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.

Post by:
Topics: Economy • Fareed's Take • From Fareed • GPS Show • Politics • United States

soundoff (626 Responses)
  1. dljr60

    Fareed is trying to undermine our country by injecting he non-American ideas. I think he is A US Citizen now. But we dont want his flawed concepts here. We don't need compromise in GOVT. We need solid solutions that we agree upon. Best decision-making is not coming out of Washington. Tea Party has a right to speak. If they take our right to speak up (which they are trying to do) then we will have fallen as a nation.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  2. rplat

    Why you ask . . . because Marxism/communism and socialism are not compatible with a democratic, free Republic. The country is hopelessly and irreconcilably divided politically, morally and spiritually, and the final outcome doesn't look promising.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  3. Liam Densmore

    Sorry Steve, but Ron Paul is as conservative as they come. I'm pretty sure he's on the "if you can google it then you can cut it" boat. He also thinks that because he read a couple books in the seventies about economics he's an expert. One of his misconceptions is that default is unavoidable for the U.S. . This is not even close to true. Our debt is in U.S. currency so we can't default unless we decide to. Although he says default is a good thing, it would make the $3 trillion Americans hold in U.S. bonds worthless and would make it virtually impossible to sell U.S. bonds in the future.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  4. Ryan

    This is possibly the most poorly written and misguided op-ed I've ever seen. Here's why:
    1. Political polarization is NOTHING NEW to American politics. If you've ever studied even a bit about the first 3 administrations of the U.S., you would know that politics was just as, if not much more, dirty than it is today. And don't try to tell me the media is making things so much worse. PLEASE take a look at the the Lincoln-Douglass election. Politics have always been and will always be dirty. Also, it's much better and more civilized here than a great majority of the rest of the world, where corruption doesn't run rampant and people aren't killing other people for political gain.
    2. This article is blatantly biased towards the right (nothing surprising there). But to say that both parties are pandering further and further from the middle is ludicrous. Around 35% of Americans consider themselves Democrats and about 35% consider themselves Republicans; that means that 30% are unaffiliated with either (give or take a few points depending on the time). Come election time, candidates pander to those in the center very much (independents).
    3. FZ's mentioning of the Founding Fathers is way off base. The Founders understood that power divided among too many parties or interests was dangerous because the government has a much greater chance of failure. Italy is one example with its dozens of political parties. Also, while it was mentioned that a party-less political system would be ideal, it is not realistic, and Madison realized that as well. The form of government we have naturally produces two dominant political parties. That's the way it will be as long as it remains.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  5. Matt

    Citing polls of our ignorant citizen base does not indicate anything about the proper direction of policy. No, Americans certainly DO NOT want a balanced budget amendment, or hundreds of billions of dollars in immediate spending cuts! They simply don't understand the implications.

    For instance, with a balanced budget amendment, any time that the economy falls on hard times, incomes and tax revenues will decline. Assuming that the government already had a balanced budget, it will now face a deficit that it will be forced to close by law. So what will it have to do? Either raise taxes, or cut spending. Both measures will deepen any recession, and possibly turn it into a depression. It is the same idea with cutting spending immediately as part of any one of these equally foolish deals.

    The time is not now to make these changes. This is not about securing our future, but about securing 2012, and politicians would rather hold each other hostage to make a statement to their donors. When the cost of borrowing is near zero, and the economy is stagnated, that is the time to run a deficit to ensure a recovery. Once the economy bounces back and you run surpluses, you can pay off the debt you incurred during the period of deficits. Of course, count on our dumb politicians to screw even that up. They'll just give it back in the form of a tax break! (See: First Bush term)

    July 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  6. james A.

