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. Bodacious01

    Fahreed are you running? I hope so. You have sensible ideas and seem like a man that can stand on principles that bolster Middle Class Americans

    July 24, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  2. RobK

    Why? 1 word... thuhinternet.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  3. John

    Politics has always been like this. To say some golden age existed just beyond our reach of memory is silly. It only seems worse now because our memory spans are more fleeting, and because with a 24 hour news cycle, journalists need to find things to write about (or feel compelled to put a new coat of paint on old stories like this). I respect Mr. Zakaria, but in my 41 years of life on the planet, I've heard this "politics ain't what it used to be" story more times than I count, and I expect to continue hearing until they plant me in the ground.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  4. Russell La Claire

    Money in politics and gerrymandering are the two biggest problems I see.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  5. quacknduck

    The elected employees,i.e. the Democrats and Republicans are one united group working together against the voters.Their single and only professional objective is reelection. What we call “issues to resolve” for them are “issues to maintain, nurture and grow.” Illegal immigration is their model, since 1965 the laws concerning illegal immigration have been clear, and they have never, NEVER, been enforced while the issue polarizes the country. Nothing changes, the issues is maintained, nurtured and grown while the radical on both ends get reelected on their extreme views and the middle gets reelected on the basis that they are the reasonable position and the extremes prevent them from resolving issues.

    The elected employees are a unified group acting in their own interest which is not in the interest of this country or in the interest of the voters, but in the selfish personal interest of themselves.

    Remember this, if you told your boss that you were going to spend the next year looking for a new job, you would not be doing your present job and you expected to be paid full salary, the boos would fire you. Last election Obama, Clinton and McCain did exactly that to us, giving us the finger and laughing at us everytime they picked up their paycheck.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  6. OldBoy

    This article and the comments show why there is a polarization in politics. The only people blamed in the article and by majority of comments are the Tea Party. Didn't the "progressives" use back door maneuvering to stick us with the Health Law without compromising with the other party?

    July 24, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  7. Klamerus

    While Fareed's comments are generally right it's very disapointing that the examples he only ever cites are of bad behavior on the part of the right.

    He wasn't nearly so vocal for the equally bad behavior on the left in the "Pelosi" congress.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  8. Noleader

    Maybe it has to do with the fact that compromise has given us a 14.5 Trillion Dollar debt... Created the banking meltdown... Got us into 2 undecleared wars... and a thrid non-war... gave us a Patroit Act... and has led to an overall reduction in our standard of living.

    Some of us got tired of finding middle ground between bad and worse.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  9. Paul

    This discussion is as polarized as the original biased article 🙂 The gerrymandering comments are right on. Term limits, maybe even just a single term, would be useful also.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  10. jocosot

    Its simple. Bush was so terrible that the GOP took a whooping in 2008. This caused disenchanted republicans to search for answers as they stared into the brink. What they did was move MORE to the right......... a move that allowed them to deny all responsiblity for Bush and his totally ridiculous policies, defined by the Iraq War. I'm no democrat, I even voted mostly republican in the 2010 elections, but let's just be real. In a two party system that has two evil political parties, one party is more childish and out-of-touch than the other.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  11. stephensb

    Moderation , moderate , middle of the road ...... these along with every other term one uses that applies to most of the people in the " middle" of the political spectrum , have become dirty words . It seems that both sides consider those in the middle just as much of an enemy as the ones on the opposite end of their politics . And it has come down to being enemies !!! There is no longer discourse , only yelling , screaming , accusations and threats !!!! This is very troubling , ..... but the media absolutely LOVES IT !!!! It puts eyes on screens !!!!!! They won't even report on measures and propositions that come from the few courageous representatives that are moderate !!!!!
    All that seems to get reported is , One side will spend you into oblivion , The Other Side will starve you into oblivion .
    I say to HE11 with all of them , they have all violated their oath . They no longer even make a pretense of representing US , the PEOPLE . Dissolve the government , new elections without ANY special interest $$$$ , contribution from registered voters only , capped at $500.00 per , and PAPER BALLOTS ONLY !!!!!!!

