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. Eric the Red

    Language is a much bigger divide than politics, and that divide is becoming an angry chasm.

    July 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  2. oneSTARman

    MAYBE its time we GROW UP and start Governing OURSELVES. We no longer need 'Representatives' who ONLY represent the Lobbyists who PAY them. The INTERNET has created a NATIONAL TOWN HALL where Citizens could VOTE on Issues instead of for People to Vote FOR US. DEMOCRACY – It is what we SAY we Believe in DO WE?

    July 29, 2011 at 7:23 am | Reply
  3. osaxono

    ROFL Why does CNN ask a question about Polarization then only talk about Conservatives....your news agency is really this hypocritical? But its pretty easy question to answer. The people who WORK are tired of paying for people who are LAZY. 52% of Americans do not pay taxes...over half our country..and people like Obama, liberals, democrats want the 48% to pay more. Well F U. Sorry you dont get hand outs when your chatting on a cellphone..or using foodstamps at McDonalds..or watching cable TV..or drivng around in a 20k$ car...and then say "I cant afford health care" or "I cant afford to feed my own kids".

    July 29, 2011 at 9:57 am | Reply
  4. Bob in pa

    Duh, the problems start to go away when you stop wasting our money.

    July 29, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
  5. WeeklyFlier

    Does anyone else note the irony that an article about why we're so politically polarized points all the blame on the right? However, it does serve as a perfect illustration about exactly what IS wrong in DC right now. Finger pointing. Nobody wants to work to make our country better, they just oppose the other side and do whatever it takes to get themselves re-elected. Our government has ceased being about "governing" our great country, and is nothing more than a bunch of power hungry people doing whatever they can to keep that power. It's no longer of the people, by the people and for the people. It's over the people, around the people, and behind the people.

    July 29, 2011 at 10:41 am | Reply
  6. Brian

    Hey wow look, a bunch of comments from Republicans attacking Obama and a bunch of Democrats defending him. How utterly shocking...

    July 29, 2011 at 10:50 am | Reply
  7. Tamara Chen

    We need to take legal action against any representatives and senators acting in bad faiths. Deplete them of all assets – harrass them, deliver trillions of pizzas to their house – insult them – make them miserable.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply
  8. AZLlib

    Propagana machine in action has turned Americans against themselfs. Hitler learned that propaganda will make good people do bad things. Rush, Foux News and the rest of the nut cases on the airwaves have turned brother against brother... People listening to half truths by people paid big dollars to deliver messages is causing the downfall of this country. Within one generation the US will look like Mexico... a small super rich class and massive poor... who is to blame... the propaganda machine and all of its followers.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:36 am | Reply
    • getreal

      I won't argue much of your point I will however add there are other players in this game pulling the strings like the Multinational corporations, the health care industry, the pharmacuetical industry, the oil industry all are part of what I call multinationals and they invest and advertise with this media thus controlling the message to a degree but certainly at the approval of Rupert Murdoch and Koch bros....

      July 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  9. bachmanntwit

    We arrive in rusty 1964 motorhomes.
    We carry bibles and loaded assault weapons.
    We wear ridiculous costumes and have teabags dangling from our earlobes.
    We carry misspelled racist signs as we stomp all over the White House lawn.
    We are Sarah Palin's real Americans.
    We love the baby jesus the most, and we also love to boink our cousins.
    We believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old, and that nascar is a real sport.
    We are the birthers, we are the baggers.
    We are republicans, we are morons and we are proud.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
  10. Dent D

    Never again vote on any Dem., Rep. or Tea Party. Oust them all and go independant

    July 29, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
  11. Modern Philosophy

    Politics aren't 2 dimensional. I think that's something everyone is forgetting.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
    • getreal

      Good luck with getting that notion pass around a populace that seems to vote based on 1 or 2 issues at best.

      July 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  12. ex democrat

    Gotta say, I used to be a democrat and would argue with republicans but The democrats have gone to liberal for me. I don't think we need to say no to raising the debt ceiling, but I do think we need to raise it and then cut spending. I'm 30 and quite frankly, I don't know that I count on getting ANY social security even though I've always had it taken from my checks. Wish all the people who want to spend like there is no tomorrow would realize that eventually their kids may have to pay the bill.