    When we begin to contemplate the influence that specific powerful individuals (especially, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist and Roger Ailes) have over Washington, we realize that single individuals with a very narrow world view are in near-direct control of most of our Republican caucus; and thus, can effectively and singlehandedly, control the direction of our entire country. These individuals were never elected by any democratic process and cannot be voted out of their positions. Their actions and influence can be characterized as a morph of sedition, coercive monopoly, and collusion for the formation of a cartel.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  7. Michael

    There's less to go around and the fight for resources is gradually increasing. First it's a fight of ideas. Then it will be a physical fight.

    It’s all laid out, (National Geographic, March 2011, page 72) in the chart graphic of a 3 dimensional cube. One axis measures population, the other measures technology based on patents. The third axis measures affluence based on GDP. Affluence is a euphemism for over-consumption gently directed to the National Geographic readership. Notice how the vertical axis of affluence adds to the shocking exponential growth after 1950.

    Any child born after the mid '80's should not exist. That is the time our planet surpassed it's population carrying capacity. Peter Singer head of philosophy at Princeton did the fifth grade math in a 1999 NYT essay. By studying world statistics on overpopulation and over-consumption he found, if we're getting and spending more than 30k per year we're basically guilty of murder.

    http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/singermag.html

    So basically everything is going to crap in a hand basket just as Revelations predicts. The only thing not mentioned is the exponential speed part. Humans don't intuitively grasp the exponential mean. So I believe all we can do is treat each other a lovingly as possible as we watch the whole world go to crap in a hand basket at exponential speed.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  8. Ryan

    This is possibly the most poorly written and misguided op-ed I've ever seen. Here's why:
    1. Political polarization is NOTHING NEW to American politics. If you've ever studied even a bit about the first 3 administrations of the U.S., you would know that politics was just as, if not much more, dirty than it is today. And don't try to tell me the media is making things so much worse. PLEASE take a look at the the Lincoln-Douglass election. Politics have always been and will always be dirty. Also, it's much better and more civilized here than a great majority of the rest of the world, where corruption doesn't run rampant and people aren't killing other people for political gain.
    2. This article is blatantly biased towards the right (nothing surprising there). But to say that both parties are pandering further and further from the middle is ludicrous. Around 35% of Americans consider themselves Democrats and about 35% consider themselves Republicans; that means that 30% are unaffiliated with either (give or take a few points depending on the time). Come election time, candidates pander to those in the center very much (independents)....

    July 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  9. Founders1791

    What a joke! Another "lame stream media attempt" to rationalize an environment that Liberal Socialist Democrats OWN!

    Who COULDN'T ACCEPT that Al Gore simply lost the election of 2000? Democrats
    Who POLITICIZED 911 and Afghanistan "long before Iraq" in 2003? Democrats
    Who PUSHED relaxed Fannie & Freddie mortgage loan requirements? Democrats
    Who had OVERSIGHT over the mortgage lenders Fannie & Freddie? Democrats
    Who had OVERSIGHT over financial markets? Democrats
    Who RAMMED ObamaCare down 1/2 of unwilling Americans? Democrats

    DEMOCRATS PUSH GOVERNMENT CONTROL OF OTHER PEOPLE

    This is about simple Corruption of the Soul within the Liberal Socialist Democrat Party.

    Who is the "nut jobs" spewing HATE & VIOLENCE at Sarah Palin and her family? Democrats

    July 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  10. Ryan

    ...
    3. FZ's mentioning of the Founding Fathers is way off base. The Founders understood that power divided among too many parties or interests was dangerous because the government has a much greater chance of failure. Italy is one example with its dozens of political parties. Also, while it was mentioned that a party-less political system would be ideal, it is not realistic, and Madison realized that as well. The form of government we have naturally produces two dominant political parties. That's the way it will be as long as it remains.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  11. N.B.

    the only good thing about the coming default and the subsequent economic carnage is that it will bring about the end of the tea party. They are the ones who are pushing for default and they will bear the blame for the consequences. We may never be an economic superpower again, but we will be a less consumptive and egalitarian society. Oh and by the way, cutting medicare and social security is essentially a tax on the poor and middle class. It will lead to greater poverty and crime in this country. Everyone except the super rich will suffer... and you are not super rich now, you will no longer have the opportunity to join that elite.

