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. John

    The tea party question is not a answer, it is a question. I have attended two because my 80 year old father who served in wars and 30 years in the military asked me. These 60-70-80 and 90 year old vets and their wives are wack jobs and bad for the country? Faraad, you are wrong as ususal. These people want smaller government. I am not a Republican or Tea Party member, but I love my dad and I lstened to his friends. The can do math. 1.65 trillion x 10 is basic math. It equals 16.5 trillion dollars and when you add that to 14.5 trillion dollars you have a 20 trillion dollar deybt. Am I wrong? I think these old men see this country's demise in less then 10 years. As years. As you know there is no mathmatical equation that can fix that problem, unless you do serious cuts . At least cut 1.05 trillion that the Dems created and fix the take code and add the 800 billion in loopholes the Reps suggetsted. That way you start paying on the debt almost 200 billion a year.. Nice, huh? Sorry, many Federal jobs will have to be cut, but that is the way it goes. I work for a college. I know the utterly terrible waste the department of Transportation and other money spent gets wasted. They by million and billion of equipment, with no RR budget and it NEVER gets used because the people who have the money, spend it so fast, no one uses their brane.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  2. jayman419

    Anyone who thinks political rancor in Washington is a new thing either has a poor grasp of history or is looking at the politics of their youth with rose-colored glasses.

    It only seems worse now because the 24-hour news media gives more attention to 3500 activists than it does the tens of thousands of citizens who would prefer a more moderate candidate but don't have time to make signs and camp out on the streets.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  3. It's the media

    It's the media's fault. Instead of reporting on the objective facts, they report on the new, big, flashy, things because that draws viewers. Viewers are influenced by what they see, and either say "yeah, that's a good idea" or "those people are F'ng nuts" and it creates this cyclical problem. The thing is, propaganda is effective because it is constant and in the mass media, creating a perception of normalcy. It's not effective because it's put out by the government, but because it appears that the people around you believe something. Oh well.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  4. jayman419

    Anyone who thinks political rancor in Washington is a new thing has a poor grasp of history or is simply looking at the politics of their youth with rose-colored glasses.

    It only seems worse now because the 24-hour news media gives more attention to 3500 activists than it does the thousands of citizens who would prefer a more moderate candidate but don't have time to make signs and camp out in the streets.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  5. AmericanDan

    Fareed Zakaria is the man! So insightful, hopeful, and even-handed. I hope lots of people pay attention to him.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  6. akduck1

    Here's the problem. Forty percent of the voting american public are total morons. These are people so steeped in greedy rationalization and religious irrationalization, that they cannot see how the right-wing is moving this country into armageddon. They are fat people (mentally, often physically and spiritually) The end times aren't here yet, but if the Tea Party gets their way, they are coming soon. Now all they need is a charismatic Herbert Hoover to seal the deal.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  7. Megt93

    Maybe if there was not so much money and power concentrated in one place that would make a diffence. The bigger the government, the bigger the arguments. Perhaps if the power was decentralized there would not be one monopoly government trying to figure out what was best for us with our money.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  8. eaglesfan

    Open up primaries.These used to be open to independent voters, and even voters from the other side. That introduced a moderating influence in the candidate selection, and we used to have a much more stable set of people in office who weren't so blindly driven by ideology. Unfortunately, now primaries in most states are closed to the general voting public, and open only to the idelogicially pure party faithful who decide to register. As a result, we end up usually having to choose between two nut jobs, neither of whom would have stood a chance in general elections 30 years ago.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  9. Joe from Ohio

    The GOP has been pulled so far to the right, they call Obama liberal, when in fact his own party has been condemning him. He is the most centrist president we've seen in recent times.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  10. bellhc213

    Do any of you folks need more proof why is it critical that we get both of these parties out of office?

