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. Jim Beile

    David Bergen just wrote an article suggesting that we need a leader like Churchill. I don’t believe the leadership he is asking for can come from President Obama or any other politician. Unfortunately, our politicians are not leaders, they are followers of popular ideas. But there is an ARMY of people and organizations out there with great ideas and solutions. I can’t read their reports, articles and blogs fast enough the keep up. I can’t decide which one to donate to next. This is where leadership would really pay off. Imagine if someone could bring all this excellent effort together and focus it on a common vision, a common set of objective and a common strategy. I suggest that someone with connections and influence (like Arianna Huffington) organize a convention this fall of “Americans for the Center”. If Grover Norquist can control the entire Republican Party with a stupid pledge, imagine what someone could do with who actually had the common good in mind and could create an intelligent debate. I expect the Super Congress to be more of the same and a waste of 6 months, so I suggest we start now and show Washington what leadership from the middle looks like.
    I suggest the organizer include Jim Wallis from Sojourners and someone from Coexist so there is rational religious representation. Remember that the reason we have the separation of church and state is because the Baptists put pressure on Jefferson.

    August 8, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  2. Mark Kirk

    Since the time a Greek pointed out the flaw of the politics of his time in that "we" vote for the most popular person {best,richest,handsomest schmoozer] instead of the most capable and intellectual -that seems to have remained the same. I think the main problem or where to put the blame for politics in washington is on the voters who vote for people who I consider are both stupid and lack common sense and wonder why things go to hell. Michelle Bachman for instance disagrees with 95% of scientists over a global warming gas saying it is not a problem yet she is the front runner currently for the republicans. In Oregon's last elections a man ran who wanted to put reactor waste into the infrastructure as a great idea-why do we even consider these people and allow them to run? This is a separate issue from if they are christian or not but on that subject church and state should be separated as we are not all of the same faith but may worship god as we please if it harms no other-that's American!{also allowing Agnostics and non believers].What about being stewards of the earth? It seems it's just too easy to say christ is coming and drill baby drill . Also if christ comes his reign on earth will be for some time-so I wonder why christian politics always seem not to want to keep the world nice until he gets here [and as Americans we don't all have to believe it matters not if we gut the earth as we will live forever in heaven].

    August 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
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  24. naksuthin

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