July 24th, 2011
02:15 PM ET

Why political polarization has gone wild in America (and what to do about it)

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Watching the extraordinary polarization in Washington today, many people have pointed the finger at the Tea Party saying it's ideologically extreme, refuses to compromise and cares more about purity than problem solving.

I happen to agree with much of that critique, but it doesn't really answer the question: Why has the Tea Party become so prominent? Why is it able to dominate Washington?

We've had plenty of ideologically charged movements come to Washington before. Think of Barry Goldwater or George McGovern.

But once in Washington the system encouraged compromise and governance.

Over the last few decades, however, what has changed are the rules organizing American politics.  They now encourage small interest groups - including ideologically charged ones - to capture major political parties as well as Congress itself. Call it ' political narrowcasting.

Here are some examples:

1) Redistricting has created safe seats so that for most House members, their only concern is a challenge from the right for Republicans and the left for Democrats. The incentive is to pander to the base, not the center.

2) Party primaries have been taken over by small groups of activists who push even popular senators to extreme positions. In Utah, for example, 3,500 conservative activists managed to take the well- regarded Senator Robert Bennett off the ballot. GOP senators like Orrin Hatch and John McCain have moved farther to the right, hoping to stave off similar assaults.

3) Changes in Congressional rules have also made it far more difficult to enact large, compromise legislation. In the wake of the Watergate Scandal, "Sunshine rules" were put into place that required open committee meetings and recorded votes. The purpose was to make Congress more open, more responsive - and so it has become to lobbyists, money and special interests.  This is because they're the people who watch every committee vote and mobilize opposition to any withdrawal of subsidies or tax breaks.

4) Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast.

Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he suggested that he might further the conservative agenda through an occasional compromise. That provoked a tirade from Rush Limbaugh, which then produced a torrent of angry e-mails and phone calls to Issa's office. Issa quickly and publicly apologized to Limbaugh and promised only opposition to Obama. Multiply that example a thousandfold, and you have the daily dynamic of Congress.

It's depressing, but the fact that our politics are the result of these structural shifts means they can be changed.

Mickey Edwards, a Republican and former House member from Oklahoma, has a highly intelligent essay in The Atlantic magazine suggesting a series of reforms that could make a difference. Some of them are large-scale, others are seemingly small but crucial changes in Congressional procedure.

Read: Fareed Zakaria's op-ed in The Washington Post on "A way out of our dysfunctional politics."

Some political scientists long hoped that American parties would become more ideologically pure and coherent, like European parties. They seem to have gotten their wish - and the result is abysmal.

Here's why: America does not have a parliamentary system like Europe's, in which one party takes control of all levers of political power - executive and legislative - enacts its agenda and then goes back to the voters. Power in the United States is shared by a set of institutions with overlapping authorities - Congress and the presidency. People have to cooperate for the system to work.

The Tea Party venerates the Founding Fathers. It should note that the one thing on which they all agreed was that adversarial political parties were bad for the American republic.

For more of my takes throughout the week and ongoing discussion, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, and bookmark the Global Public Square.

Post by:
Topics: Economy • Fareed's Take • From Fareed • GPS Show • Politics • United States

soundoff (616 Responses)
  1. led lighting street

    My brother recommended I may like this web site. He was once entirely right. This publish actually made my day. You can not believe simply how a lot time I had spent for this info! Thank you!

    August 1, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  2. evony gameguide

    Hello there, You've done an incredible job. I will certainly digg it and individually recommend to my friends. I'm sure they will be benefited from this site.

    August 2, 2012 at 3:30 am | Reply
  3. Geoffrey Carlton

    It's rabid newscasters like Rush Limbaugh that are the root of the problem. A person who can blackmail politicians into taking extreme positions are a threat to Democracy plain and simple.

    August 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  4. imoti varna

    You can certainly see your expertise in the work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren't afraid to mention how they believe. Always go after your heart.

    August 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  5. phenphedrine

    Hello there, I found your site by way of Google whilst searching for a related topic, your site got here up, it seems good. I've bookmarked to my favourites|added to bookmarks.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
  6. Loyd

    Please let me know if you're looking for a article author for your weblog. You have some really good posts and I feel I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I'd absolutely love to write
    some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine.

    Please send me an email if interested. Thank you!

    Outdoor Patio Furniture

    October 6, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply
  7. dedektiflik bürosu

    I like the valuable information you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I am quite sure I will be informed plenty of new stuff right right here! Good luck for the next!

    November 6, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  8. BareTrode

    What [url=http://accutanenorx.lo.gs/#buy-online-accutane]buy safe accutane[/url] do you know about the painkiller you take daily? Does it really have advantages only? Any joint & muscle in the human body can develop arthritis pain. http://accutanenorx.lo.gs/#656, accutane cheap.

    May 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  9. cojxfyttkx

    3ZWUxM, buy carafate, can you buy carafate over the counter, can you buy carafate over the counter, 7hfmZXRW,

    October 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  10. ufetcjwplo

    2lr77j, buy zopiclone europe, http://enemyterritory-stuff.net/forums/topic/101296-buy-zopiclone-online-canada-achat-de-zopiclone/ – cheap zopiclone to buy, buy zopiclone 10mg, 8A4O,

    October 22, 2013 at 11:55 am | Reply
  11. Smith

    How is it possible you show where was essentially i allowed to download this exceptional album on-line? Be grateful.

    November 7, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  12. naksuthin

    24 hour talk news.. That's what has polarized America. TV stations looking for a cheap way to get high ratings without spending a lot of money on reporters , microwave trucks, editors, photographers and sound techs.
    Just stick a guy in front of a camera and let him stir up a lot of anger and hate and disgust with this group or that group. Spend an hour blaming the other guy for all of America's ills will get people upset enough to keep tuning in for more red meat.
    It get's high ratings and low costs.
    That's why I don't watch TV anymore.

    November 24, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  13. naksuthin

    20 years ago I couldn't tell you whether my close friends were Republican or Democrat. No one cared much.
    Today...everyone knows where their friends and neighbors stand politically. And they tend to gather with other friends who share similar political views.
    Politics has become a RELiGION in the US.
    And politicians are only too happy to pander to the left or right in order to stay in power.
    Now you no longer vote for the best candidate. You vote for the politically correct one.
    Too bad for America. So sad for Democracy.

    November 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  14. new balance 574

    Luther isla, pei este o铆rte Nali discurso asesino surgido en el coraz贸n de una mala sensaci贸n, el momento comenz贸.
    new balance 574

    November 26, 2013 at 2:52 am | Reply
  15. Maryjo Wickson

    Awfully enlightening many many thanks, It seems to be like your current readers might possibly want even more blog posts similar to this continue the wonderful effort.


    December 30, 2013 at 8:44 am | Reply
  16. akplnnmdwf

    6HI6s7, http://forum.ownempire.net/showthread.php?tid=235055 cheap ambien online, fL7XE1XF, http://forum.arken.in/index.php?/topic/30674-best-place-to-order-ambien-online/ ambien kopen, Er2EuF2, http://forum.ownempire.net/showthread.php?tid=237078 where buy ambien, A85A, purchasing ambien in mexico, 9vfm8aTn, buy imovane uk,

    February 18, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,028 other followers