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. TheBuckStopsHere

    I missed the "what to do about them" part of the article, unless the author's only suggestion was to adopt a parliamentary system. If that's the case, the author may feel free to leave the system he dislikes so much.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  2. JIm

    A rather self-serving (or at least non-introspective) piece. While the reasons they cite have some merit, the ignore one of the largest - the "OLD" media (including CNN, etc). The media, in general, works hard to fill their time, or their pages, with stories - the bigger and wilder the better. So, any of the networks will pounce on any tidbit, trump it up as much as possible, and put a lurid headline on it. So. politicians and pundits have taken a page from reality TV - if you want to be noticed, be outlandish, loud, and call people the vilest names possible. The media (including CNN) essentially encourages such actions and those things get in the way of compromise.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  3. Timeforrespect

    It's obvious by the responses that everyone has beefs with the other side. That's the way it has always been and always will be. If we can't compromise we cannot unite as a country. While many of the posts here make valid points there also a number that show no regard or respect for others. People should only post things that they would say to the other persons face and in the company of their family and friends. So much of this vitriol is done behind the veil of anonymity and while you think you are making a point you are also making no progress in making a difference. If you want people to respect you and actually follow your train of thought than you must be open to that of others. It's time each and every one of us thinks about what we are saying to one another and make this a country of unity, not disparity.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  4. zann

    I am not voting for a democrat or a republican in 2012. I am voting for someone with common sense and the ability to compromise where necessary.

    I am going to take a good hard look at the candidates records to see how they operate. I am going to vote for someone who understands why compromise is necessary and how to compromise in order to achieve results. Someone who knows how to take a realistic look at what needs to be done for the good of the country, how to work out the best compromise with other politicians in order to get the work done. Someone who has the courage to vote for the good of the country rather than for the good of political parties or for the good of their own chance of re-election.

    If I can't find such a candidate, then I will pick a first timer who may at least attempt to do things differently. If they can't, they won't get my vote again. I'll try again next time.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  5. Sam

    "I know the president's worried about the next elections," Boehner said. "But my God, shouldn't we be worried about the country?" .....really? Both Dem's and Republicans are acting like 3rd graders and fighting for next elections. These politicians are all selfish, full of ego and don't give a damn about common man.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  6. Steve851

    A lot of the comments on this piece demonstrate just how extremist our politics are. Anyone who does not understand that Obama is a committed progressive is beyond extreme. They're just plain weird

    July 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply
  7. RAJ

    Ideology means conditioned fixed ideas out of partoci;ar group of people . Such group like "Tea Party", stick to there ideology because it is benefiting such group temporarily and not the nation. The member of such ideological group identifying with such ideology at any cost, where it is right or wrong. Fact is a moving truth and that can solve any issue and not ideology. Ideological mind can never go near the truth because invetigation and discovery doors are clouded by there ideology.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply
  8. Rob

    so it's only polarization if it's from the right, eh, Fareed? I guess the far left, aka "progressives", aka "socialists" aren't guilty of polarizing?

    I mean, the fact that they hate capitalism & want to turn this country into a socialist utopia can't at all be polarizing to the majority of people in this country, now can it???

    (rolls eyes in heavy sarcasm)

    July 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  9. Brian Albrecht

    I used to think that Fareed Zakaria was an intellectual. It now appears to me that he is merely another left wing political hack. The argument that compromise on the debt ceiling debate is necessary is nothing more than a liberal ploy to cast Republicans that believe spending is grossly out of control and that the Fed Gov is too large already as unreasonable. No business or responsible individual can possible justify borrowing 40 cents of every dollar especially when there is no national emergency. Republicans are trying to save Medicare, Social Security and the country before it is too late. It appears that Obama is only concerned about being reelected.

    July 25, 2011 at 1:03 am | Reply
  10. james2

    Has anybody else had trouble with posting comments?

    July 25, 2011 at 1:20 am | Reply
  11. Rob

    So at the end of all these comments and article we can all agree that Obama is not the great uniter but the big divider.

