Polarization: Unequal Benefits, Equal Blame

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Mann and Ornstein contend that the current partisan divide, polarization, and gridlock are the products of a very deliberate scheme for power by a party that had been marginalized for most of the 20th century (at least nationally). The Democrats held the majority in the House of Representatives for 40 consecutive years (from 1955 to 1995) before the Republican Party held a majority again. Although Man and Ornstein point to a number of factors for the current era of polarization including changing political geography, media fragmentation, money, corruption, and a politically active Supreme Court, they emphasize Newt Gingrich and his mission to return the Republican Party to majority in the House of Representatives as the key that unlocked the door. This mission of Representative Gingrich included portraying the ruling party as corrupt and immoral as well as portraying the whole of Congress, as a group of individuals and as an institution, in the same terms. This strategy worked for the party claiming to be for small government in two ways. First, as the public began believing the story of corruption and immorality they would punish the ruling party; the Democrats. Second, if the public began seeing the government as an organ of problems they would naturally begin aligning with the party preaching the same rhetoric. This activism towards political divide seems empirically sound. So why has the media continued to portray the issue of gridlock as a bipartisan effort when the benefits are ultimately one-sided? Why have the Democrats done such a poor job framing this issue?

McCarty also points towards an ever increasing shift to the right by the Republican Party as the ultimate cause of divide. As the whole of the Democratic Party has stayed in relatively the same place politically (center-left), the Republican Party has moved further from center with the majority of them identifying as right-center or right-right. McCarty also contends that while the Republican Party has moved further to the right, the American people have remained in the moderate center and may have even come closer together in their beliefs overall. How can this be if as Burstein claims public opinion impacts politics in meaningful ways? This polarization of political parties seems to support Domhoff's position that there is an elite class in America and the people in this class, including individuals like Newt Gingrich, have a disproportionate amount of power to determine political outcomes.

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Nice post, Chris. To your last point (on public opinion influencing policy), I think it’s important to remember that public opinion polls nearly always focus on “hot button” issues. Sometimes these issues are determined by factors external to the legislative and executive branches, such as when school shootings bring attention to gun control or after a major Supreme Court decision focus attention on money in politics (Citizens United) or abortion (Roe v. Wade). But political parties are constantly working to bring attention to their pet issues. I think public opinion influences policy a lot more often in the former case than the latter.

Interesting post. Chris, I appreciate the thoughtful connection you made between the Mann and Ornstein article about the origins of the current political polarization and our conversation last week about the political influence of elites. As I reflect on that, I wish I had a reason to counter your point; as I stated last week, it makes me uncomfortable to think about and recognize the great influence that elites have in our “democratic” political process. Unfortunately, I largely agree that a small group of elites have been allowed to have great sway over the policy process and increasing polarization, and I think the influence of these elites will continue to grow rather than decrease in the coming years, particularly because of the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, as mentioned by Andrew.

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