’s room for debate about whether U.S. government deficits justify Standard & Poor’s downgrading last week of long-term U.S. debt, but the more important factor cited in S&P’s report is that “the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened…” The S&P team emphasizes that “the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties … makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration” to address the crucial problems the country faces.

Although these S&P judgments were intended to refer exclusively to fiscal policy, they really apply to a much broader set of issues, ranging from economic to health to environmental policies. The key reality is this: there is a widening gulf between the two political parties that is paralyzing sensible policy action.

Political Polarization

This increasing polarization between the political parties has shown up in a number of studies by political scientists employing a diverse set of measures that place roll-call votes by members of Congress on an ideological spectrum from extreme right to extreme left. This polarization – the disappearance of moderates – has been taking place for four decades. The rise of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party is only the most recent vehicle that has continued a 40-year trend.

Why has this collapse of the middle taken place; why has party polarization increased so dramatically in the Congress over the past 40 years? In my view, three structural factors stand out.

Three Structural Factors

First, there has been the increasing importance of the primary system, a consequence of the “democratization” of the nomination process that took flight in the 1970s. A small share of the electorate vote in primaries, namely those with the strongest political preferences – the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. This self-selection greatly favors candidates from the extremes.

Second, decades of redistricting – a state prerogative guaranteed by the Constitution – has produced more and more districts that are dominated by either Republican or Democratic voters. This increases the importance of primary elections, which is where the key choices among candidates are now made in many Congressional districts. Because of this, polarization has proceeded at a much more rapid pace in the House than in the Senate.

Third, the increasing cost of electoral campaigns greatly favors incumbents (with the ratio of average incumbent-to-challenger financing now exceeding 10-to-1). This tends to make districts relatively safe for the party that controls the seat, thereby increasing the importance of primaries.

These three factors operate mainly through the replacement of members of Congress (whether due to death, retirement, or challenges from within the party) – that is, the ideological shifts that cause increasing polarization largely occur when new members are elected (from either party, although a disproportionate share of polarization has been due to the rightward shift of new Republicans).

To a lesser degree, polarization has also taken place through the adaptation of sitting members of Congress as they behave more ideologically once in office. Such political conversions are due to the same pressures noted above: in order to discourage or survive primary challenges, Republican members shift rightward and Democratic members shift leftward.

A recent case in point is Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who evolved from being a moderate at the time of his 2008 Presidential run to being a solid conservative in 2010, in response to a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate.

Long-Term Implications

If the increasing polarization of the Congress is due to these factors, then it is difficult to be very optimistic about the prognosis in the near term for American politics. This is because it is unlikely that any of these factors will soon reverse course.

The two parties are not about to abandon the primary system to return to smoke‑filled back rooms. Likewise, no state legislature is willing to abandon its power to redistrict. And public financing of campaigns and other measures that would reduce the advantages of incumbency remain generally unpopular (among incumbents, who would – after all – need to vote for such reforms).

Other Factors?

True enough, in addition to these long-term structural factors that have driven political polarization, shorter-term economic and social fluctuations have also had pronounced effects. In particular, significant economic downturns – whether the Great Depression of the 1930s or the Great Recession of the past several years – increase political polarization.

The 1930s saw not only the rise of American socialists and communists, but also the rise of American right-wing extremism. It took World War II to bring an end both to the economic upheaval of the 1930s and the destructive political polarization that had accompanied it.

U.S. participation in the war brought a degree of political unity at home, largely because U.S. action was precipitated by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under conditions of less clear motivation for U.S. military action abroad – such as the war in Vietnam – the result has not been political unity, but divisiveness and polarization. The ultimate impacts on domestic politics of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may hinge on whether they are perceived to be patriotic responses to a foreign attack (9/11) or the latest manifestations of U.S. military adventurism.

The Future

So, it’s reasonable to anticipate – or at least to hope – that better economic times will reduce the pace of ongoing political polarization. However, in the face of the three long-term structural factors I’ve identified above – the increasing importance of primaries, continuing redistricting, and the increasing costs of electoral campaigns – it is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prognosis for American politics.

No matter how one feels about the wisdom of Standard & Poor’s downgrading of long-term U.S. debt, the issue of greater concern should be their assessment of the state of the U.S. body politic.

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4 Responses to The Credit Downgrade and the Congress: Why Polarized Politics Paralyze Public Policy

  1. Robert N. Stavins says:

    Thanks for the comment. The alliteration is not perfect, but the observation is correct. Several people have written to me off-line, saying that they found this essay to be quite “depressing.” I can’t disagree. My hope was and is that some readers will respond with either a more positive prognosis and/or some suggestions of feasible reforms that could turn things in a more positive direction.

  2. dumdedumdum says:

    Sensible Sustainable Solutions Stump Stavins. Unfortunately, me too.

  3. Robert N. Stavins says:

    Southern realignment was one element — albeit an important one — of the forty years of loss of moderates, when “moderate southern Democrats” were replaced by (or in some cases became) “conservative Republicans.”

  4. Steve Schran says:

    And then there is the 800 pound gorilla structural factor: southern realignment. For a lucid elaboration: http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/07/30/283791/segregation-and-polarization/.

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