Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Roots of Political Polarization

There has been much made recently about the polarization of American politics (link, link). The current political climate has been characterized variously as lacking civility, hyperpartisan, the "politics of division", and so forth. Political veterans frequently reminisce about the good old days when it was possible to “work across the aisle” to get things done. Today things are different. Political positions have hardened, and this is reflected in the extraordinarily large number of party-line votes in congress. Congressmen tend to vote as a block, only rarely crossing party line. Books have been written about this phenomena. One recent book, Fight Club Politics by Juliet Eilperin, traces the origins of hyperpartisanship in the House of Representatives to partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Eilperin believes that by redrawing Congressional districts to make them politically safe, the incumbents become more ideologically extreme. Yet the polarization of American politics extends well beyond the House. Take, for example, the Supreme Court where most justices can be accurately characterized as Liberal or Conservative, and they will tend to predictably rule on the Left or Right side of an issue, respectively.

The prospect of looming Supreme Court appointments made the 2000 presidential election one of the most contentious in history. With so much hanging in the balance, neither side was willing to concede defeat. The Supreme Court has assumed enormous power as an ever growing array of human concerns are brought before it. Perhaps more than control of Congress, control of the Supreme Court is now the choicest political plum. The Senate hearings for Supreme Court appointments have become politically charged events. The hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 are perhaps the most notorious. Anita Hill testified that she was sexually harassed by Thomas when she worked in his office in the 1980’s. While this outrageous claim was totally unsubstantiated it called the confirmation of Thomas into serious question. Ultimately, the Senate voted 52-48, largely along party lines, in favor of Thomas' confirmation, making it the closest confirmation vote for a Justice in the 20th century.

What is responsible for such wide-spread political polarization? I believe the answer is surprisingly simple: Power. While politics have always been about power, never in the history of the United States have the stakes been so large. Due to the expansive reach of government, we have arrived at a point in history where virtually every aspect of our lives have a political dimension. What we can eat, where we can live, when and where we can worship, who we can marry, when we can die, all of these decisions are regulated to one degree or another by our government. Consequently, gaining and retaining political power has widespread and significant implications for average Americans. Nowhere is this effect more apparent than in the economic arena, where loss of political power can have a direct impact on the pocketbook. As growing numbers of Americans become recipients of one or another government entitlement program, reform will become ever more difficult and contentious. The tax code is frequently used for dispensing political favors or inflicting retribution. Businessmen face the prospect of predatory regulators dispensed by political enemies that can easily destroy a successful company. The net result is that a sizable and growing segment of the population sees gaining and retaining political power as a key to their personal economic success. This can transform democratic politics into a form of civil war.

Political polarization is not a uniquely American problem. We are seeing bitter and occasionally violent political battles in many of the mature democracies of Europe. For example, in 2005 we saw protracted violent demonstrations that started in France and then spread across much of Europe. The anti-globalization movement is also a reflection of a desire to hold on to domestic political gains in the face of growing international pressures. As the stakes become ever higher, people are inclined to take ever more extreme measures to hold onto power. If you want to return civility to politics, you have only to decrease the stakes. The economist Martin Wolf has written “For democracy to function the domain of the political has to be circumscribed.” Unfortunately, we now live in a world where practically everything is a political football.

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