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 (645 Responses)
  1. Byrd

    It began with Gingrich and continues today with other idiots such as Cantor, Boehner and the entire Tea Party. Gingrich's Contract on America was the first step and it's been an uphill battle ever since. Things might have gone a little easier had the Press not joined ranks with the RNC to promote their peculiar brand of ignorance, but journalists today aren't much better than the politicians they parrot. You won't find a single original thought in the either bunch.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Reply


    July 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • BobAD

      There would be no reason to be a politician if you did that.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  3. Zoran

    The Founding Fathers assumed that only intelligent white men would run the country.

    If they saw what their nation had degenerated into, to a man they'd call for scrapping the whole mess and starting over.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
    • DERASA

      Moron alert!!

      July 24, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  4. Ananda

    It's really broad-based and cultural not just political. Look at religion–divisive and adversarial. Sports–ditto. To me it boils down to the cause of all suffering from the orthodox Buddhist perspective: namely individuals' ignorance as to what causes suffering combined with a lack of applied not just preached lovingkindness. We can't have peace and a cooperative culture without peace from within.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  5. Joe

    Mr Zakaria,
    agreed with one exception. Democratic party remains diverse, with far left liberals, centrists and even conservatives from the South. The power of TP comes from huge gaps in our political system they exploit to the max with their minority status, and from uninformed Americans that support it's delusional policies without understanding them!

    July 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply

    They don't understand they work for us. That's the reason we have to get rid of everyone next election. We need mature people in office to take care of people's business, not party's business, or special's group business....

    July 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • dljr60

      well said. Let's do it!

      July 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  7. kevin

    Pretend your are on a paddle boat – and you are the only person paddeling – EVER!! When 1/2 half of the people are paying/paddeling – and the other 1/2 don't pay/pedal – and they don't even appreciate the job you are doing (because you aren't paddeling fast enough) – I've become polarized...

    July 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • GCV

      The problem with your paddling is that you're listening to Fox News while you paddle.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  8. GCV

    At what point in history does it make sense to reexamine the fundamental basis for our democracy. In this age where communication is instantaneous, does it still make sense to be ruled by a mechanism designed over 200 years ago. Especially when that system is failing us so badly. I think it is time to put the brainwashing from high school civics aside and to start reworking how America is governed. We cannot continue down this disastrous path.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  9. jon

    Why has the polarization become worse? That is the aim and the design of Washington insiders. As long as the public is duped by the two party system and is fractured...the longer government can go on with their plan to place us as just another country within the new world order

    July 24, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  10. farmerjane

    Power is the problem; who's got it, who wants it. The lies being told are to keep the silient majority at bey.The middle of the road Republicans and the middle of the road Democrats are considereably closer than the far right and the far left.
    We need three political parties, forcing a power broker situation, as in England. The lefties, socialists; the moderates (middle of the road Republicans and Democrats), and the far right extremists (Tea Party).

    July 24, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  11. Dennis

    The next election will weed out the Teabaggers. Americans have had it up to their ears with pledges and tantrums.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  12. LoLDem

    Whaddya expect from no experience, little vision or ability to prioritize, no national consensus buidling background? Are you really surprised the country is drifting, unemployment and debt rising, heated opinions and agitation increasing? Face it supporters of an "outsider", the man doesn't have enough mojo to get the job done and is resorting to divisive tactics. This outcome was predicted on the left by Hillary and the right by Romney, for example.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  13. jim

    Isn't it a travesty when people charged with governing our country listen to the ranting of a moron like Rush Limbaugh?

    July 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  14. DataBoy

    Fareed missed one vital point: There's a black man in the white house.

    While it is true that not all Republicans are racist, it is equally true that pretty much all racists vote either Republicans or Tea Party, if they vote at all. This has fomented a divide that will never be bridged easily. I still remember seeing one of the last civil war vets on TV in the early 60's (on You Asked For It...) and the race problems that this country suffers from have been exacerbated by the current political reality of the ethnicity of the President of the United States of America.

    Talk amongst yourselves(!)

    July 24, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Roy

      Pretty much all anti-white "racists" vote Dem.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
      • DataBoy

        True enough; point taken. Not laying blame, just stating the fact(s)

        July 24, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
      • Elle

        Roy. Do any of those "anti-white racists" you mention have a prominnent radio show that brings a lot of influence to bear on leftist politics? Just asking.

