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. Chris Schene

    The Tea Party has some good ideas, but they are too extreme and ideological.

    The irony is that the extreme position they take will ultimately wear very thin on the American people and they will be discarded in history's trash heap of movements that failed. If we default, the Tea Party GOP members will be thrown out on their butts next election.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  2. mucklucky

    So what happen to this Sunshine Rules back when ObamaCare was in Congress? Republicans were not allowed to speak and discuss the bill during the proposals and Pelosi required a vote before anyone had time to read the actual bill.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  3. HerbR

    A challenging essay, pointing to some of the major forces at work. I'd suggest one addition: the changes you observe are the end product of a long struggle between Capitalism's advocates and the defenders of popular government. The issue as seen from the side of the moneyed interests is: how do we keep governments from becoming active servants of ordinary voters and meeting its expenses by increases by taxes on our properties and privileges ? The struggle commenced in the days of Teddy Roosevelt, a prime activator of the hitherto dormant government, and has accelerated with every expansion of public power. The so-called "welfare state" – a purely propagandistic term – has exacerbated that struggle and raised the stakes of the outcomes. Sharpened ideologies, more powerful propaganda weaponry on the part of the defenders of privilege, and great increases in direct political participation by their agents are creating basic changes in the contests over public power. The signs are, in my opinion, that the defenders of privilege have been winning on a broad front, that sectors of the voting public seem unaware of the stakes and are remaining politically isolated or inactive.
    The deeper issue is: what are the purposes of public policy, who decides the answers to those questions and how do we go about that in this country ?

    July 24, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  4. Nate (Seattle, WA)

    More nonsensical drivel from Zakaria, who refuses to call a spade a spade. Most likely, this can be traced to his significant roots in the conservative movement. While you'd have to call him a centrist now, he like many centrists, can't survive the ego blow associated with admitting that conservatives have gone completely mad, and therefore, to be a centrist is to be an idiot half of the time.

    The issue Zakaria describes is only present on one side of the political spectrum: the right. There is no movement on the left to get more liberal. None. Democrats have moved toward the center, and Republicans have moved to the right. What about this isn't obvious?

    Think back to the 90s. There were liberal issues like gun control, participating in the Kyoto protocol, public financing of campaigns, "Hillary Care". Some people even believed back then that wars could eventually be ended! Those liberal ideas are nowhere in the debate now. Every new idea Obama comes up now with is one he stole from Republicans. Republicans respond by pushing their positions even further to the right, just so they don't have to be seen as agreeing with anything Obama says (since they keep touting him as a socialist, or a Nazi).

    Seriously, Fareed. Where are the liberals? Al Gore's gone into hiding on account of his happy ending massage. Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson are gone. Obama has morphed into the black Ronald Reagan, pushing tax cuts and gutting the government. Are you trying to tell me that Dennis Kucinich is forcing Democrats to the left all by himself? Hell, even he caved and voted for Obama's corporate welfare health care bill.

    If you were a baseball player, Fareed, I'd say that getting it 50% right (batting .500) was great. But, as an op-ed, your work is garbage.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  5. David P. Summers

    While there are "contributors" to the problem, the fundamental cause is the two party system. Each party is controlled by a base that would rather do nothing than compromise and everyone else has not choice but vote for one or the other. If we had more choices, then we could actually punish both parties. One possibility I like is Instant Run-off Voting. There is a good wikipedia article on it.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  6. toddj

    Media, plain and simple. Elite owned media has created an atmosphere of hatred between the two parties in order to keep your focus and hate on the other side of the political isle. All of this so the actual power brokers can run the world without the citizens seeing the truth. It's quite simple really....but quite evil as well. I know, I know.....conspiracy theory.....there's no "theory" to this story any longer. It's sickly, fact.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  7. AnneSD

    We can point at the media, the politicians and the special interest groups forever, but it will neigher change the root of the problem, nor the only true source of fixing it - the informed and reasonable voter.

    As long as so many voters WILLINGLY allow themselves to be manipulated by the special interest groups, and are willing themselves to characterize their neighbors as the enemy if they don't agree with them completely, the problem will not go away. When we, the voters, allow the governance of our nation to become a polarized game of us vs. them, WE are the problem.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  8. Josh

    The quick answer to this is more parties, the more variety of parties the more effective our govt. will be, Tea party should run as Tea party not republican hybrids, yes this may divide the republican party but on the flip side then republicans wouldn't feel so bad siding with Dems once in a while because their base is different from the Tea party's and its not like the republicans are not going to side with the tea part most of the time anyway

    July 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  9. Jeff in Illinois

    Gee, another in-depth analysis from Mr. Obvious.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  10. neochess

    Those who love the center, like the author will never define to us what they mean by the center.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  11. David P. Summers

    While there are "contributors" to the problem, the fundamental cause is the two party system. Each party is controlled by a base that would rather do nothing than compromise and everyone else has not choice but vote for one or the other. If we had more choices, then we could actually punish both parties. One possibility I like is Instant Run-off Voting. There is a good wikipedia article on it for those who want more info.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  12. boogieshooz

    apparently, every comment I make is auto-banned

    July 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  13. David

    So political polarization is the work of the right and more specifically the tea party? Could you be more biased?

