In a 2003 essay, Sean Theriault of the University of Texas at Austin pointed to a decline in the number of moderate senators in Congress as a sign that the US was becoming more polarized. Nearly a decade later, Theriault’s words seem prophetic. For almost the last ten years, both the GOP and the Democratic party have shifted further and further to their respective extremes. With both sides so dug in, getting business done in Washington is pretty much impossible – and forget any meaningful solutions to the gargantuan debt crisis, massive unemployment, or rising gas prices for at least the next year, because those require way more give-and-take than either party is willing to put up with at the moment.
But the parties used to work together in the past, didn’t they? Well, sort of. While historically we have seen much more stubborn congresses (does the civil war ring a bell?), major legislation in the past has often been created with bipartisan support. The highway system is a good example of legislators coming together on both sides to improve American infrastructure. Do you think congress today would be willing to authorize such a sweeping reform?
I know I don’t. Which got me wondering: why are things so polarized today? What’s changed that’s made it so hard to get things done in our federal government?
I think we can ironically blame independents for at least a portion of our pronounced problem of party polarization. Over the last decade both parties have shrunk a good deal, while the non-partisan “independent” category has grown to encompass 40% of the American electorate. Since independents are more likely to be moderate than ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal, and since many states have closed primaries for their major parties, it follows that the eventual Democratic or Republican candidate who gets sent to Washington is further to the right or left than the majority of people who live in his district. Multiply this effect by 50 states, and you can see why the right and the left are so divided in America.
Granted, this is just my theory. I haven’t seen any hard evidence to confirm or debunk it, but it describes the polarization phenomenon pretty well. I’m sure there could also be other factors at play – new technology, especially, is a big one.
Can you think of anymore? If you do, I’d love to see them in the comments below.