In legislatures across the nation, a growing ideological divide is getting harder to bridge.
Partisanship:the firm—especially biased, emotional or blind—adherence to a political party or cause.
Polarization: the widening of an ideological division, within a population or group, into opposing extremes.
By Suzanne Weiss
Lawmaking has always been a messy business.
The debate, compromise, deal-making and bargaining necessary when working through differing viewpoints, values and beliefs to get a bill passed can be downright ugly. But it works.
Tough bargaining by Michigan lawmakers this year, for example, resulted in a $194.8 million lifeline for bankrupt Detroit. “This is what bipartisanship is all about,” said Governor Rick Snyder. “This was about great teamwork.”
In New Hampshire, lawmakers hammered out an agreement after much give and take to expand Medicaid. Governor Maggie Hassan praised the lawmakers’ “steadfast commitment to reaching a compromise.” The effort, said Senate President Chuck Morse (R) “shows what can happen when we work together to focus on the issues critical to the well-being of our state.”
Yet, in today’s supercharged partisan political environment, lawmakers seem less willing to get their hands dirty.
Back in the Day
Senator Ann Rest (DFL), a 28-year veteran of the Minnesota Legislature, remembers the challenge of passing a state-subsidized health insurance program for working families back in 1992. It wasn’t pretty, but lawmakers took on the challenge and were willing to work across the aisle to come up with a workable solution.
“Back then, a bipartisan group of legislators—they were called the Gang of Seven—shaped the health insurance plan, which involved a lot of give-and-take, and guided it to final passage,” Rest says. “And they did it in the face of major controversy over how the program would work and how to pay for it.”
In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, such an achievement “just wouldn’t be possible,” Rest says.
Is the art of legislative compromise—a cornerstone of representative democracy—crumbling away?
Rest, president pro tem of the Senate, is quick to point out that “there’s no absolute pattern” to the increased polarization in Minnesota’s Legislature, adding that on some issues, “there’s almost as much dissension among Democrats as there is between the two parties.”
She notes, however, that the parties still manage to work together productively, as they did last spring in deciding how to spend a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus. But overall, she says, “there’s not much of a middle. More and more people are bunched up at either end of the spectrum.”
A National Trend
Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R), another legislative veteran, says he has observed the same phenomenon. “I think that 20 or 30 years ago, there were more moderates in both houses of our Legislature,” he says. “Today, the divisions between us are more significant.”
In the Ohio House, Batchelder says that Republicans “are much more cohesive than in the past, which is a good thing, from my point of view.” But he dislikes the idea of controlling how the members of his caucus vote. “I have always run our caucus with the idea that people ought to be able to vote differently if they want to—as long as we’ve got the votes we need, of course. It’s important to remember that Ohio is a state with real diversity, so the legislative process has to reflect that.”
Polarization dominates most statehouses and is steadily intensifying, according to a longitudinal research project called American Legislatures.
Led by political scientists Boris Shor of the University of Chicago and Nolan McCarty of Princeton University, the project measured the ideology of individual legislators and legislatures since the early 1990s, using roll call votes and survey results.
The researchers found that roughly half the nation’s legislatures are as sharply divided as Congress, if not more so, with less cross-over voting. The Democrats vote more consistently one way and the Republicans consistently vote the other way, with both sides voting more often for issues on the extreme ends of each party’s ideology.
States with the most polarized legislatures, the researchers found, are all over the map geographically, ideologically and politically, Among those with the biggest divides are Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico and Washington.
At the same time, some states—Delaware, Louisiana and Rhode Island, for instance—have relatively less polarized legislatures. In Louisiana, both parties are fairly conservative, and in Delaware and Rhode Island, they are both fairly liberal.
More Overlap in the Past
In the past, party was not the only indicator of where legislators fell on the ideological spectrum, Shor said in an interview. Rural Democrats and urban Republicans agreed on some issues, while urban Democrats and rural Republicans agreed on others, for example.