        July 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
      • Roy

        What's with the focus on this radio show, or that one?

        Most of the MSM and academia peddle the theme of the eternally guilty white male, my dear.

        July 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Rob

      Elle – no, they have the WHOLE rest of the media – they don't need 1 or 2 radio shows when they have ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, CNN, Hollywood, etc, etc, etc

      July 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • Rocko

      DataBoy, To imply that all racists vote Republican is so ludicris. 98% of Blacks vote democrat, 70% plus of Mexicans vote democrat. The fact is there is plenty of racism in this country. But you seem to imply that only whites are racists. Please take your lips off your crack pipe and open your eyes to reality of your surroundings.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Reply
      • DataBoy

        You're right (except for the crack pipe part) there are black racists and white racists. It's just that, numerically, there are a pazillion more white racists than black citizens, and they are overwhelmingly republican/teaparty. Really, crack notwithstanding.

        July 24, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  15. shawn

    What else not discussed here is jesus zealots. Repubs have done a great job of convincing the religious right that they are in step with their social values...even knowing a true republican believes in few social concerns. The true repubs are for less taxing and less government to assist extreme capitalism...but they have almost brainwashed all social conservatives that they are on the same team. Since on one side we see these extreme jesus zealots aligning on the right all that oppose on the left look extreme...thus highly polarized views are in the mainstream on issues that have little todo with bigger concerns.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  16. Paco

    I think the extreme polarization started when Ted Kennedy demonized Robert Bork and blocked his appointment to the Supreme Court on purely political grounds.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • DataBoy

      You're kidding, right? Robert Bork?? The same Robert Bork who "supported the rights of Southern states to impose a poll tax),and his stated desire to roll back civil rights decisions of the Warren and Burger courts"???

      No, seriously, you must be kidding. Right?

      July 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
    • Carl LaFong

      Bork supported the rights of Southern states to impose a poll tax and his stated desire to roll back civil rights decisions of the Warren and Burger courts. Bork is one of only three Supreme Court nominees to ever be opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, along with William Rehnquist and Samuel Alito. Bork was also criticized for being an "advocate of disproportionate powers for the executive branch of Government, almost executive supremacy", most notably, according to critics, for his role in the Saturday Night Massacre.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
    • lwkite

      The same Robert Bork that did Nixon's dirty work and fired the prosecutor in the Watergate scandal.

      July 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  17. John

    For the answers to your questions of why and when, think back to how those like you on the left acted and talked during the Bush administration.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  18. Brian

    "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.".........................................

    Translation: America is a republic and not a democracy. If we want democracy we will have to get rid of the Senate, the Supreme Court and the Electoral College. Our system of government was set up by reactionaries for reactionaries. Those "founding fathers" were Indian killing slave owners.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • DataBoy

      Interesting POV. I've lived under a parliamentary system too, and I think people were generally much more ambivalent because it seemed pretty much hopeless to effect meaningful change. One great thing about this republic is that things are pretty much guaranteed to change hands early and often, as opposed to the staid one-way (or worse, minority) governments that seem to come out of the parliamentary democracies.

      July 24, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Reply
      • John

        Reading the replies here is deeply depressing. It seems that voters are as radicalized as the politicians. Everyone wants it all their own way like little children. If we can't compromise, and call everyone who doesn't agree with us an extremist (right or left), there isn't much hope for the future. Nothing will get done. I hope there is still a silent majority of Americans who are waiting for a chance to get rid of the political fundmentalists. The country does best when it's ruled from the center. This is the lesson from history.

        July 25, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  19. realmike

    "Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast." This is the nail on the head. The media outlets are so slanted to either the left or right that its hard to get the truth withough reading/listening to both sides and then figuring out where the middle is to get the real story.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • DataBoy

      Excellent point. Alas we all hear pretty much what we want to hear, and there's generally a touch of false equivalence in both directions ("they did this, so I can do that...")

      But to your point, just wait until the effects of Citizens United kick in high gear...2012 is going to be on S***t-storm of an election year.

