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)

    If we are federally required to pay tax why should we notbe required to vote? If you don't like any of the candidates, then vote: None of the above

    July 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  2. Riche

    It's not wild at all. The media's inability to explain absolutely anything, because they got this left vs right format, keeps us trending down and the worse it gets the more each side gets to blame the other.

    At some point shear desperation, from either side, gets traction cause even the "centrist" position is designed to keep this trend going down (with either side not being able to conclusively prove the other is to blame), by favoring interests over the nation, and then the left vs right silly cycle simply spins faster with even the party that is more right than wrong on the surface issues having the potential to absorb more of the blame when a stupid cowardly puck is in charge of it.

    After 9-11, there was virtually no goons looking for "anti" Americans but leave it to gutless vs stupid exploiting and trying to outflank each other and after being baked for ten years, and we are literally worse than a military dictatorship and only our government is to blame.

    Don't thinks so. Tell me the worse thing you went through because of this "President" and the worst thing you suspect him of. Fine, don't make it public, just tell your best friend or family member. In an acknowledged dictatorship, your family would spit in the face of intelligence trash.

    Logic dear Cameron cause Muller fails and the Polish PM is looking at a noose Daley.

    July 25, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  3. Paul Reitano

    If u dont have a degree in both Econ & Contemporary History u have no business in Congrss. We have elected a bunch of PTA mothers who couldn't pass the GED. I guarantee half the House freshmen dont know the difference between Suni & Shia'. Show me some ACT scores please. We have Presidential canidates that could not pass a middle school history test. It's sad.

    July 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  4. TRH

    Term limits would go a long way to fixing this. 1 term max as a Senator, 1 term max as a Representative, 1 term max as a President.

    On their first and last days they could be WORKING as a representative government instead of continuously campaigning.

    July 25, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  5. julialynn

    because black people have all the power in this country. white people are discriminated against, white people are denied scholarships based on their race and the dumbest black person, because of quotas can get into an ivy league school over a white man who has a four point zero average. that is just the start of why this country is polarized.

    July 25, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  6. 2tor

    The media needs to take the responsibility for this. If they were unbiased as they're supposed to be, and stopped catering to all the cliches that these lawmakers are espousing. The truth would be known to the general public.

    July 25, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  7. gary myers

    The Republicans are leaving the impression that they are acting like Robin Hood in reverse.Take from the needy and give to the greedy.

    July 25, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      Just so you know, giveaways never belonged to the needy, tax revenues are not created by government, and you making stupid comments does not help. This is not about rich vs poor, the answer is for individual accoutablity and hard work. The government is too big, too inefficient, and far to generous with my money.

      July 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  8. 2tor

    The media needs to take as much blame for what's gone wrong, and the lack of bi-partanship. Since they favor one side, keep up with the 5 second soundbites with nothing but cliches, and never present details. They're nothing but an instigator in all that's wrong with our government.

    July 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  9. 2tor

    the m edia is every bit at fault in all this. Since they favor one side, run nothign but 5 sec sound b ites with nothing but cliches. Allow Obama to use them like a cheap t ool, and never post details of either sides proposals ( I know, Obama doesn't have one), then they're the ones that keep this debate at a standstill

    July 25, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  10. 2tor

    B lame the Me dia, taking sides, and posting no details of any of the proposals. Only running 5 sec sounds b ites with nothing but c liches.

    July 25, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Reply
  11. Richard Schmidthuber

    Fareed I have discovered yoru alined with the Bilderberg group. please tell me if this is true or not. I have been a huge advocate of yoru program and book. However if you are aligned with this group you have lost me. tell me the truth please. A huge fan

    July 25, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  12. blf83

    Norquist = Blackmailer. Bachman = Crazy. Palin = White trash. Boehner, McConnell, Can'tor = Blackmailed.

    July 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  13. blf83

    Tea Partiers/Norquist = Blackmailers. Boehner/MCConnell/Can'tor = Blackmailed.

    July 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  14. Alex

    Love how they only mention problems on the Right. The TEA Party, Rush Limbaugh. Yeah ACORN was real reasonable and not corrupt at all. And Ed Schultz and the MSNBC crowd is just so respectful and not at all vitriolic. People like Rush Limbaugh, who I totally agree is an extremist, are able to exist because 90% of the media is admittedly Left wing and actively pushes a Leftist agenda. Maybe the media, whether Right or Left, including CNN should go back to telling the story, instead of trying to shape opinion.

