Political scientist Polsby and James Pfiffner both agree: today’s congressional polarization began when the South turned away from its traditional Democratic roots and into the arms of the Republican Party. According to Sean M. Theriault (political scientist), when the South was home to the Democrats, 36% of Democrats were more conservative than the most liberal Republicans, and 95% of the Republicans were more liberal than the most conservative Democrats. As Pfiffner points out, George Wallace in 1968 declared that there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties.
So, what happened and what could have caused this?
Political polarization is a problem. Identifying the factors that are causing it is a daunting task. Gerrymandering– drawing Congressional Districts in a strategic manner– as mentioned in this blog’s last entry– is a possible reason for polarization. Districts are more homogeneous, but that is only a small part.
Polsby, a congressional scholar, attributes air-conditioning as a possible factor. Air-condition encouraged migration into the south. This population change allowed like-minded groups of people to live in concentrated areas, think of Arizona’s desert suburban kingdoms.
Nevertheless, these are only outside factors that could influences Congress’ polarization, what about internal factors?
Ready? Here it is: a decline of civility in Congress.
Courtesy, reciprocity, and comity largely made up the tone and practice of Congress in the 1950s and 1960s (See James A. Thurber’s Rivals for Power). These virtuous factors began to breakdown in the 1970s (factors like Watergate and Vietnam). Language prior to this time was marked with largely consistent politeness– this served to manage partisan and personal conflicts. Newt Gingrich used his rudeness to clog and disrupt the legislative process (Eric Uslaner in The Decline of Comity in Congress) unfortunately; being rude– regardless if it seems justified or not– pays to play. It works and because it did– there is now reciprocity of rudeness and personal attacks both personally and politically– on both sides. As a response to this new channel of political influence, the rules of Congress began to change.
The Ethic in Government Act’s design was to promote public confidence and to eliminate corruption, yet this new and recent trend–an uncivilized Congress– has completely undermined the purpose and intention of the act. Democrats and Republicans are using this act to criminalize individuals for policy differences.
This is dark and disturbing trend– we do not want politics to turn into the days of the French Revolution, we are not there yet– but its spirit is.
The example case is when Republicans went after President Bill Clinton for his affair. The Constitution makes it clear (Article II, Section IV) an impeachable offence is when a president commits treason, bribery, other high crimes and misdemeanors. Bill’s affair, while morally reprehensible, is not any of those things. The Ethic in Government Act was a tool to smear Bill for no other reason–but for political gains. You can object to Bill’s personal choices, but should that change the way you think of his policy on Welfare Reform, taxes, or foreign policy? No.
Defenders for his impeachment will argue that he lied under oath. Bill did lie. That was wrong. However, he wouldn’t have to if it weren’t for the Ethic in Government Act. Keep in mind, Bill– up until that point– did not do anything illegal. This act dragged him into court and ultimately led to fines up to 25,000 dollars and barred him from practicing law for five years in the state of Arkansas– over an event that was not a crime.
It goes for President W. Bush as well. Bush’s political opponents launched a committee to investigate and criminalize a number of Bush officials for authorizing torture and committing war crimes. To meet the challenges of the War on Terror, Congress gave President Bush two things. The PATRIOT ACT and Congress’ passage of a resolution authorizing him to take military action and whatever actions “he determines to be necessary.” Are torture and his other activities illegal by American law? Not likely– if so– it is hard to demonstrate that is was because of the loose legal language flying everywhere.
Torture is disgusting and disheartening–however given the law and the resolution, Congress did not explicitly make it illegal. Democrats and a number of Republicans have right to be angry– but that does not mean a lawmaker can use the courts to rein in policy differences.
That is what voting booths are for– rein in policy differences.
So lawmakers are now forced to be polarized in order to insulate themselves from being wrongfully criminalized for policy differences. In addition, polarization may have formed because its practical. When policies you support and pass today begin to enter new political waters, you may want to be sure you have a coalition of support– or face imprisonment and fines.
So who is to blame? The Ethic in Government Act? Is it Newt for introducing new channels of political influence? I argue– no. Is it lawmakers that adopted the practice? I argue–no. Check back later and I will have follow-up post. In the meantime, where do you assess the blame?
Here is a video showing America’s polarization in Congress. Watch how legislatures, through time, become increasingly separate. At first, it will seem like a mixed cloud. Towards modern times, they separate.