Why Is American Political Culture So Partisan, Mired in Gridlock? 10 Reasons

Back in 1995, just as the Internet was beginning to emerge as a political tool, I envisioned a time when citizens would become more engaged in politics, right from their computers. See my piece, “Vision of a New Democracy: Internet Gives Citizens Chance to Connect.” That future has certainly happened. With the proliferation of email, Facebook, Twitter, other forms of social media, and Youtube.com, citizens are more engaged in politics than they were in 1994.Voter turnout jumped from 49.1 percent in 1996 to 56.8% in 2008. It declined slightly in 2012, to 53.6%, but that’s still higher than most elections since the 1960s, which was the last time voters were consistently engaged the way they are now. Back then, turnout topped 60 percent.

What I didn’t foresee were the unintended consequences of digitization of politics, that is not entirely a good trend. Americans are probably more divided by politics, more partisan, less interested in listening to one another and engaging in compromise. Hyper-partisanship seems to dominate.

Why is the political atmosphere in America so partisan today, and so filled with partisan gridlock? The 113th Congress is one of the most unproductive in modern American history, so far passing only four major pieces of legislation. This is in sharp contrast to the two previous Congresses. The 111th Congress (2009-2010) was one of the most productive in American history in passing major legislation, in the form of 35 new laws, but the 112th Congress (2011-12) passed just 15 bills, and the 113th Congress (2013-2014) passed just 24 bills.

To some Tea Party conservatives, the current “partisan gridlock” may be a good thing because it means Congress is doing less harm than it might if Obama and the Democrats had more power and were able to push through more harmful legislation. So what if, due to Tea Party intransigence, Congress can’t agree on a budget, shuts down the government and furloughs federal employees? So what if the sequester isn’t replaced with thoughtful budget cuts? So what if the debt ceiling isn’t lifted and the government doesn’t pay its bills? So what if the federal budget is held hostage until Obamacare is fully repealed? So what if there isn’t immigration reform or tax reform or another stimulus bill to supposedly create jobs?

There’s a faction in Washington that believes action on this agenda is worse than inaction, that agreeing to “wasteful government spending,” immigration reform that gives amnesty to illegals, and agreeing to tax reform that doesn’t cut taxes further is worse than the current gridlock.

Never mind that these uncompromising legislators are risking damage to the full faith and credit of the United States and to economic growth, never mind that the costs of sequester, government shutdown, inaction on immigration and tax reform are greater than the costs of compromise.

So what are the underlying causes of such partisan gridlock?

  1. Lack of Consensus by the American Public. Face it, Americans are almost evenly divided on key issues — health care reform, tax reform, immigration reform, gun control, deficit spending. Or, the people who are most passionate about these issues participate more in the political process, and have the ability to veto what might be the more popular position. Most people want a balanced budget in theory, but government benefits and low taxes in practice. “Don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree.” Woe to the politicians who take away their benefits or raise their taxes. Once you as a homeowner give up your home interest tax deduction, property tax deduction, or your tax deductions for children, you’re free to feel superior and complain about the hypocrisy of others. Many people rail against “special interest groups,” but are actually part of one special interest group or another themselves. Congress simply represents the lack of consensus in the country. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
  2. Hastert Rule. If House Speaker John Boehner would abandon the Hastert Rule that no bill comes before the House unless a majority of the majority supports it, gridlock would end and more legislation would pass. Back in the 1980s, Speaker Tip O’Neil was willing to work with President Ronald Reagan and the Republicans. Boehner is not willing to work with the Democrats because he’s a weak speaker who fears a challenge within his own caucus and wants to hold on to office. A man of courage would put the interests of the nation ahead of his political party. Even a former aide to Hastert says Boehner should give up on the Hastert rule because it isn’t working for the good of the nation.
  3. Boehner’s Style. Speaker Boehner’s stance is particularly cowardly and lacking in leadership on the debt ceiling, the sequester, immigration reform, firearms background checks, tax reform, and Obamacare. Conservative analyst Norm Ormstein blasts Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for what he calls “the unprecedent — and contemptible — attempts to sabatoge Obamacare. Doing everything possible to block the law’s implementation is not treasonous, just sharply beneath any reasonable standard for elected officials.” In another piece, Ormstein says Boehner’s “passive aggressive style heightens risk of government shutdown.”
  4. Undue Influence of Money. Hyper-partisan wealthy people can now contribute unlimited amounts to causes and campaigns without identifying themselves, meaning the campaigns never stop and the messages never stop. Former Senator Bill Bradley proposes a constitutional amendment to limit contributions to political causes and require contributors to be identified.
  5. Gerrymandering. Republicans gained 13 House seats through unprecedented gerrymandering of congressional districts in 2010 and 2012, using new computerized software tools. Their gains were not due to increased public support and the popular will. Without the gerrymandering, the division of the US House in 2013 (233 Republicans, 200 Democrats and two vacancies) would probably have been closer to 220 Republicans and 215 Democrats, according to an analysis by Princeton Professor Sam Wang. More partisan districts mean most are increasingly safe for one political party or the other. To avoid a primary challenge, reps need to cater to the base of the party rather than the middle of the road.
  6. Rigidly Ideological Parties. In the 1960s and 1970s, according to Senate Historian Richard Norton Smith, members of the Senate “learned within (their) own party caucus how to deal with people with whom you fundamentally disagreed, and that in turn was great preparation for the larger Senate, and indeed the larger body politic. That’s gone. We now have a rigidly conservative and rigidly liberal party.”
  7. Hyperpartisan Talking Heads on Cable TV. Increasingly partisan broadcast media like Fox News and MSNBC have cornered their niche markets, inflaming partisans. “The way you (a member of Congress) get noticed in this town overnight is to say something outrageous,” Smith says.
  8. Tribal Social Media. On social media like Facebook, like-minded “friends” influence each other’s reactions to events, and turn mild partisans into intense partisans. This probably means more people are engaged in politics and believe it matters. Partisans care more. That’s the good side to this trend. Partisans may also be less open to new ideas and compromises. Increasingly, with interactive media, the politically engaged tend to identify with Democrats and Republicans as if they are sports teams or tribes. “This is my team, I’ll root for the winner in every race. HAHA, my team beat your team. HAHA, my tribe bested yours in that close congressional vote.” So, loyalists of both parties are highly engaged. Some Republicans have a blind hatred of President Obama, oppose everything he supports, no matter how unprincipled that makes them, while some Democrats march in lockstep with Obama and support everything he does, no matter if it means abandoning long-held principles. It’s easier than ever before for a political party to communicate with its base. It’s far cheaper to send partisan messages every day or every hour via email or social media than it was when direct mail (snail mail) was dominant.
  9. Unprincipled partisanship. Both parties excoriate deficits when racked up by “the other party,” but claim “deficits don’t matter” (Cheney/Bush) when they are in power. Republicans who supported violations of civil liberties when Bush was president now excoriate Obama for lesser violations; Democrats who excoriated Bush for civil liberties violations are silent or turn a blind eye when Obama continues those policies.
  10. Elimination of Earmarks. When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they eliminated what they perceived as wasteful earmarks — the ability of members of Congress to insert pet projects into legislation, often as a form of horse-trading for votes on issues of more importance to the nation. But the elimination of earmarks, and the reduction in horse-trading negotiations has meant that Congress gets a lot less done. Since 2011, the 112th and 113th Congress were two of the most unproductive in American history in terms of legislation actually passed. Steven C. LaTourette makes the case for bringing back the earmark.

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