    July 24, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  11. Rosie

    Two words: Term Limits.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  12. someoneelse

    Another party would be useful.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  13. flarnkingsgargle

    Most people in the world have no real comprehension of how the government that they live under actually works. America's government is especially complicated with the division of powers, bureaucracy, and hundreds of volumes of law. How can we expect the American people to understand government when they would rather watch Dancing with the Stars instead of CSPAN?

    July 24, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Reply


    July 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  15. Elle

    Here's a good, thought-provoking read, that hits the proverbial....

    The Enemy is Washington
    An Economy Destroyed
    July 22 / 24, 2011


    Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury, Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and professor of economics in six universities. His latest book, HOW THE ECONOMY WAS LOST, was published by CounterPunch/AK Press. He can be reached at: PaulCraigRoberts@yahoo.com

    July 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  16. Bribarian

    The cultural marxists trying to shove their ideology down everyone's throats is why we're here.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  17. Alaskahound

    Perception is an individual sense and as our President said "Elections have consequences".
    Whether right or wrong, we'll not know who's correct until November of next year.
    Maybe those that woke last November made to the election results a fluke, but most likely it was the tip of an enormous iceberg.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  18. Yeah Right

    I believe it's because that is how you make $. When the senator yelled, "You Lie" to the president he immediately raised over a million $. Unfortunately you don't raise money for being logical and rational. You have to be controversial in order to get press coverage. Look at Palin... she gets more press than Vice Pres Biden and many other senators combined.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  19. RobbyCanuck

    I agree with Fareed about the need for structural change in the US. But with respect I believe he is overlooking a more fundamental and structural problem that exists in US society – ignorance. Sadly the US has dropped to 20th place in the UN listing of countries with the best education, slighlty ahead of Lithuania. Americans are less intelligent and less informed about public affairs at any time in their history. President Obama has recognized this and made education one of his priorities.

    This drop in knowledge and understanding has resulted in people having a more simplistic understanding of complex issues such as the economy and has allowed right wing GOP candidates (Palin, Bachmann, Tea Partieirs -etc.) and right wing bully pundits (Limbaugh, O'Reilly etc.) to present a "pure" but simplisitic solution to every problem. For example, that only a reduction in spending will solve America's deficits and national debt.

    Because these simplistic policies are simple, they are easy to glob onto because they do not take much thinking to absorb or support. As a result America is faced with these intransigent adherers we now see in the GOP and the Tea Party. When their simplistic thinking is challenged they become annoyed and defensive and rather than justify their policies they blame the President or liberals or progressives.

    This is a classic case where KISS (Keep it simple stupid) continues to perpetuate stupidity.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  20. tagUrIt

    This article dances around the core issue . The formation of the tea party is a result of total fear; the fear of equal share that could be induced my a black president. This is a threat to the so called “superior and supermacy” of this soceity. It’s not about big governament and spending – if spending was the case then the tea party should have formed and protested during the eight years of the Bush administration. It is very ironic that the party formed during an after the healthcare reform. Perhaps this ignited the fear that some would have to pay alittle more to help other? Or perhaps the small percentage will losing their grip/control? i digress…
    We need to start calling a spade a spade in order to idenify the “true” root cause of the culprit’s behavior.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  21. FerdinandIX

    The military needs to just take over. America needs a Pinochet. This is the solution. The final solution.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  22. Ridiculous

    I think it would help Zakaria and CNN to take a college level Political Science class and learn Duverger's Law of the problems of single member districts with plurality voting systems. It'd also be worth paying attention to the fact that it benefits politicians to keep voter turnout down... so that it is easier to pander to the extremes. In this day and age, it makes no sense to have election day on a weekday... nor does it make sense not to make it a national holiday to ensure higher turnouts. But of course, that would mean they would have to take into consideration majority of America who is in the middle.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  23. Shawn Irwin

    Add a third party and all the deadlock is gone.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  24. Spence