    July 29, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • getreal

      Being 30 makes your first electioin that you may or may not have voted in 1982. America has not seen a liberal democratic party since 1976. Since that time the dems have shifted further and further to the right. Our president now is so right leaning it is hard for me a liberal to vote for him but the alternative is a group of nut jobs h&ll bent on dividing this nation in to nation states rather than United States. I think it would help your perspective if you just looked at the platforms and issues from 1964 – 1980 to kind of round out your view of what is left and right. It could be said that Ron Paul is so far right he is left, as a liberal I agree with much of Ron Pauls ideas....so do us all a favor and look in to history of our politics and read just deep enough to get an idea of where we were and and where we are now.

      July 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  13. getreal

    Most posts on here that I have read seem to ignore his number one reason. Redistricting, my state MN is a perfect example, the right created a for lack of better description pair shaped district with a cresant on the narrow side. This district avoids higher populations and a mix of ethnic and economic groups. This district has elected Michele Bachman 3 times now. Close to the border of her district is a more diverse city district which elected Congressmen Kieth Ellison. Not to say this redistricting hasn't been done by both parties nation wide but in MN the GOP was the party that did it when they got in to power under Jesse Ventura. Now it will be decided by the courts because the GOP is in power but the governor is a Democrat. So once again we turn to the courts which are becoming more and more politically motivated rather than just vehicals of the law they now have partisan leanings if not all out partisan agendas like our Supreme Court. This is the main reason divide the districts to focus on less diverse economic and ethinic groups and you get the haves and the havenots this is the GOP agenda separate the Whites from everyone else separate the Rich from everyone else and give them the power and the money.

    July 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  14. Christopher Graves

    First, the Tea Party is way too moderate for me even though I think they are moving us in the right direction. If you read the Founders and follow the polices & practices of the U.S. for the first one hundred and thirty years or so of our history as they relied on the political philosophy of such thinkers as John Locke, then one will see that the Tea Party is just scratching the surface of needed reformation of our potlics and our expectations of government.

    July 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • Cheesekun

      You are correct. Everyone should own their own black person... and have a barefoot woman to cook them dinner.

      July 29, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Reply
      • Christopher Graves

        Very funny...who has advocated slavery?

        July 30, 2011 at 4:16 am |
  15. Christopher Graves

    A strong influence that undermined the former classically liberal/socially conservative consensus was mass immigration. The traditions of those who came to America early-on was diluted and, in some locales, displaced by large numbers of peoples who did not share in the American ethos. There is no way to separate, in practice, political and economic theory from established ways of life that ideas are embodied within in daily practice. If not for the immigrant population, FDR would not have had the successes that he enjoyed. If not for FDR, the left would not have gained a foothold in American politics. For more on this consider *Time* Magazine essayist Lance Morrow's article, "Cowboys and Immigrants." Smithsonian magazine, May 2009.

    July 29, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  16. Christopher Graves

    Another influence undermining the traditional fundamental consensus was the move of elites to the left.

    July 29, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  17. Ted Ward

    This is the best article I've read by Fareed Zakaria. And one of the best I've read on the troubling problem of increasing polarization of american politics. Thank you, Fareed.

    July 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  18. 8andSkate

    What is Fareed blathering on about? Is America the only country that has polarized politics? Well, I guess, Fareed! No other country experiences this. Come on, Fareed. Think about it, man. Think before you waste all your time writing a hack-piece for Ted. Be free! Live Free. You are not free when you write for Ted.

    July 30, 2011 at 1:55 am | Reply
  19. Kraigaford

    I agree with this article for the most part but the major flaw that Mr. Zakaria fails to really address is the fact that since Reagan the country has continued to move further and further to the right. Being left of center has continued to be seen as more and more unpatriotic. The perfect example can be seen with Obama. Politically he is very moderate, but he is constantly painted as a radical leftist by the right wing. Obama's healthcare plan is eerily similar to the one Bob Dole ran on. Bush Sr. originally came up with a plan for the environment that closely resembles cap n trade. These are now seen as leftist takeovers. CNN, John Stewart, and whoever else can pretend all they want that both sides are equally wrong but in reality things continue to move right.

