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. TRH

    The two major forms of government in this world are Marxist Communism and on the opposite side of the spectrum is free market capitalism. We have seen both fail miserably in the last 30 years. Both have a fatal weakness...greed. The power-hungry and the ruling elite exploit the masses unmercifully, much as monarchs and emperors did centuries ago.

    Somewhere in between these two extremes is benevolent socialism as most of Europe has embraced. I submit that that is the only way...it's the future. Tea Party fanatics won't want to hear this...they are blinded by xenophobia and intolerance. They are ultra nationalistic...an outmoded and foolish way to think and to govern. They must abandon the notion that the United States is a special country, blessed by God himself. Ronald Reagan had that twisted vision.

    Wake up people...change is in the wind.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  2. JohnO

    What about the radical socialist that have taken over the Democratic party? The Tea Party is a direct response to the radical left wing agenda of Obama and his comrades. CNN is so one sided in these pieces they are hardly worth reading.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  3. fastball

    You basically get the government you deserve. Half of Americans don't vote. And of the half that do, most of them don't know what the issues are, or care much.
    Start figuring out who in Washington are the impediments to change...and don't vote them in next time. Start taking charge and DEMANDING accountability. Quit accepting the status quo if it's not working for the country.
    Again...you get the government you deserve. Get your fat asses off the couch, turn off the TV and get involved.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  4. U.S. Common Sense

    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?


    Seriously? It's nice to see that you wear your partisanship on your sleeve. You want to know why things seem more polarized?

    1) The Democrats have drifted from being conservative to far left.
    2) The Republicans have drifted from being moderate to conservative.
    3) 24-hour news media constantly hyping every single issue.
    4) More political involvement by people around the country, leading to the drift from one-party domination (Democrats between 1933-1995 ... 62 years) to a two-party shared-power system.

    There's a short list right there. It's not "the "evil" Tea Party for the rise in polarization, since this specific movement has only been around for 2 years. As you note, this has been going on for decades. Hence, trying to use the Tea Party as your partisan hipping boy is both embarrassingly sad (given your "expert" label) and hysterical at the same time.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  5. Willow

    The problem is that politicians these days seem to be either total Marxists or right wing neo-cons. I do not care for either. There is no balance anymore. Everyone wants to be uber left or uber right. Yet most of the public is somewhere in the middle. I am myself fiscally conservative, but I detest the bigotry of the neo-cons. So where does that leave me? Between Obama and Michelle Bachmann, I have no one left to vote for except perhaps, to write in "Mickey Mouse." Because Mickey Mouse would do a far better job in Washington than either of the two.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  6. Patriot1

    Strange, but the author does not mention the way Democrats behaved autocratically when they had majority in both the House and the Senate. They bull dozed the Health care plan without caring for the opinion of American people.
    This antagonized Americans and slapped democrats by blowing them off in last elections.
    Obama has spent more than any president in history, and republicans are trying to halt this reckless spending. That is what Americans want. If Democrats do not want to stop spending then America is in deep trouble. Unfortunately for the author, the Democrats do not want to cut spending unlike the rest of American people.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  7. Catalyst4change

    Obama is a moderate and as there are compromises he has made that have disappointed many of his own party, he remains firmly in the gray area, while the partisan extremes of each party remain polarized with all black and white rhetoric. Obama is a pragmatist and we are lucky to have him. He is a conservative democrat, like Clinton, which is nearly the same thing as being a moderate Republican, which Ford and Bush Sr. both were. Reagan and his protege, GW Bush were both conservative Republicans who both sought to bring the church into the state. Probably the most obvious issue which now separates conservative Democrats from moderate Republicans is abortion. Religious issues is what is separating the moderate republicans from the conservatives and what is splitting the party, which is generally good for the dems.

    People mistakenly view both religion and politics as linear, which limits our ability to see patterns of cause and effect and learn from history. In a cyclic world which is our natural pattern, that would put extremes of the right and the left as positioned next to each other. Religions work the same way (athiesm included). So as I see it, the Tea Party (extreme right) is no better than the Communist Party (extreme left). Therefore, this is the formula for a totalitarian state: (Political Ideology) x (Religious doctrine) + extremist = Zealot

    July 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  8. george

    Two words...talk radio. THAT'S why so much polarization.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  9. PJ

    I don't believe the entire Government has gone wild; however, I do believe the T-party Freshmen and other GOPs voted in 2010 have hijacked the Republican Party. It is indeed very sad, They are destroying our country by pledging allegiance to Grover Norquist – an unknown silent power in DC and not too different from Hitler!!!!! Scary.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  10. Willow

    I do love how CNN is apparently not interested in hearing from Centrists.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  11. Steve

    The problem is EGO

    July 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  12. CRG

    Where is my comment?

    July 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  13. Mike

    The polarization is because society is polarized. The voting is determined by 5 – 10% of the people – the "independents". But it has become evident that the real power is hidden in the court system. All judicial appointments are more important than elections – they last until death or retirement. The makeup of the Supreme Court determines more than 535 elected congressmen. So the effort is about being the party in control when appointments are made.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  14. jc1813

    fareed zakaria is an idiot

    July 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  15. lwkite

    I am a rock solid independent and moderate. It is the Republican party that is running away from the center so fast that they are making me look like a liberal. They have proven that they can't govern.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  16. Rod C. Venger

    Ob'ama not a leftist? Please. Socialized healthcare, his "evolution" on gay marriage, tax and spend policies, his up and coming amnesty for illegals not to mention "common sense" gun control. Shall I continue?

