Monday, November 9, 2015

Political Polarization: 91st v. 114th Congress

     What is political polarization? According to Ezra Klein, an editor-in-chief at Vox, "political polarization simply measures overlap between the two parties. A high level of political polarization means that Republicans agree with Republicans and that Democrats agree with Democrats" (Klein). When there is little polarization, members from both parties are more likely to compromise; however, today's highly polarized political landscape has led to an attitude of unyielding from party lines—largely attributed to current ideological perspectives in Congress.

     The ideological differences from past to present are glaringly apparent when comparing the 91st Congress—arguably the least polarized since the late 1800s—to the current 114th Congress. The country was facing major civil and economic struggles in the years prior to and during the 91st Congress. The unpopular Vietnam war, civil rights protests, increasing crime, and an economic recession were among those struggles; however, the 91st Congress managed to avoid deep polarization. They successfully passed an impressive list of major legislation, including the historic Equal Protection Act which guaranteed equal protection for women. Although the act was never ratified by enough states and eventually died, the 91st Congress maintained amazing cooperation, even though a Republican president resided in the White House while both chambers were under Democratic control.

      In contrast, the number of bills passed in the 114th Congress is lackluster when compared to a more cooperative 91st Congress. It is hard to imagine the 114th Congress finding the necessary bipartisan coalitions to pass as much significant legislation, even if faced with the same struggles of the 1960s and 70s. Arguably they face similar economic challenges, considering the mounting deficit leading to government shutdowns. There is also the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that still act like an anchor on the economy, dragging it deeper into the mud, yet polarization remains at an all time high. Clio Andris, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University writes, "partisanship or non-cooperation in the U.S. Congress has been increasing exponentially for over 60 years with no sign of abating or reversing"; a view shared among his peers in a research article titled, "The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives", published on PLOS ONE (Andris).

     How far back can today's deep polarization be traced? Ezra Klein points to a 1950s report, "calling on the two parties to sharpen their disagreements so that the American people had a clearer choice when casting their ballots" (Klein). This appears to be a fundamental change between the 91st and 114th Congress with members more stubbornly following the party lines, often times in spite of the other side. Compounding matters further, voters are all too willing to vote for more partisan members to suit their own individualized support of legislation. As a consequence, an already divisive Congress is left to move further apart as they lack the ability to compromise on things as fundamental as their own rules, let alone legislation of any significant impact. While groups like the Tea Party may appear to be the root of polarization, studies show that such groups were born from the shift towards the lack of cooperation, yet they feed off of and contribute to the polarized nature of today's Congress. It’s like a runaway train with no one at the wheel: there is no stopping it until it derails.

Works Cited

Andris, Clio, David Lee, Marcus J. Hamilton, Mauro Martino, Christian E. Gunning, and
     John Armistead Selden. "The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators
     in the U.S. House of Representatives". PLOS ONE. (2015). Web. 9 Nov 2015.

Klien, Ezra. "Congressional Dysfunction". Vox. (2015). Web. 9 Nov 2015