The Corner

Is Polarization Bad for the Country?

In a great panorama of American politics, William Galston & Pietro Nivola argue in the current The American Interest that increased polarization of the political parties in America carries four paramount risks:

First, it complicates the task of addressing certain long-range domestic policy problems, particularly those that cannot be solved without altering the established distribution of benefits in the modern welfare state.  Second, it can unhinge the the implementation of a steady, resolute foreign policy and national security strategy.  Third, partisan excesses can damage vulnerable institutions, not least the judiciary.  Fourth, partisan antagonisms, and especially the slash-and-burn tactics that polarized parties routinely adopt, can erode public trust in government, even as it motivates more people to engage in the political process and to vote. 

But, polarization does not lead to political paralysis, and on the contrary has tended to make Congress much more productive:

Reform of the welfare system, substantial tax reductions, big trade agreements, a significant expansion of Federal intervention in local public education, important course corrections in foreign policy, reorganization of the intelligence community, a major campaign finance law, new rules governing bankruptcy and class-action litigation, the formation of a new cabinet department, massive enlargements of Medicare–for better or for worse, all these milestones were achieved despite polarized politics. Indeed, some of these achievements were only possible because of disciplined (“polarized”) voting by the congressional majority party .

In Congress, the writers note a “measurable increase in petulance.” But the polarization that interests them is not in the partisan strife, but rather in the structural polarization of platform-formation.  They attribute the current polarized politics to single-party control of both elective branches of government, and to an unprecedented increase in party loyalty among voters – due, ironically enough (I had to laugh) to the increased proportion of voters with higher degrees, who exhibit much more rigid voting behavior than the rest of the population.

And yet ironically, while polarization has sharpened distinctions between party platforms on some of the most controversial issues, in most cases, party platforms have either tended to converge, or key pieces of legislation have secured enough defections from the other side to make up for any loss of party discipline.  This may be because elected officials have remained quite representative — and America remains quite diverse.  Which may help to explain why it often seems — e.g., on the Iraq war — as if the debate within the party is more sophisticated and diversified than the debate between the parties. 

This is a timely and very useful article — especially for watchers of the coming elections.

Mario Loyola — Contributing editor Mario Loyola is senior fellow and Director of the Center for Competitive Federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He began his career in corporate ...

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