    July 30, 2011 at 2:46 am | Reply
  20. Style Doggie

    How high would the national debt have to get as a % of GDP before you'd expect a movement like the Tea Party? It's not gerrymandering or Twitter that gave rise to the Tea Party, it's fear of a Greece-style meltdown. All the major political battles of the last 2 years, budget, debt ceiling, Obamacare, stimulus, collective bargaining have had at their heart the same issue. The size and scope of government.

    It's the growth of government and the creation of a class of people dependent on government largess that has polarized politics in recent years.

    July 30, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  21. Froggey

    American politics have been divided and polarized from the very start. This is nothing new and anybody with any real knowledge of American history knows this! It is actually a good thing! Efficient government isn't something the Founding Fathers had in mind. Too much compromise makes for too strong a centralized government, something no real American needs or wants. Generally lefties like Fareed Zakaria only start lamenting the ‘polarization' when their side is losing popular support. Well stuff it, Zakaria! It is what is! Your side wants to spend the country into communism followed by oblivion and now everyone knows it so the tide is turning against you! Too bad, so sad! Live with it!

    Oh and for those total lunatics who are arguing that Obama is conservative or even a centrist: Go read some of his own writings you jerks! Just because he didn't succeed in turning this country into a communist collective the way you loonies wanted him to, doesn't change the fact the he dearly WANTED and still WANTS to do that! Luckily for the country he's such an incompetent fool that the electorate has caught on and stopped him in his tracks, but that doesn't make Obama a conservative or a centrist, not by a long shot!

    July 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Reply
    • Kraigaford

      You have no idea what you're talking about. Clinton was more liberal than Obama and yeah, he took crap from the right but nothing like this. Maybe because he was a white guy. Perhaps you should study the political spectrum friend. I hope someday we get a real liberal in office so I can watch all of you tea baggers cry.

      July 30, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  22. Ugonna Wosu

    the argument above about whether Obama is liberal enough or too liberal is proof of exactly what Fareed was talking about!

    July 30, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  23. Maire

    What about the effects of the culture of ME, Fareed? As in, it's all about ME, it's MY way or the highway, do what makes ME happy, etc. America is the most individualistic country in the world. This may have been true 100 years ago, too, but it's gotten so much worse. Not only can we not agree on anything anymore, in 9 out of 10 contexts we're sold the lie that this is a good thing because it means we're living out our "freedom," or celebrating our "diversity" or some sh!t. Please. Our problems go so much deeper than this article is willing to acknowledge, but since it's safe, easy, and fast to run with surface issues like gerrymandering or scary Fox newscasters, that's what we get, article after article, time after time.

    July 31, 2011 at 4:28 am | Reply
  24. Local Joe

    Why is it we care about Federal Government so much? They are so freaking big! Why are they so big? They keep spending money and growing.How are they able to do this when our economy is week? Debt and more Debt. Polarization has always been from the beginning, there is no cure for people differing on opinions, that's what free speech is. Freedom allows people to have their own opinions not like blind nationalism. Our representatives are actually representing us in Washington (finally) and you are see a REVOLT!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:34 am | Reply
  25. Amavet2

    Go back to India Gandhi!!!

    July 31, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
  26. allahdad

    America is a two party nation, Fareed. Polarization is to be expected and it's always been this way. There's no more or no less polarization today then there was 100 years ago. Whining about polarization is something Democrats do when they're losing in order to gain sympathy and cast Republicans as mean and cruel. I understand you've not been here long and don't have a mature perspective on America. You were brought up in a Godless nation with massive poverty and a caste system, where people believe you can die and come back as a cow. A nation of a billion people with no sense of autonomy or independence. Like one giant ant colony. Don't lecture us, Fareed, because you have nothing to offer America.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Reply
  27. mtclimber

    As an Obama voter, I take exception with Mr. Zakaria's statement that the Tea Party is un-American. Protest through the democratic process is very American. Standing on one's principles is very American. If those who do not agree with the strident Tea Paerty, (me), want to change things we should likewise use the democratic process.

    August 5, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
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