Those areas of agreement are increasingly difficult to find, Shor says. “Today, if a lawmaker supports affirmative action, odds are he or she also supports abortion rights and a progressive tax structure. If you tell me one element of your beliefs, I can predict all the other elements of your beliefs.” One reason for the shift, Shor believes, is the efforts of advocacy groups to nationalize state issues—from voter ID and stand-your-ground laws to tax increases—by promoting “model legislation,” formal pledges and the like.
Shor’s and McCarty’s research shows that what is happening in legislatures is, once again, similar in many respects to what’s occurring in Congress, but not entirely.
In legislatures—unlike in Congress—the senates have typically been more polarized than the houses. But currently, Shor points out, the lower chambers are polarizing faster in more states than the upper chambers. And he’s not sure why.
Nor is it entirely clear why these changes vary by party from state to state. For example, Republicans have steadily moved more to the right in some states but not in others; likewise, Democrats have moved more to the left in some states but not in others. And in other states, positions in both parties have changed very little.
Morris P. Fiorina, political science professor at Stanford University and author of “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” cautions against calling what is happening in the country polarization. In The Washington Post’s political blog, he argued that the parties are not getting more extreme, they are “sorting” where people and policies belong, with the net result being “parties that are much more internally homogeneous and distinct from each other than was the case a generation ago.”
In the past, politicians and policies didn’t fit so tidily into one or the other party. There were several prominent liberal Republicans and a slew of Democratic conservatives.
“In 1960, the greatest support for Civil Rights AND the greatest opposition to Civil Rights were both located in the Democratic Party, and in 1970, one would have been hard-pressed to say which party was more pro-choice,” he says in the blog.
“Today, partisanship, ideology and issue preferences go together in a way they did not in the mid-20th century. While issues and ideology used to cross-cut the partisan distribution, today they reinforce it.”
Whether it’s a rise in political polarization or a shifting and sorting of policies and preferences, Fiorina argues it is a “fundamental cause of the gridlock, stalemate, incivility and other negative features of contemporary politics.”
So, why is it happening now? Various causes—closed primary systems, redistricting practices, party realignment, media coverage and an increasingly divided electorate—have been suggested.
When political science experts gathered in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, several panelists noted a striking lack of evidence that open primaries and other proposed reforms would have much effect on reducing the extreme partisanship we have today.
“Reducing polarization involves much more than tinkering with institutional and electoral rules,” said Antoine Yoshinaka of American University. “In fact, some of these reforms may even exacerbate polarization in some instances.”
Hans Noel, an associate professor of government at Georgetown, attributes polarization to “policy demanders”—ideological activists who “have taken over the parties and compel elected officials to move further to the extremes.” Noel argues in a recent post on Mischiefs of Faction, a political science blog, that such activists are “the base that legislators are increasingly playing to because they are the ones who provide campaign resources and who threaten primary challenges.”
Shor says the value of his project’s data is that “nailing down the numbers” helps to inform analysis of the extent to which polarization contributes to political gridlock and dysfunctional policymaking.
“This gives us a barometer to find out whether reforms like opening up primaries, taking redistricting away from politicians, term limits and so forth can do anything about this yawning gap between the parties,” he says. “And since there are 50 state legislatures, we might find answers to these questions more quickly and definitively than we can with Congress, of which we have only one.”
Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri whose area of expertise is legislatures, has mixed feelings about the practical value of Shor’s and McCarty’s findings.
On the one hand, Squire says, “It’s a major advance to have legislatures on one standard of measurement.” And he praises Shor and McCarty for being the first to undertake the laborious task of aggregating roll call votes and other data over a 20-year span.
But, on the other hand, their findings are somewhat skewed by the fact that legislatures “operate under different rules and have different sets of norms,” Squire says. “For example, in many states, the majority will only bring forward things that are likely to pass. That changes what the batting average looks like.”
