The Causes of Political Polarization Seem Pretty Obvious

Peter Orszag, former OMB Director for President Obama, provides his thoughts and a few hypotheses on our increasingly polarized politics, and why that is, in a Bloomberg op-ed published yesterday. He notes, rightfully so, that polarization in our current political context is troublesome:

Our political system is so plagued by polarization, it’s difficult to move any legislation forward. In the late 1960s, significant overlap existed in votes cast by the most conservative Democrats in Congress and those cast by the most liberal Republicans. (See accompanying chart: Polarization in Congress.) By the late 1980s, the common ground had diminished. Today, it has virtually disappeared.

This overlap was due in part to a more geographical nature to voting blocs. For example, there existed a large contingent of southern Democrats devoted to the preservation of institutionalized white supremacy in the 1960s. Nowadays, our political parties are split along ideological lines. Iit’s safe to say that the most liberal Republican is securely to the right of the most conservative Democrat, like Mr. Orszag says. It may be the case that Scott Brown or either of the Senators from Maine are more liberal than Ben Nelson, but what it ultimately comes down to are their voting records, and their voting records say otherwise.

What we now have are two parties that are much more disciplined than their previous selves and much more devoted to doing whatever it takes to win elections, i.e. filibustering everything under the sun and letting the public assign blame to the only place that makes sense: the people in the majority, who are unable to pass legislation.

Orszag, citing Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s The Big Sort, thinks this polarization is due to reasons other than the simple reality that we live in a two-party system in which one half of the spectrum has totally lost their shit and abandoned moderation and sensibility while maintaining electoral competitiveness by playing fatalist politics:

One crucial cause, as documented in “The Big Sort,” a path-breaking book by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, is increased residential segregation by political party. We are voluntarily separating ourselves into Republican and Democratic neighborhoods. Today’s media and blogosphere, which increasingly filter news according to their point of view, exacerbate and reinforce the effect.

Two maps (see accompanying maps: 1976 Election and 2008 Election), taken from a recent paper by James Thomson of the RAND Corp., show the U.S. broken down by county (county lines have also not been redistricted). The dark-shaded counties are those that have swung hard one way or another in a presidential election, and so are considered polarized, while the light counties are politically mixed. The difference from 1976 to 2008 is striking: The number of light counties has fallen sharply. Roughly 25 percent more of the U.S. population now lives in a landslide county than did in the 1970s.

I don’t see how this geographical redistribution leads to anything other than some additional safe seats for each party. And I’m especially confused as to how it leads to an uncompromising, semi-dysfunctional legislature. Peter Orszag is an economist, so he should know that people respond to incentives. Just like people are going to move for whatever reason provides them the most utility, politicians are going to behave in a maximizing way, too. The incentives to work together are clearly misaligned when a minority party can effectively act to the detriment of the majority party’s legislative agenda and be electorally successful.

It’s also a mystery as to how polarization amongst parties necessitates a polarized electorate. The average American voter is someone who doesn’t pay too much attention to politics, has moderate views on social issues, and knows nothing about economics. Yet despite these realities, elected Republicans, who won office in a midterm election amidst the greatest economic downturn in 80 years, proceeded to gut collective bargaining, pass anti-abortion legislation, disenfranchise the young, hold the country’s credit hostage, propose privatizing Medicare, defend financial institutions against new regulatory legislation after those financial institutions tanked the world economy on their watch, etc. Poll these things with the public and it’s obvious that none of them are popular. Pinky promise. At least they aren’t amongst non-cranks, and it’s the non-cranks that decide elections, usually basing their vote solely on the direction they feel the economy is moving.

So the obvious solution is for the public to pay more attention and better acquaint themselves with legislative processes and tactics. I’m not very inspired by that.

Mr. Orszag recommends a better route:

The best bet on what will happen in Washington is, therefore, nothing — until and unless it has to. The Big Sort generates gridlock, making it increasingly difficult for lawmakers to tackle anything from climate change to budget balancing.

Clearly, redistricting reform won’t help us much. Instead, we should try to create a new set of rules and institutions that can use legislative inertia to our benefit — just as a growing body of tools in the private sector, such as automatic- enrollment 401(k) plans, are using inertia there to produce better outcomes.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board, created to constrain cost growth and improve quality in Medicare, without new legislation, is one example of trying to leverage legislative inertia. The key is that inaction by Congress allows the IPAB’s recommendations to take effect.

Another example is the backstop fiscal trigger currently being discussed as part of the debt-limit negotiations. With this mechanism in place, congressional inaction would lead to automatic spending cuts and/or revenue increases (and, by the way, the trigger should include both). Here again, legislative inaction wouldn’t mean failure to address a problem.

The era of gridlock government is unlikely to disappear overnight. We might as well figure out how to function with it.

This is fine in the intermediate, I guess, but we’re in trouble outside of that. Concrete things need to happen if you want to correct our democratic inefficiencies. Our campaign-finance law needs serious amending; the filibuster needs to go; there are various other voting methods that are vastly superior to First Past the Post such as Instant Runoff Voting, which has the potential to alleviate us of our two-party problems, and give the political middle more salience.

I could go on, but I’ll conclude by saying that our political system is flawed in ways that incentivize polarization but can’t accommodate it. I just disagree with Mr. Orszag on the factors that create this. American society is no more polarized than those of other western liberal democracies. These just have slightly better systems of governance that circumvent the negatives.

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