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.

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

soundoff (626 Responses)
  1. Edwin

    It's breathtaking that progressive economists totally lack common sense and wisdom, while they condemn the common sense and wisdom of removing debt and explosive bloating of government. It's among the most basic financial principles that exploding debtor economy CANNOT be justified.
    Neoconservatives, who infected the Republican party since GHW Bush, are a lighter version of socialists. Just examine their history. They are NOT conservatives beyond abortion and other, minor issues compared to the rocketing debt and outrageous bloat in government.
    Progressives are either: 1) completely devoid of the common sense of the danger of exploding debt and the benefits of balanced budgets 2) are maliciously trying to bring down the US with exploding debt, try to to forcibly reboot the economy into a dystopia irrelevant to human nature's true influence on the economy 3) are totally incompetent. 4) a mix of 1, 2, and 3.
    Far right ideologues are also nutty, in also not listening to common sense, wisdom or constructive criticism, just like progressives.
    Since when is the common sense of removing exploding size in government - also directly related to exploding size (or justification of it - EXTREMIST??
    Any small banker or private borrower should be able to figure this out at and individual level.
    I wish people would snap out of this ideological dementia of accepting exploding debt and explosive growth in the size of government, both of which neoconservatives and progressives embrace.

    July 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  2. Tom

    From this article I surmise that Democrats are alll about reason and compromise and that their strings aren't being pulled by radical outlets like MoveOn, Kos, and Huffington.

    July 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Reply
    • David

      You nailed it. When the right stands up, their extremists. When the Left stands up, their do gooders.

      July 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  3. BettyLiberty

    Dems and Repubs are all alike. On paper they're virtually identical. It's not about Left-Right anymore. It's Us against the State. I'm going for the one I can trust, who isn't owned by special interests and lobbyists, socially tolerant and fiscally conservative. We've got to stop these wars, wean people off the welfare teat and get this country back to work. I'm voting for Ron Paul!

    July 26, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  4. Paul

    Fareed Zakaria's books are much better than his political analysis. There's a lot better analysis out there than this grocery store magazine drivel.

    July 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  5. Steve Johnson

    STOP IT!! You are scaring the "normal" folks! For those with moderate views there is not a place to identify. Common sense MUST be restored or else this nation is in deep trouble. I don't believe this country has ever been this divided before. Extremist viewpoints from either side will not allow this country to even begin to repair itself from this giant mess it's in. Let's take back the middle ground. Go to Facebook and "LIKE" PROJECT RESTORE MODERATION.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:42 am | Reply
  6. JusMe

    Judging from some of the wildly outrageous stuff here, I'm wondering why my own rather tame contribution hasn't been posted. Kind of offended, actually. If this one gets posted, guess I'll have to figure that I, somehow, screwed up the last one.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:35 am | Reply
  7. JusMe

    Aw, Jeez, guess it was JusMe. Wish I could remember the one I screwed up.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:37 am | Reply
  8. Byrd

    I would have to say that the Press is most responsible for the polarization. Few if any journalists do more than play the he said/she said game. They rarely if ever challenge a politician when they spew obvious lies and continue to give forum to the most radical of both sides. Christine Roman did call out Florida's insane governor this morning for his failure to answer or even understand simple questions. Like his partners in crime in DC, Scott merely falls back on the one or two-liners they're fed by the RNC and FOX each morning. Playing both ends against the middle as they have for years now was bound to have detrimental consequences for our country and that's exactly where we stand today. Of course, so long as they keep selling newspapers or racking up hits on the internet to impress their advertisers, they really couldn't care less.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
  9. Jim Beile

    Where's the pledge that says, "I won't take any money from lobbyists and corporations?" That's the root of ALL the problems in Washington-garten. Who's circulating that pledge? I'd like to know!

    July 27, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  10. RVD

    TEA party is the root cause of problems. Also republican party is owned by rich people. They have almost destroyed the middle class. They are still not happy. They should remember that we had surplus when President Clinton left office. We had bad deficit and loss of jobs when President Bush left office. All the tax cuts during Bush era did not help job creation. We have more new jobs in last two years than eight years of Bush administration.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  11. ulla nystrom

    Looks to me like the wealthy americans think that they are above the working class people as human beings.
    The owner of the company won't get anywhere without workers. Both need each other. So, give the guy who actually generates the product, a break. Start paying your fair share of taxes, do you really need that 4th house and the 15th car????

    July 27, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  12. ulla nystrom

    One reason why democrats are weaker, is that among their ranks, they don't have as many vocal nuts and extremists as republicans. Their extreme views get all not-so-smart people going and the voice of reason won't get heard because the voice of reason doesn't shout loud enough!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Reply
    • noteaparty4me

      And the voice of reason does not garner big ratings for the tea party media like CNN and FOX. Christine O'donnel's debate was covered because she was a nut and CNN knows that hate and crazy is selling. Then when they crack and shoot a United States Congresswoman, Oh no, what did THEY do! THEY did it, not the media, we are not in this, we are non biased.

