Why have Democrats and Republicans failed to come together on a budget agreement, leading to a government shutdown? Why—despite warnings from the Treasury that default on the nation’s debt would lead to economic disaster—are the parties facing yet another fight over raising the debt ceiling?
Democrats, of course, say it’s the fault of Republicans in the House of Representatives for refusing to pass a continuing resolution that institutes spending cuts while preserving the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. As the Democrats point out, the resolution has already passed the Senate, and President Obama has pledged to sign it.
For their part, Republicans blame President Obama and Senate Democrats for not being willing to sacrifice Obamacare in order to keep the government open. After all, House Republicans say, the House has already passed a resolution that would restart the government while eliminating funding for implementation of Obamacare.
Putting aside both parties’ self-serving explanations, the real answer lies in developments since the 1960s that have changed the parties in ways that make cross-partisan compromise on important issues increasingly difficult. Rather than stemming from individual politicians’ foibles, these changes are systemic, determining the kind of politicians that occupy positions of national leadership and the incentives they face once in office.
Three interrelated developments are most important in explaining the decline of cross-partisan compromise and the rise of partisan combat over issues such as the budget and the debt. They are the transformation of the parties from diverse coalitions into ideologically unified blocs; the increasing importance of primary elections (and the declining significance of general elections) in determining congressional representation; and the rising influence of well-funded ideological activist groups.
In today’s highly polarized partisan environment, it is easy to forget that both the Democratic and the Republican parties were once composed of diverse factions.
Prior to the mid-1960s, the Democratic Party was split between a liberal bloc, consisting primarily of Northern intellectuals, union members, white ethnics, and African-Americans, and a conservative cadre of Southern whites. Meanwhile, the Republican Party housed both conservatives hailing from Midwestern and western farm states and liberals located in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Western states of California, Oregon, and Washington.
However, the major conflicts of the 1960s over race, Vietnam, and the “counter-culture” unsettled these alignments. From the late 1960s until the present, Democratic representatives and their constituents increasingly assumed liberal positions on every economic, social, and foreign policy issue, while Republicans adopted conservative positions. Over time, the parties’ geographical bases shifted as well, with Democrats coming to dominate the coasts and the upper Midwest, and Republicans enjoying control of the South and the nation’s vast interior.
The ideological realignment of the parties created the precondition for nasty battles between Democrats and Republicans over the federal government’s finances. Issues such as the budget and the debt ceiling, which might once have split both parties, now pit ideologically unified parties against each other. Indeed, according to analyses of roll call votes, the parties are more polarized today than at any point since the late 19th century.
However, to understand why many members of both parties believe that it is in their best interest not to compromise on financial matters—even when the nations’ credit and economic well-being hang in the balance—we have to appreciate how changing election practices, coupled with the changing role of activist groups in campaigns, have reinforced partisan polarization.
Today, general elections in many congressional districts are uncompetitive. In state legislatures throughout the country, legislators have worked to make as many congressional districts as safe for one party or the other. As a result of this gerrymandering, incumbents routinely win between 85 and 95 percent of House elections (Senate general elections are somewhat—but not much—more competitive).
In 2012, 90 percent of House incumbents were re-elected. This means that the real action is in the primary elections that determine which candidate gets to represent the party label in the general election contest.
However, primary elections tend to be very low-turnout affairs, and the individuals who vote in primaries are generally more ideologically extreme than those who stay home. Thus, even incumbents who are almost certain to win the general election campaign face pressure to adopt extreme political positions, in order to appeal to the primary electorate and fend off potential primary challengers.
The pressure on incumbents to appeal to the ideological extreme in order to fend off primary challenges is particularly strong. Numerous activist organizations on the left and, especially, on the right have made it their mission to enforce ideological purity from members of Congress. These groups threaten to withhold financial support—or, worse, support a credible primary challenge—unless members toe the group’s ideological line.
With the Citizens’ United decision, which allows these groups to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns, the threat of “being primaried” is very real, even if only a small number of incumbents actually loses a primary in any given election. The defeat in recent Republican primary elections of several high-profile incumbents, including Senators Bob Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana, by more conservative challengers sent the signal that all incumbents are potentially vulnerable.
In short, the rising importance of primary elections and the central role played by activist groups in primary campaigns exacerbate partisan polarization, making bipartisan compromise even harder to come by.
Not only are Democrats and Republicans far apart ideologically: Members from both parties also perceive that compromising is a politically risky proposition that could cost them the next primary election. It’s not surprising that members from both parties often prefer to hold the ideological line rather than search for middle ground—even when a majority of Americans wants the parties to compromise.
To be sure, major crises—a sharp drop in the stock market, a terrorist attack, an international calamity—can temporarily upset this dynamic, as when the parties belatedly accepted emergency measures to bail out failing financial institutions in 2008. Likewise, public backlash against gridlock can spur the parties to compromise. Notably, widespread outrage against the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 led to compromise budget agreements that reopened the government’s doors.
However, once these extraordinary circumstances have passed, the underlying conditions driving partisan polarization and discouraging cross-partisan compromise remain. Thus, even assuming that the government is eventually reopened and that a default on the debt is avoided, we can be certain that a new day of bipartisan compromise is not just around the corner. Rather, the nation will lurch toward the next crisis, just as it stumbled through the past ones.
Jesse H. Rhodes is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of “An Education in Politics: The Origin and Development of No Child Left Behind” (published by Cornell University Press), as well as of numerous articles and book chapters.
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