      July 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
      • Nate (Seattle, WA)

        Citizens United already kicked in. Why do you think the Republicans won everything in 2010?

        If you look at polls of all citizens, the country was almost equally split in 2010. It was only the extreme campaign spending of corporations that were able to get a higher percentage of conservative voters to actually vote.

        You've already seen the last of honest elections in this country. Yeah free market! (not)

        July 24, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
      • Klamerus

        Or the big Union (read as corporate) spending of groups like the NEA, etc. Why else do you think the demos won in the previous term. Sorry dude it goes both ways.

        July 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
      • Mark Kirk

        Attaboy to your name Databoy-I am envious it's too cool.

        August 16, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  20. BobAD

    All of them now work for a political party or are being blackmailed by a new one, by the people and for the people no longer exist.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
    • 2tor

      Would that be a new party tired of the same old ways? Change never came, except record debt.

      July 25, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Reply
    • Beatrice

      America has gone too far in immorality and normal people feel repulsive about it. How about splitting the nation into two? See which one will prosper. The godly one with true freedom!

      July 26, 2011 at 6:15 am | Reply
  21. Greg

    Its amazing about democrats, They say if a man dislikes a White politician its because of his politics BUT if they dislike a Black politician its because he is Black, It has nothing to do with his politics. I dislike Obama because he is a Lousy president for the times we are living in, Hes the wrong man for the Job right now, America is in the worse mess its ever been in and he has only made it worse. The truth is There doesn't seem to be the right man anywhere these days, But Obama has proven thru the last 3 years he is not the man we need!

    July 24, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  22. bawevi

    There has been ONE constant in politics – the wealthy, whether Dem or Repub, have been in control. And they have increasingly failed and are bringing America to its knees. Not all wealthy people are corrupt, but with few exceptions those who make it to and in Washington are. Whether Dem or Repub, they are about themselves first. Not We the People, not America. Want REAL change? Consider bypassing what the purchased media sells you about candidates and seek out candidates (they are out there) from the middle class. The Internet now enables this. The wealthy have had LOTS of chances and keep blowing it in government leadership positions.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  23. Mike in SA

    Gee...way to go and be totally partisan about the whole problem. Of course, this could be just part 1 and part 2 slamming the Left, Liberals, Democrats will be coming out tomorrow, right? Right? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

    July 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  24. Bobby

    Politics has become more polarized in this country because the people have become more polarized. Thirty, forty years ago, there were of course differences of opinion among the populace but there was a definite majority which by and large shared the same basic values and the same basic vision for our country. That's no longer true. We have two definite subgroups out there – liberals and conservatives – who have drastically different values and visions for our nation's future. the only solution is compromise.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  25. TJ

    the problem is republicans have turned into Nazis and the democrats have turned into Communist; it started uner Johnson

    July 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  26. Carl LaFong

    This started the minute a black man won the office of President by popular vote. Remember during the Bush reign, you couldn't even speak up against any of the regime's acts lest you be beaten down as anti-American and a terrorist sympathizer. If this is the way Republicans want to drive the nail into the coffin of a once great nation...do it. We'll rebuild from the ashes.

    July 24, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  27. Chuk

    America, if it's not careful, will destroy itself from within. The insane amount they spend on weapons systems, as if there's iminent challenge from outside, is a waste. The threat will come from within. And the more mitigating events occur, like deficit issues, challenge to their military and economic might, the wider the fissures from within. And the faster the collapse.
    Great societies, from Rome to Great Bitain, eventually fall. But not always from outside threat. Sometimes, it's from the not so obvious.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  28. willie

    I think the images both parties use to represent them says it all.
    On one side you have the elephant in the room, on the other a gang of asses.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  29. jayman419

    Anyone who thinks highly charged political rancor in Washington is a recent thing has either a poor grasp of history, or is looking at their childhood-era politics with rose-tinted glasses.

    In Mr. Zakaria's case I think it is a little bit of both.

    As for why it seems so much worse recently, it's not gerrymandering that's creating these divisions. It's you, Mr. Zakaria, and the rest of the 24-hour news cycle.

    It's the fact that the media gives more attention to a group of 3500 activists than it does the ten thousand citizens who would prefer a more moderate candidate but are simply too busy to make signs and camp out on the streets.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
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