    What Fareed and others fail to realize is that the left-sided media created the popularity of Rush Limbaugh type commentary. This also created the rise of conservative biased commentary on Fox News. While so many in the mainstream media point to the bias of conservative commentary, they do not understand that they are left-biased in their reporting. This is not reflected necessarily in commentary, but what the editors decide to report as news. Fox News is on the right and MSNBC is on the left – that is clear. Network news and CNN tend to avoid the ideological commentary; however, the problem is not as much how they report the news, but what they choose to report. When half of the news is left on the floor of the editing room, it is left for the pundits to pitch. The claim from many on the right that the news media is dead in the U. S. sadly seems to he very true. This is not entirely what has created such political polarization in this country, but it is a major factor. I think that historians will look back and correctly identify this time period as one where the media failed the the American people.

    One more personal note: Why is it that those in the mainstream media always name Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck as right wing noise, but never mention Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, or the ladies on The View as noise makers on the left? Again, here is just half of the story. Is it really believed that the left had no influence on the passage of health care reform or the stimulus package? Really? As for the current debt crisis, the U. S. will have to go through a painful bankruptcy – period. No matter what course of action is taken, this is the pathetic reality. We now just need to focus on how we recover from the crash. The media will not speak the truth on this one.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  25. pete

    I have to say, after having discussions with people on the right, Obama could offer to cut $9 trillion in taxes, end the EPA, FDA, USDA, Federal Reserve, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Welfare, unemployment insurance, any and all anti-gun laws, become staunchly pro-life, promote creationism, proclaim that being gay is a "disease" that can be cured, support the creation of local militias to challenge the authority of the federal government, and go to war with every single country that we don't like, and the right-wingers would still declare him the second coming of Fidel Castro. The only thing that MIGHT help him not be hated as much is if he changed his name to John Smith and became white.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  26. dljr60

    We are a polarized nation because their is an on going shift in the morals of the USA. My view, this is a slide into the Abyss. Fareed's articles and view points serve to undermine the American way of operating. I think he is USA citizen now, but he would prefer we adopt a strong government way of operation like exists in his home nation. I say no way. I do not think we need to compromise. The problem is, we don't have good ideas coming from Washington. The Tea Party is not the problem. To say they are a problem is un-American. The right to SPEAK UP is what has made us a great nation. Now, many are trying to take this right from us. I say Mr. Fareed, go back to your country. You do not understand why our politics is so polarized. And we do not want your sharia guided views.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  27. dshuck

    "Debt Limit Talks"

    Wipe out Domestic Terrorism in the USA, stop rewarding the Republican Party for its terrorist tactics of holding Congress & the USA hostage!!!

    ENOUGH!!! No more tolerance for the Anti-American Domestic Terrorist tactics perpetrated by the Republican party. The Republican have put their rhetoric and subversive policies above the the wellbeing of our Citizens and the Country. No More, this has to end!!!

    July 24, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  28. FrankinNJ

    I love how Fareed points the finger at everyone but himself for this problem. The new media is the reason? How about the absolute selling out of the old media. The fact that he is writing for CNN, which has a clearly left leaning agenda could not possibly be the reason that people have gone to the new media in droves, could it. As usual this is nothing more than liberal talking points dressed up as journalism. You Mr. Zakaria are one of the main reasons that people are so divided. You and the others of your ilk on both sides, that have forgotten what journalism is because you would rather sell your soul for a nickle than represent real news and unbiased reporting.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  29. Ken

    Why do Fareed and most other commentators continually castigate the "simplistic" approach of the Tea Party to fiscal sanity in comparisons with the "sophisticated" liberal approach to outlandish and unaffordable promises of social programs??

    July 24, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  30. pete

    Obama could cut $9 trillion in taxes, banish the EPA, claim global warming is a "sham", support creationism, label being gay as a "disease" that he can personally cure at his church through "therapy", end the federal reserve, and finally support local militias as a way to fight "government intrusion", and he would still be labeled as the anti-christ. The only thing that might help him is changing his name to John Smith and becoming white.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Reply
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