    July 24, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  12. arma

    In europe the partie that wins takes control of everything?! has he ever EVER looked at euro-politics?! we have multi-partie-systems everywere, no single partie ever takes complete control, we always have painful coalitions, contrary to the states, a duplocracy, in which either party a or b takes complete control.
    im sorry fareed, but that was a description worth flushing down the toilet...
    and the us problems wont be resolved until you properly educate your kids,starting with teaching evolution and leaving out religion( ID)

    July 24, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  13. LouAz

    There should be a separation between religion and government.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  14. jocosot

    What we have today is the result of the whooping the GOP took in 2008. They stared into the brink and pretended that NOT being far enough to the right was their problem. This started all of this...... and NO, I am not a democrat. This is just what has happened.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  15. Matt

    This editorial is completely partisan in itself! Your far left views precluded you from even mentioning that the left is equally to blame for this stalemate. By focusing completely on the far right groups, you just further belief that the media and its pro left stance is a big part of the reason that the tea party even exists at all!

    if you want a European style government, i suggest that you consider moving to Europe.

    In america, laws have to worth passing to make it through all the checks and balances in place, i think that the fewer laws and regulations we have the better we are.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  16. Sherri

    When you have a group of people , theoretically elected by their fellow citizens to do the business of running the country, you would think they would consider all of those citizens. You would be wrong. Special interest groups, 'super delegates', lobbyists, the electoral college- those folk have no vested interest in anything other than their own agendas. Remember 'for the common good'? Political party members don't grasp that concept . Their mantra is to divide, to demean and to discredit anyone who even dares question them. On any subject. It's a toddler convocation. The perks are to prevalent, and there is no accountability, there is no safeguard in place to hold them accountable. They don't have to live by the laws they shove onto the rest of us. They have what most of us will never have- lifetime pensions , healtcare and myriad other 'gifts'. It's absurd to think that they give one second's thought to what they are supposed to be doing, for that would be -common- . Hmm

    July 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  17. StephensB

    One side will spend us into oblivion , the other will starve us into oblivion ........ no middle ground , and , the media wouldn't report on a true balanced idea/agenda anyway , it doesn't put or keep eyes on screens !!!!! Every one in the middle is just trying to get by day to day and not get caught up in the constant yelling , screaming , accusations and threats being hurdled back and forth over their heads .

    July 24, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  18. Xf2drvr

    You people and the author of this article are out of your minds freakin minds! You and you socialist leaders are the problem! NOT the tea party! Your disconnect is the reason you lost on 2010 and will lose in a record landslide in 2012! Read the TEA leaves idiots! Mainstream American does NOT side with you nor do they want your policies and they are showing you NOW how they refuse to fund your socialist programs or agendas ! Of course your retaliatory plan is to simply keep telling yourselves that we are the stupid ones and that you have some sort of intellectual high ground and that we are simpleton racists ... which of course is laughable ...
    In the end, all you have is a socialist biased press that perpetuates lies for this regime in a desperate weak attempt to save an already lost cause.
    This president if you wish to call him that is exactly your problem....
    And those of you who think that was an incomplete thought ....
    Well once again – dont get it!

    July 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  19. CNN IS BS

    This video is pathetically biased......As a native Atlanta citizen I've tried to defend cnn for years but it has moved closer to msnbc than the center....very sad

    July 24, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  20. Rob

    wow Fareed – absolutely NO mention of how the "progressives" and the FAR, FAR left want to turn this country into a socialist utopia!! That couldn't account for the polarization at ALL, now could it? It HAS to be the right's fault. Couldn't be that the far left hate capitalism, and is doing all the can to eliminate private business and replace it with Gov owned jobs.

    HOLY cow Fareed, your true socialist marxist colors are showing!!

    July 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  21. CNN IS BS

    How is the less biased than Fox?