    July 25, 2011 at 9:31 am | Reply
  12. 13th Imam

    Reading the comments from the Socialists on this site is scary, Barry is a moderate?, Barry is from the Right? Barry is a Socialist, always has been. If you read his books, listen to his redistribution of other people's wealth policy's, the only conclusion is that he is Far Left. DEMOCRATS are the party of Saul Alinsky

    July 25, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
  13. CRG

    Why is my comment not posted?

    July 25, 2011 at 9:48 am | Reply
  14. Brian fr Langley BC

    The reason your country is so polarized is that your left wing types have been selling it down the river. Comromise of course, but do you compromise with stealing, cheating or lying. The point is at some point there is NO room for compromise. Take immigration. Being a Canadian I think the salvation of our country are immigrants. (we're only 35 million) But NOT illegal immigrants. Period. By pandering to communities that want to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, you're saying crime really does pay. Then you're upset when folks take that message to heart. Why shoudn't they? You've already made clear that cheaters get in ahead of being patient an legal. From my side of the border your politicians (and ours) no longer place country ahead of personal gain (re-election) The truth is, your deficits and debt are reaching the realms of being no longer manageable. There is NO free lunch. If you Increase taxes in this global economy you'll lose even more of your manufacturing base, if you cut spending you will probably vote your politicians out. In fact you look more and more like the Greeks rioting in the streets for their Government to give them more and more of what they do not have. Compromise is what got you into this mess, I suggest that compromise, is not the path out.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:52 am | Reply
  15. Muin

    What's funny is that they are running to media to present their case instead of talkiing to each other to settle whatever needs to settle between them?

    July 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  16. BS

    The country is not actually "polarized", the bulk of the population, 60-70% are still very much in the center. What has happened is that the political apathy of the center has allowed the small percentage of extremists in each "wing" to take over the only two viable political parties. As a result there is no true center candidate to vote for so the center ends up split in it's voting, but not in it's views.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  17. ObamaBinBadagin

    Immigrants are the problem. Lying, cheating, stealing immigrants like the 100,000 Indian H1B's every year taking our jobs.

    July 25, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  18. Steve

    Nobody on the Left is politically polarized. Nope. They're just reasonable people. Only the people who disagree with them are extremists. Puhleeze!

    Biased much?

    July 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  19. Phil McCrackin

    If you can't vote (Corporations, foreigh governments, such as Israel) you should not be able to lobby.

    July 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  20. Punkass

    Funny how he only mentioned the Tea Party and the right extremists but neglected to go after the left. All of this political toxicity is not directly due to the Tea Party. If you put the blame on them it gives Dems more reason to fight them instead of trying to understand why they were created in the first place. Feels like a vicious cycle to me.

    July 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  21. Kweso

    Fareed, thanks for this very informative article. Another thing that I've thought about is the two party system. The paliamentary model has always been blessed to have multiple political parties. If only a centrist party could emerge here in the US, that could break the backs of the two party system. As things stand, what America needs is a coalition government.

    July 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  22. Joe

    I'd like to point out that an article about political polarization only gives examples of people polarized on the political right. There isn't even any pretending that those on the political left go too far. Maybe the media plays into this polarization? Jus' sayin'.

    July 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  23. Brian Gladish

    "Polarization" has come because every compromise is one that increases gov't involvement in our lives. Every compromise is between "I want X increase in gov't" and "I want Y increase in gov't" where X > Y. Over the years that fact has meant that gov't involvement has exploded, and some people have finally realized that it isn't going to stop until the amount your toilet flushes is regulated (Oops! Already done!). Now it is "radical" to suggest that gov't shrink, even by a tiny percentage.

    July 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  24. Steve Rogers

    The only thing more frustrating than the political parties is the news media. What a joke:(

    July 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  25. shir

    lol love this....we have americans wanting to get things done but yet they are commenting and debating and name calling each other because they belong or represent some political party..innnnteresting

    July 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  26. shir

    i think its time to call ghostbusters hahahaha

    July 25, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  27. Sperbonzo

    The reason why things are polarized is that people are finally sick of the politicians in DC simply working for themselves, towards growing the government ever larger, making people more and more dependent on government so that the political elite have more and more power. In the past people, once they were elected, would simply slide into becoming part of the machine and consolidating their own power. People are finally fed up and are not going to stand for that anymore, and THANK GOODNESS!!

    July 25, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
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