    Ronald Reagan said default would be a disaster. Every conservative/republican economist says default will be a disaster. It is only the mouthpieces of the right - the talk show pundits and tea party ideologues who have no real knowledge of what they are talking about advocate default. We raised the debt limit well over a dozen times with Reagan and Bush, both Republicans.

    I consider myself a fiscal conservative, but these ideologues are playing Russian roulette with our futures. A balance between cuts and new revenues is essential to any deal. Raising the debt limit is not a left or right issue - it is essential or America's credit rating will drop and then it will be game over. Credit will dry up again, and as bad as the economy feels now... we will dream of this, we will look back on the relative prosperity of 2011 and wish we had a do over.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  12. goongaze

    because our president is black.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  13. mikeykid

    24 hour new networks have changed the political landscape. Or should I say "so called news networks". CNN, MSNBC, FOX all care much more about profits than news. There's profit in polarizing the public. Chris Mathews, Keith Olberman, Sean Hannity are not journalists. They're mouthpieces for their respective political party.

    It used to be that people watched the nightly news for 30 minutes to an hour. The networks gave us facts not opinion. Nobody screamed at each other. Now all we get is two morons yelling at each other and the cable networks love it.

    Journalists need to look in the mirror and see what their profession has become. It's disgusting and very harmful to this great country. Everyone should boycott cable news(entertainment) shows. There's your problem.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  14. Mukesh Gandhi

    Republicans are favoring rich who make profit and then invest in other countries and not USA to create jobs. If rich have created jobs in this country I dont think we would have to go through the POLITICAL DRAMA that we are going through. USA is a laughing stone in the eyes of world. We are supposed to be leader of the world and set examples and see what is happening in our own country.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  15. Insight

    There are more kKK in Tea Party and make it hard to work out anything and the end result is the demise of GOP

    July 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  16. MGS

    Thank you for bringing this issue to the table. My friends and I debate this issue a lot. The politics of Washington and their reverberating effects are so disheartening. Major changes need to take place, but firstly, everyone needs to take a deep breath and a step back to look at the whole picture. Weren't we all taught to play nice and share in pre-school? Where has that mentality gone?

    July 24, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  17. urshadow

    Let Obama raise taxes causing the economy to get worse and destroy even more jobs... he won't get re-elected. The GOP is doing him a favor by blocking tax increases, but Obama is too arrogant to get it. If the Dems reduced the federal budget without raising taxes, Obama would win in a landslide in the next election.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  18. Benjy Boy

    We get it Fareed, you don't like the Tea Partiers. They get in the way of your grand plans for America. Well you know what? Tough luck. They are Americans as well (actually I don't know where you are from but that is besides the point), and they vote, and they sure as hell don't agree with your big government, globalist agenda. God bless them. So you may as well stop whining about them and trying to sound balanced at the same time.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  19. Senior Empedocles

    The Tea Party does not exist.

    The Tea Party has no representatives. It has no candidates. It has no policy. It is the fabrication of the media. A puppet show for republicans who are to ashamed to call themselves republicans and the gullible... who trust the puppets on TV.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  20. Bill Carter