In the end, Squire says, “I’m not sure that you can connect polarization with better or worse outcomes. … You could argue that polarization isn’t necessarily detrimental, and that fewer divided chambers offers greater coherence to policymaking. That’s one way to look at it.”
Squire points out that political passions and partisan strife are not new. They are, in fact, an inescapable part of American legislatures and have had to be balanced by agreed-upon rules of conduct, an adherence to formal procedures and, perhaps most important, a commitment by members to forge trusting relationships, he says.
Former Michigan House Speaker Paul Hillegonds recounts how his outlook was forever changed for the better by taking part in a series of bipartisan seminars on tax policy as a freshman lawmaker. Through those seminars, he says, participants not only better understood public policy; just as important, they got to know, respect and like each other.
“You can’t create enough opportunities for legislative colleagues to learn together,” Hillegonds says. Years later, when he shared power as co-speaker of the Michigan House, instead of gridlock, members from both parties found a way to compromise and work together, he says.
“It’s worth taking a risk. Anything we can do as legislators to open up our agendas to different ideas, I think, realizes the best of the legislative process.”
Because after all, Hillegonds says, “Not all the best ideas rest with only one party.”
More Predictably Consistent
Compared with 20 years ago, Republicans and Democrats today are more divided along ideological lines, and partisan acrimony is considerably deeper and more extensive, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
The Pew survey included 10 questions on issues such as regulation of business, use of the military, environmental laws and regulations, immigration, and gay rights to assess ideological leanings. Across nine of the 10 issues tested, the views of Democrats and Republicans have grown significantly further apart since 1994.
Here are five key findings from the Pew survey:
- Americans are more consistent in their ideology. The share who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent. The “median,” or typical, Republican is now more conservative than 94 percent of Democrats, compared with 70 percent 20 years ago. And the median Democrat is more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans, up from 64 percent.
- Partisan antipathy has risen. The share of Democrats with “very unfavorable” opinions of the Republican Party has jumped from 16 percent to 38 percent in the last 20 years. Similarly, the share of Republicans who have very negative views of the Democratic Party has jumped from 17 percent to 43 percent. Among those with ideologically consistent views, 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats say the opposing party’s policies “represent a threat to the nation’s well-being.”
- The center has shrunk. Thirty-nine percent of Americans currently take a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions, down from nearly 50 percent in 1994.
- The most ideologically oriented Americans are more involved in every stage of the political process. These consistently conservative or consistently liberal purists are more politically engaged than the public as a whole. One-third of those who regularly vote in primaries have all-or-nothing ideological views, as do 41 percent who say they have donated money to a campaign.
- “Ideological silos” are now more common. Two-thirds of consistent conservatives and half of consistent liberals say that most of their close friends share their political views—compared with just 35 percent among the public as a whole. Three in 10 on each side of the divide say it’s important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views.
The Gap Grows Wider
One way to evaluate the nation’s level of partisanship is reflected in how members of each party view the job performance of the president. Since the late 1970s, approval ratings for presidents have divided along party lines by a consistently widening margin. For example, 57 percent of the Democrats polled and 30 percent of the Republicans approved of Carter, a gap of only 27 points. Today, 83 percent of Democrats, but only 14 percent of Republicans like the job Obama is doing—a 69-point gap.
President Dem. Approval GOP Approval Approval GOP
Obama 83% 14% 69
G.W. Bush 23% 84% 61
Clinton 82% 27% 55
Reagan 31% 83% 52
Nixon 34% 75% 41
Eisenhower 49% 88% 39
G.H.W. Bush 44% 82% 38
Kennedy 84% 49% 35
Ford 36% 67% 31
L.B. Johnson 70% 40% 30
Carter 57% 30% 27
Source: Survey by Political Pollster Neil Newhouse, Public Opinion Strategies, April 15, 2014.
Suzanne Weiss is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to State Legislatures magazine.