    July 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  17. robert burns

    Almost 50% of Americans pay NO income taxes. When all the goodies that Congress hands out (Medicare, medicaid, stimulus money, farm subsidies. etc) is paid for largely by income taxes (and therefore "free to half the population) its not surprisign that the demand for free stuff is insatiable. Our friedns in Congress (Repub and Democrat) can't say no to anything. Consider thsi: In the next 10 year, Congress is slated to spend $46 TRILLION yet our eelcted offcials can't seem to cut $1 or $2 trillion. That's only about 2 or 3%. Every dollar we spent is 42 cents borrowed. We need MASSIVE spending cuts. The entire Congress and our current President display NO LEADERSHIP.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  18. Think Outside the Box

    The scary thing is that we Americans are voting so conservative that we are actually running the risk of strangling our liberty and ourselves. It's like a race to the bottom where nobody really wins. Aren't we supposed to be the land of progressive ideals and maximum liberty possible? The sad and ironic thing is that most people that I know who vote conservative actually live their lives much more liberally than they vote – almost like churchgoers who pretend to be all holy in front of their preachers and then go home and live normal lives like everybody else. It would be great if we all could actually vote and preach what we actually practice and not the way we want others to think about us. Even with things that some of us might not like such as abortion, gay marriage, or whatever...why can't we live and let live? Can we quit this hypocriscy and be Americans like our Founding Fathers intended us to be a shining example to the rest of world that a diverse group of people can live with each other without hating everything that we do.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  19. AP

    America is such a mess. How does a country allow lobby groups? or lobbying for that matter? How does a country allow its debt ceiling to become a political issue? I guess we should expect this behavior from such a selfish ignorant country. Going to single handily sink this planet back into another recession...

    The world would be better off with America. You bunch of stupid morons.

    Fire Congress
    Fire Senate

    I'm in shock that the T party has managed to hold your country hostage and you people have stood by and watched them do it. What's wrong with you people? Do you not understand there are consequences to everything?

    You should all be ashamed for allowing this to happen

    July 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  20. Lincoln

    Two words for the cause of the political extremity on the right: black President

    July 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  21. Patriot1

    Hail Obama:

    1) For refusing to stop giving 2.5 trillion dollars to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Palestine even though this money can save the current crisis.
    2) For maintaining the highest average unemployment since the great depression
    3) For bringing the economy down almost to the great depression level.
    4) For spending more than any American president in history
    5) For having more troops killed per year in Afghanistan than during Bush's presidency
    6) For initiating war against Libya, for no reason. The price of gas per gallon has gone up one dollar since then.
    7) For refusing to drill gas in USA, and forcing Americans to pay a lot of money for gas, every day
    8) For forcing 40 million Americans who cannot afford Health Insurance, to but health insurance. If people hardly make enough money to feed their family, how can they pay $2,000 more for health care? Eta one time a day?

    July 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  22. Joan

    The reason for the polarization is absolute fear and panic on both sides. The liberals are afraid their gravy trains will come to a half, and the conservatives are afraid that by borrowing 40 cents from foreign governments for every dollar spent we are turning a blind eye to our bankruptcy and not acting to cure it.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  23. True Choice

    Nothing will ever change if folks will keep voting for the only two alternatives that are presented to them.
    We need many more choices than just 2 or 3 and coalitions without majority votes.
    Stand up and refuse to participate in what you are getting served and don't treat politics like a mindless boxing match.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  24. mre2

    There is another reason why political extremes begin to garner favor wtih voters. It is simply that the status quo has become unacceptable to an increasing number of voters. The promise of change is enough to get support. This was the basis of the Obama platform that got him elected in 2008. When the voters are fed up with more of the same, expect them to support anything that looks like profound change.

    July 24, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  25. Matt

    I can see it now. Baby Bush for President with his "Dubya Brother" as his chief advisor. That will be a big hit. Are these hacks delusional, or what?

    July 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  26. Mike Kensington

    There are so many ways to make money nowadays. Are you cashing in on the online markets? The rich are and they won't show you how. WE WILL!!!

    Visit the SimpleStockCash site, and go right to the penny' stock page to see what the rich do not want you to know.

    Take the two minutes to see what we have...it will be well worth it.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  27. bp

    Mr. Zakaria neglects to mention one of the major causes of the increased polarization in American politics: the rise of the Christian Right. After all, members of the Christian Right know beyond the shadow of a doubt:

    1. They are on God's side and all others are not
    2. They know God's will and all others do not
    3. They have a duty to use the power of government to advance their vision of God's kingdom here on Earth
    4. Anyone who disagrees or opposes their ends is by definition anti-God
    5. You never compromise with agents of Satan.

    All hail the Christian States of America.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  28. TheBuckStopsHere

    Obviously, only the right has become more polarized. They did this out of the blue for the sake of entertainment. It has nothing to do with the left becoming increasingly polarized as well or pushing the limits of reality, particularly when it comes to responsible spending. The lack of polarization in the left can easily be seen by armies of liberals claiming that Obama is a Republican in sheep's clothing.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  29. OrionStyles

    Yet another reason for a proportional voting system, so we don't get into a "us" vs "them" rut that gets us nowhere.

    It would also be nice if we could get over the whole left vs right outlook. The political spectrum is far more complicated that that.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  30. Klaark

    Get used to it. The Internet has allowed the special interest lunatics to organize and have an undue level of influence. See the Internet leaving any time soon? Neither do I. Kiss America goodbye folks, it was nice while it lasted.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
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