    Fareed,

    Don't agree with your opinion. This country needed the Tea Party long before now...perhaps our out of control debt would not be so far gone at this point. In normal economic times, whatever that is (perhaps 5-6% unemployment, spending LESS than revenue, a Fed head that's not an Obama puppet, etc.) compromise might be a consideration, but NOT NOW. We've been "kicking the can down the road" forever because we keep electing morons and self=serving career politicians who perpetually place themselves lst instead of doing what's right for the country. Obama has an obvious socialist agenda which is not working, thank GOD His policies are failing...,but he doesn't get it or he doesn't give a damn. Small business creates nearly 70% of all jobs in this country. His so-called stimulus totally failed and further increased unemployment; he spent his lst two years in office cramming an unwanted health care plan down the country's throat and still doesn't want. This man is not a leader; he's another liberal/socialist with an agenda that will never fly in this country. Further, he's an embarrassment as it pertains to his behavior in foreign affairs. Lastly, he never does anything that's not politicaly motivated. To sum up, we need the Tea Party to hold these self-serving morons accountable. I do reluctantly agree that we need to further extend our bloated debt, but only if we demand similar cuts or MORE NOW, not ten years down the road. There's many more things that need to be done, which I won't enumerate here, but serious cuts (4 T or more) in our debt NOW just might convince some of our creditors we're finally getting serious.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  21. BlueBayou

    Mr. Zakaria, I recommend taking a simple political science class. Duverger's Law is well known for explaining why single member district plurality wins create a bipolar two party system. Basic understanding of how to run a political primary would explain why it's in the best interest of politicians to suppress voting turnout instead of encouraging it. Simple stuff like making election day a Monday national holiday or putting it on a weekend to encourage turnout... has long been avoided because it's easier for politicians to pander to their bases instead of having to deal with the people in the center.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  22. Issac

    I think a lot of people who call for a complete abolishment of Political Parties dont really understand the binding nature of parties and historically how they have kept a Republic physically as big as America together and functioning instead of falling part into smaller countries. An early American History or Civil War Historian could explain it a lot better, but basically what keeps an Alaskan and a Floridian giving a damn about each other is political ideology of their parties.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  23. truthfulster

    I can't believe all the brainiacs that believe obamarama is giving everything the Conservatives want. Why don't you liberals enlighten us with facts. You donkeys ass's just want him to move off the map left because you wasted all your money taking liberal arts in school figuring you would at least be able to draw after.You liberals better bone up on your books or at least the daily newspapers instead of just boning. All the bailouts and all the money given to unions is not for conservatives, all your lying my stay in the brains of the stupid but the majority of this nation still has more intelligence then that.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  24. Jim R

    Want to fix the polarization? How about we start with questioning news media sensationalism. There are a lot of good politicians with middle of the line approaches, but they never get air time because it doesn't get good ratings.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  25. Charlie in Maine

    In can be summed up in two words Tea Party. The real Republicans would have settled it by now. The GOP is hostage to these idiots nad they are holding our economy at gunpoint. They are the most un-American group to have sway in this country since the end of the Confederacy. Yes that includes the drugged out hippies who held sway with the Democrats.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  26. Brian

    "When Obama was a Senator, he was known as one of the most liberal Senators in Congress. "....................

    Known by whom? Fox "news"?

    July 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  27. Jeff

    Mr. Zakaria,

    Your statement "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." demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of American politics and history. Adversarial political parties have been around since the founding of our country. This is nothing new. Relax. A representative republic is ugly but it is the best form of government that God ever gave human beings.

    July 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  28. Dayspring

    Aside from polarization....the tea party is a creation of the media. They do not have the numbers but get media attention 24 7 from Fox and other mainstream media. Just like they did Sara Palin 24 7 for years nonstop, the tea party is a corporate creation financed and scripted to provide cover for smoke and mirror agenda that amass ever more US wealth in the hands of a few. The tea party was forced down America's throats whether it representated a majority of citizens in general or a small group of the republican party hardly matters. The great power given them is demonstrably marginalized by their tiny numbers.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  29. Alex

    If one wants to see political polarization at its finest. Just read the comments from the right and left on this post.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Reply
  30. Luc

    It seems consistent with the decline of the USA and the western world. When the Roman Empire declined, small interest and lords took over. Aided by barbarian invasions, the decline was caused by Roman citizens themselves, by inept leaders, corruption and greedy. What America is experiencing is the consequence of decades of speculation, lower work ethics and permissiveness. Short and self-centered vision is taking over in the American culture.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Leave a Reply to Jim Beile


 

CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.