    July 25, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  15. Missing Driver

    I think we are missing one other driver. After the 1968 Democratic Convention, the primaries were "opened-up" for both parties. Party leadership backed off of "annointed" candidates and let anyone on the primary ballot that could get through State rules. Thus, you created a virtual "arms" race in campaign funding. The fund raising has come with implicit expectations for benefits – be it pet spending projects (the standard government contractor approach) or tax loopholes, etc. There is no real idealogy or structure left for the parties – it is all driven by fundraising.

    July 25, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  16. Mike

    This problem has been building since the 60s and 70s and is due in large part to the liberally leaning news propaganda cartel (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and others). This article is a prime example, it's obvious that Farred Zakaria is a proud warrior of this cartel.

    July 25, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  17. FukUall

    You are all fukwads

    July 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  18. Abe Goldstein

    What really really need is to reassert local control. The sections of New York controlled by orthodox Jews has very little crime, good educational attainment, a great sense of community, tolerance for everyone, and good average income. This country needs to have states rights to further local control

    July 25, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  19. JJ Stuart

    It's all about money. I am of the belief that politics in this country is nothing more than unadulterated class warfare. We will never lift up the poor by bringing down the rich. But by the same token a society is not judged by how affluent it is but rather by how far it goes to include its weakest members, the sick and the poor. My wife is very sick most, of my friends are poor and I'm the million dollar baby in the middle and it is so sad to see what's happening to this county.

    July 26, 2011 at 12:04 am | Reply
  20. Person

    The term "polarization" implies that there are two poles that are stubbornly far apart. But the real situation is the Democrats offering to compromise while the Republicans have utterly polarized. Please don't report this as a balanced situation in which both parties are equally to blame. The right wing is so far off the map that they think the center is far left.

    July 26, 2011 at 12:04 am | Reply
  21. Dave G

    This column and all those like it are the primary reason for "polarization." The Republicans have mastered the art of the false equivalence so much so that now without prompting people like Zakaria refer to the state of politics in terms of polorization. The majority of elected GOP are wingnuts and in line with the most extreme elements of the party. By comparison, only a scant few elected Democrats are true liberals. How can you say the part that is willing to cut medicare, medicaid, and social security is on par with those on the right. As long as those in the media keep repeating the conventional stupidity of "both sides do it" without conveying any sense of proportion, they will continue to give cover for the most extreme elements to continue as they are...because really if both sides really are doing it then the logical response is apathy.

    July 26, 2011 at 1:35 am | Reply
  22. Logan9773

    Small parties? One guy runs the whole Republican Congress. And they've all sold their souls to him. In writing.

    July 26, 2011 at 3:19 am | Reply
  23. Andy

    As an outsider to all this but still somewhat of an interested viewer of the political comings and goings in other countries I would have to say that Obama appears to be quite the centrist to be honest. From my perspective it is really what most politicians have to be in democratic nations all over in order to gain enough support to get elected and then elected again. Of course there might be some distinguishing ideals or slight leanings to left or right but in the end these for the most part can appear to be relatively minimal.

    July 26, 2011 at 5:42 am | Reply
  24. Beatrice

    America has gone too far in immorality and normal people feel repulsive about it. How about splitting the nation into two or three? See who will prosper. The Christian nation!

    July 26, 2011 at 6:11 am | Reply
    • bryan75


      July 26, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  25. WilliamTell

    Go Tea Party! You got the progressive liberals whining.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:56 am | Reply
  26. WilliamTell

    The liberals are having a difficult time getting their ideology passed without the aid of activist judges.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
  27. Redoubt

    The public has been led by the nose to believe that fully half of their fellow Americans, their neighbors and even family members, are an enemy out to destroy the nation.

    That the politicals in Washington play this game is not surprising, but that We the People have bought into the concept hook, line and sinker, is really disturbing. There is no rational explanation for this that justifies allowing ourselves to so happily become the house divided unto itself.

    Of course, it's the other guy's fault.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:04 am | Reply
  28. E. Gray

    The Tea Party and Terrorism Link Gets Stronger by the Day. Read why here > http://wp.me/pNmlT-Ii

    July 26, 2011 at 10:51 am | Reply
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