      July 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  13. Steve Johnson

    People tend to be blinded by their financial situation. Not saying they are bad,...Just blind to a certain degree.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:18 am | Reply
  14. Steve Johnson

    Cut social programs at a time like this and prepare to deal with a sharp increas in crime and begging...Yes begging.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:19 am | Reply
  15. Steve Johnson

    Need to fix social programs? Yes. But have some common sense.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:19 am | Reply
  16. Steve Johnson

    $ thrown into a social program is not fluushed down the toilet. It buys THINGS. Things that create and keep jobs.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:21 am | Reply
  17. Steve Johnson

    There are not enough jobs and have never been enough to go around.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:22 am | Reply
  18. Steve Johnson

    Jobs have been trimmed over the past quarter century to make more $ for the shareholders. Good for the economy? Yes and no.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:23 am | Reply
  19. Steve Johnson

    If you are $ secure, God bless you and congrats. I don't begrudge that. If you commute less than 20 miles a day or have a company vehicle and or gas card...You are blinded my friend. Fuel cost is absolutely killing this nation.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:25 am | Reply
  20. Steve Johnson

    The economy is in the toilet because of FUEL. Think about it. Many folks spend over $150 a week in gas to commute. Do the math. When it reaches a certain level, they must curb spending on goods,...Goods that creat JOBS. Then they must choose which gets cut this month, the mortgage or the car payment.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:29 am | Reply
  21. Steve Johnson

    Whay am I making these points? Simply put, people like Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and a whole swarm of others have lied and twisted things enough to make a large section of the working middle class (who pays way more than their fair share in taxes) believe that the Tea Party is on your side...Wake up folks! I am very much a moderate. But these exteme agendas and viewpoints are dividing us. That's a bad thing.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
  22. Tim McCoy

    America is only politically polarized in any real sense insofar as there is a black US President in the White House, and many Confederate Flag bumper stickers that say, "Forget, Hell!, on the back bumpers of gas guzzlers. Many of which are being driven from gun shows to convenience stores, for cigarettes and booze, by extremists who swear there is no legit US president because the occupant of the Oval Office was born in Kenya, or Indonesia. Truly, the tea party is correct about one thing. The money spent on public education as been all but completely wasted.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
    • barryho

      Timmy is Exhibit A for the proof of the failure of public eduction.

      July 28, 2011 at 11:48 am | Reply
  23. dugee

    The reason so many people watch FOX is that they want positive reinforcement for their bigoted world views.It's idiot safety in idiot numbers. It is much easier to get a bunch of stupid people on the same page than free thinkers who consider many news sources and question them all.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • ulla nystrom

      Well put, Dugee! Totally agree!

      July 28, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply
  24. noteaparty4me

    Rush LImbaugh said it, "IT WAS ABOUT RACE". The hatred for President Obama overrides love of coutry and what is in the best interest of country for some. When the Democratic leader concedes on tax revenues and offers cuts but debt limit increase and that's refused as well then we have to look beyond the issues. The media can partner in the big cover up but everyone sees it and is calling it for what it is. It's just good ole fashioned American as apple pie, RACISM. And if this is the legacy of Reagan's party, then so be it. The party of hate would prefer to destroy or hurt Americans than to give that "liar", j"d***head, n*****,President anything. Elections have consequences. When you have a tea party media like CNN (Erikson), FOX,, etc. you do get more than your 15 minutes. Enjoy it, it looks like it will be short lived. Next election please..

    July 28, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  25. [ Anonymous P@TRi0T (S3kshuN8) ]


    "You don't have to believe in your government to be a good American; you just have to believe in your country."
    - [ George W. Bush _in_ Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay ]

    (...OK so I fibbed a little when I tweeted that I was starting a Babylon 5 DVD marathon...)

    July 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • [ Anonymous P@TRi0T (S3kshuN8) ]

      I'd say that we're right on track as a nation. I'm not sure where those tracks are going, but I doubt that trying to derail the train is a viable option.
      - (all me)

      July 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  26. David

    What you are seeing is a sharp correction of a government that has moved too far left. Prior to Obama, as I believe Peggy Noonan commented, most policies started in the middle and then tracked left. we are simply paying for that tilt now.

    Obama's presidency has been wholly one sided. No compromise in him. Remember the "ditch" comment and the "Republicans should shut up" comment. Where was Mr. Zakaria's outrage then Perhaps he was too busy cheering.

    I didn't see an comments on CNN about how Obama was unwilling to compromise. It's always the Republicans that are extremists and fail to compromise. CNN, it's time to get fair and balanced.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • ulla nystrom

      The truth is that Obama has done too much compromising , negotiator as he is by nature.
      The other side is determined to drive him on his knees for
      personal reasons, at the expense of the country.

      July 28, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
      • AZLlib

        100% correct... Sen Mitch McConnell noted that his top priority was to insure that Obama was a one term president, not to create jobs, or help the ecomomy. Like the rest of the GOP bought and paid for trash on the hill they are willing to destroy America and turn it into Mexico all for the benefit NOT of the American people as a whole, but for the super wealthy and special interests that lien their pockets. It's time for a masive display of unhappiness by the majority.

        July 29, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  27. Vicki C. Bryant

    The Tea Party is descended directly from The John Birch Society – the father of the Koch Brothers (Tea Party founders) was a co-founder of the John Birch Society). The hysteria they manifest against Obama and the US Govt. has at its root an extreme resentment that a black man occupies the White House. It is good ol' American racism that is destroying this country. Unfortunately, America deserves every rotten thing in store for the evils it has committed. Unfortunately for most of us, we are stuck here and have no way out. No one needs to drop a bomb on the US – the U.S. is handily destroying itself from within. The damage has already been done by this debt-default business and it cannot be undone. The following reality is extremely unfortunate: the white race is the most spiteful race on the planet – it would rather flush the country down the toilet than to share. May the Force be with us...............

    July 28, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Reply
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