    July 24, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  14. Dreamer96

    We should put term limits on the House and Senate, 2 terms only, make all elections publicly funded, get rid of special interest, and the lobbyist, big money has corrupted the political system.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  15. Renaldo7

    YOU can't get it done because of PARTY, PARTY, PARTY and the inability for these PARTY folks to break out of their narrow view. PARTY also means EGO, EGO, EGO and having to WIN, WIN, WIN while the country suffers. Complete and utter immature selfishness!!!
    It is high time to go PARTYLESS, to have one term term limits, to get out of the middle east, to drop the income limit on medicare and social security taxes, to convert legislation resolution to popular vote, to pay politicians minimum wage and with their one term to eliminate their pensions.
    It is high time to tax the wealthy at graduated higher rates. It is high time to build a conscience into politics that does not presently exist. To cut into Social Security and Medicare and leave the wealthy alone is completely without conscience, compassion and common caring.
    It is high time to have a Democracy where only presently there is a Corporatocracy. Popular voting will tell you how we the people think.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  16. Vincent Hall

    I do not think we are as polarized as the article entails. I am biased as a self confessed liberal democrat, however it appears that democrats have been very willing to compromise and move issues to the center. The republican shift to the hard right in the last 25 years has pulled the center to the right as well. Unfortunately the conservative position of 0 compromise has been linked to virtues such as faith, conviction and vision which is very popular with the base of Republican voters. As Democrats continue to compromise, the right has become even bolder. In the current debt ceiling issue I really hope the President doesn't back down, because the Republicans are now in a position where the unwillingness to bend has been caught in a situation where they will ultimately pay a political price for not compromising.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  17. JusMe

    I haven't read all of the 200+ comments here, so I'm very sorry if I'm an echo of others.

    Just for starters, how about y'all just renounce your chosen party and reregister as an independent. That's a lower case "i", otherwise known as "no party affiliation".

    Just imagine the terrible angst in all of the bastions of power! What will they do when they can no longer count on us, actually COUNT on us ......... without actually talking directly to us?

    July 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  18. Leonard

    The Teaparty venerates the founding fathers?? In order to venerate you must be able and willing to read what they had to say. What they had to say was not simple stuff that can be encompassed in a tweet or 30 second spot. It is sophisticated and not simple. It requires serious thought. What we have are popularisers and snake-oil salesmen who simplify and misrepresent the works of the founding fathers in order to advance their own agendas.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  19. thk76

    Mr. Zakaria,

    No, it is not the Tea Party become so prominent. It looks that way because GOP are using them.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  20. Mr. Gadfly

    No one, of course, mentions that the rise of American Fascism has anything to do with it. Look up the eleven steps that every nation takes toward Fascism and there will be your answer to why America is politically polarized. We have become a Fascist nation and things are really beginning to heat up in the political and social arenas now. The first wave of genocide, carried out bureaucratically by terminating life-sustaining benefits that tens of millions of poor, disabled, and elderly people depend on for their survival, is under way. Of course, none of this is really happening, right? We do not do it for the same reasons or by the same methods that other Fascist regimes did it, so it is not the same thing, right? Look up "American Genocide" online and do a little reading if you do not want to be next on the list of scapegoats when the government is finished bureaucratically wiping out us disabled people who are consistently portrayed as "lazy bums and freeloaders."

    July 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  21. James Edwin Whedbee

    Can we please get 25 rational Republicans willing to govern rather than hold our nation's economy hostage? End this!

    July 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  22. Joe

    We are 70 so you won't have to put up with us much longer. I was in the army 3 years, we got married, bought a house, raise 2 children, sent them to college and always paid our bills. We lived conservatively, never used any government programs and were able to save a little. Now we see social programs that when all are totaled cost more than defense, and people are wanting more and more. The borrowing and printing money is devaluing what little we have saved.
    We think people should take a little responsibility for their own lives, and not expect the government to take care of them. We paid for ourselves and think other should too.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  23. Greg Gilbert

    A Tea Partier is just someone that says stop spending and no on taxes. Someone that balances their budget through cuts alone is not extreme. There is only two ways to do it, with cuts and tax increases and with just cuts. No surprise the media calls the Republican way extreme.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  24. Jordan

    This analysis was a partisan joke. Did anyone notice that every example listed in this video was shedding poor light only on Republicans?

    July 24, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  25. Arya Bagherpour

    Compromise is what got us into this mess.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  26. AMH Carter

    I disagree completely with the authors Tea Party thesis! The situation being framed as a Tea Party problem began with 911 not the election of Barak Obama! It is so self serving for the media and the liberal bias to frame the debate as an economic one and is delusionary! It is also a form of solipsism and the author ought to ADMIT his liberal media problem as a core issue before jumping on the political bandwagon of REWRITING FEDERALISM which is the crux of his and the Democrats assertion that the problem is the Tea Party.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  27. trashcup

    Farreed should give more importance the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter, Hannity, et al. They've been hammering the American public for YEARS – every day for hours each day with nothing to counter their tilted and tainted way they think about America.

    Our politics started to change when their shows started to become popular. They abhor the way it used to be – equal time for the opposite side because they want unrestrained speech – saying the most obnoxious things day after day. WHY? Because the more outrageous they are, the more listeners, the more listeners, the more money they make. If they didn't say outrageous things, no one would listen to them.

    THEY have played a MAJOR role in activating the radical right wing who really are not a majority but who are very vocal at their encouragement. When Speaker Boehner calls Limbaugh and spends time on his show paying homage to this guy, American politics suffers. Ditto heads follow Limbaugh's mantra and can't think for themselves.

    We need to return to equal time for the opposition to speak their viewpoints. Hopefully the pendulum will swing the other way soon before our country turns into a radical right wing total mess.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  28. LMC

    Polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties became a lot stronger after Newt Gingrich discouraged Republicans from fraternizing with Democrats outside of Congress. Republicans were discouraged from attending parties and gatherings where Democrats would be present.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  29. Dennis Ferguson

    Gerrymandering. That's the fundamental cause for our divided country. End it and everything will start to get better.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  30. Expert Comment

    There has always been polarization. But a strong president can always overcome that – look up FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, even George W.

    The problem is that Obama is a weak and indecisive president.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
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