The most worrisome phenomenon in the contemporary United States is the continuing polarization of the U.S. political system. This polarization explains why Obama received negligible support from Republicans on the economic stimulus package, and no support on health care. The present Congress is one of the most ideologically polarized in the modern era and there is no policy overlap between the parties. This situation is not confined to party elites and elected officeholders; it reflects changes in the electorate. In the 1980s, roughly 40% of voters were at the center of the political spectrum. In the last decade, the number of centrist voters has dropped to 28%. While cross-party voting has decreased, and the gap between voters’ ideological position and their perception of the other party’s position seems to have widened, the fact remains that partisan conflict is much more significant among members of Congress than voters. Both major parties have increasingly exploited the growing divisions in the electorate over highly charged issues. The clearest indicator of polarization is the declining number of marginal or contestable House seats, although in the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans managed to gain 60 seats. There is also an increasing alignment between the outcome of presidential elections and the outcome of congressional races. The average of split election results for House and presidential elections in the current era are down to 88 from 139 (through 1988). Until the 1980s, an average of 40% of House Democrats in any given election won seats in Republican-leaning districts, a number that has fallen to 15% for the current decade. As a result, the need for congressional candidates to take the other party’s position seriously is diminishing. Voters in demographically homogenous geographical entities are confronting each other. Polarization in the U.S. political system can also be attributed to gerrymandering, or the manipulation of district boundaries to create safe seats for a given party, although some observers dispute the impact of this practice as it is not a factor in the Senate, which has fixed districts (the 50 states) and has experienced almost as much polarization as the House. In the end, however, polarization reflects deeper disagreements about issues of substance: cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the role of religion in society; and in the current crisis context, the role of government in social and economic policy. At the same time, the number of policy areas with potential overlap (i.e., education, agriculture and energy security) is diminishing or such areas are simply losing salience.
One view argues that political polarization makes for a more cohesive party system that is reminiscent of dynamics in a parliamentary system, and leads to more distinct political agendas, clearer choices for voters, a greater relevance of elections, and possibly, greater participation. But it can also be argued that polarization makes resolving America’s pressing policy problems more difficult, as polarization has coincided with new ideological divides and the collapse of the postwar consensus (i.e., containing communism, Keynesian demand management of the economy). Also, polarization is not well suited to the American system of separation of powers and other important non-majoritarian elements. Particularly, ideological polarization makes it impossible to find common ground on cultural issues such as abortion, where one side considers it murder and the other primarily a matter of personal choice. With regard to economic issues, it is hard to see how the country’s long-term fiscal problems can be resolved if one side will allow for marginal reductions in major spending programs only, while the other dogmatically rules out any type of tax increase. Polarization leads to an unstable policy environment, as no issue is finally settled: the party in the minority will obstruct implementation of laws or work for their repeal when recapturing power, which may well happen to health care reform.
Today’s polarized politics prevent effective action in many areas where reform or change is needed. There are certain institutional reforms that could mitigate polarization, such as the de-politicization of redistricting (through independent expert commissions), and possibly the introduction of compulsory voting (on an experimental basis) to reach more ideologically uncommitted voters and thus wean politicians from appealing to their narrow base. California recently adopted a potentially major reform of the primary election process that is likely to strongly favor ideological moderates. An alternative strategy is to accept that polarization is the natural condition of two-party politics and find ways to make Congress more effective and responsive in a polarized context. Because Democrats have retained their majority status in the Senate in the 2010 midterm elections, they may attempt to adopt new rules that would moderate the ability of a minority to block action, making U.S. government somewhat more like a Westminster Parliamentary system. In the end, however, it is not clear whether U.S. policy-making institutions can in the foreseeable future be restored to a workable condition and made capable of addressing the country’s serious policy challenges.