    July 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  22. Mike

    Good article. I think Fareed hit the nail on the head with this one. Usually these pieces on debt ceiling politics try to be so "zen" and "understand the duality" of Washington, i.e. saying "there are faults on both sides" and "can't we all just get along". That may be the case sometimes, but lately the fault has been squarely that of the Republicans and Tea Partiers in taking extremist positions and risking enormous damage to the country, despite a willingness to compromise by the Democrats. I like how Fareed went into detail about the mechanics driving the fanatical right, including that nut-job Limbaugh and his army of mouth breathing goons. I hope Congressmen and women on both sides begin to show some backbone and realize that these brainwashed Teabaggers do not represent the majority of Americans.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Reply
  23. Denese

    As I recall, When American values began to change in the 60's evangelical conservatives got scared. Then every time something went wrong ( a crime for example) they just screamed their heads off that America needed to return to it's old fashioned values. That trend has continued and gotten totally out of hand to the point they will attack their own.

    July 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  24. Slugger

    Good analysis. I would add that a big part of it is that one side of every debate has a lot of propaganda outlets that continually reinforce the uncompromising C-R-A-Z-Y! It's up to media consumers to sort that all out, and if they haven't done it yet then perhaps they never will.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  25. Paul R.

    We used to compromise because we could afford to. Those days are gone. We used to be able to afford all the "big ideas," which, no surprise, cost buckets of money, but that was okay, because we had it. One politician's bridge vote was traded for another politician's airport vote. Now we have to decide if we're going to be in denial, like California, or face ugly facts and deal with them, like New Jersey. THAT's why ideology is front and center. And clinging to old ideas and habits are going to cost us more money and more pain. You can love all the safety nets and "free" things you want, but that model is destroying us. Government can no longer – if it ever could – afford to be all things to all people, primarily because it's expensive, secondarily because it sucks at administering its own programs.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  26. Nadine

    How do you expect them to get along ?? Republicans (Elephants) never forget and want to have revenge. Democrats (Donkeys) are too stubborn and are determined to have it their own way. Therefore, Elephants and Donkeys will never get along. The new saying (mine) Elephants and Donkeys don't mix is very true.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  27. Bill Carter

    Mr. Zakaria,

    I periodically read the liberal biased CNN"s reporting in order to stay abreast of your latest propaganda. I've read your "opinion" rregarding the polarization of the two parties in America, & in a nutshell, you blame it on the Tea Party and their "radical" ideals; i.e., much too rigid in order to consider "compromise." Your point is well-taken in an econmy NOT experiencing 9.2% unemployment, TOTALLY out of control DEBT & SPENDING & a democratically controlled executive branch, coupled with the same in the senate, neither of which have a clue how to effectively stimluate job growth, or restore credibilty & respect to our country. Thank GOD the Tea Party is holding their elected lagislators "feet to the fire." Conversely, it's unfortunate we have folks like you & many in the liberal media who just want , to reiterate a much overused phrase, to"kick the can down the road,." with the ensuing results/pain falling upon the shoulders of future generations. There are other obvious negative considerations that apply to this mindset, which I won't go into now. Lastly, I would reluctantly agree that we need at the least, a short term increase in the deficit(which Obama has more than tripled),but only with similar decreases or more in the deficit that are effective NOW, not 10 years down the road. Obama, as a leader, is a total failure. He has a blatantly, obvious socialist agenda, which is seriously harming our country.THis country is NOT Europe & never will be! Obama does nothing unless he can gain politically. His policies are seriously flawed and poll after poll reflect a major dissatifaction with his policies. In summary, I would strongly encourage you to consider backing a conservative in '012, & accept the fact that this country was built on conservative principles. Conservatism made this country the envy of the world prior to '08 and it will be restored once again in 2012.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  28. Tomas

    Look what happened to CNN. This used to be only about news. Now it is more about explaining the news with twist of center wannabe left wing self rigtious propaganda and GOP (50% of us) is always bad for you brain wash "cure"

    July 24, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  29. Independent

    Will tax cuts to so called "Job Creators" create jobs? Here is the simple example.
    Profit to the oil companies from bush tax cuts-–36 billion in 2010
    Number of jobs created–0
    ironically number of jobs lost in the oil companies in 2010–1836

    I rest my case

    July 24, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  30. Rick McDaniel

    The truth is........that religion, and not politics, is governing the GOP today.

    There is nothing less forgiving, than religion. Absolutely nothing, because in the mind of the religious zealot, there is ONLY one way.......the religious way.

    The problem with the Dems, is the same one they have always had........fiscal stupidity. They think they can gift away equality, with money, and that simply isn't possible.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Reply
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