Partisan Polarization: Is It Crippling Congress? (with Frances E. Lee)
Manage episode 351395098 series 2833439
The topic of this episode is: “Partisan polarization: Is it crippling Congress?”
My guest is Frances Lee. She is a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University and a top scholar on Congress. She is the author and co-author of many articles and books on Congress, and has written for popular publications including the Atlantic magazine and the New York Times. Most recently she and James Curry published, The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era (Chicago 2020), which analyzes and addresses the subject of this episode—polarization in our national legislature.
Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It's a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be, and that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I'm your host, Kevin Kosar, and I'm a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Professor Lee, welcome to the podcast.
Frances E. Lee:
Thank you, Kevin. It's great to be here.
Let's start by ensuring that we all are on the same page: you, I, and listeners alike. When we speak of Congress, what do we mean by the term partisan polarization?
Frances E. Lee:
Partisan polarization has multiple meanings and I think that's probably why you began with this question.
A layman's or a dictionary definition of polarization means division into two sharply contrasting groups. Congress is clearly polarized in this sense. Congress sees much more partisan conflict. Conflict in Congress breaks down more reliably on partisan lines than it did throughout most of the 20th century. We routinely see votes that pit 90% or more Democrats against 90% or more Republicans, a partisan divide that's more deep and predictable than we used to see.
However, by partisan polarization, political scientists often mean something more technical. In its most rigorous form, the concept of polarization is grounded in spatial theory. It rests on a theorized choice space in which policy preferences are ranged on an underlying continuum from left to right. In this sense, parties become more polarized as the preferences of members become more distinctly bimodal, and as the two parties’ modes move farther apart from one another.
It's far from clear that parties are polarized in this second sense. The problem is that the issues at stake in congressional politics are diverse. On some issues, the congressional parties have moved closer together and on some issues, they've moved farther apart. There's little doubt that the post-Trump parties in Congress are farther apart on immigration than they were. There's a growing partisan divide opening up on transgender issues. Clearly, the parties are farther apart today on issues relating to the COVID pandemic than they were in March 2020.
But on other issues, the parties have moved closer together. Republicans and Democrats differ less on trade policy today than they did in the past, with the Republican Party having moved more toward a more protectionist stance under Trump. The budget deficit and government spending became less partisan during the Trump years as both parties came together around an unprecedented response to the COVID pandemic. Trump presided over a significant reform of criminal justice policy. It was bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have worked together on foreign policy a lot over the past decade from sanctions on Russia to the huge Ukraine aid package under Biden. There's reporting in the lead-up to the congressional elections of 2022 that the Republican Party has given up on the issue of Obamacare repeal.
So have the parties moved farther apart or are they closer together? I have no idea how to characterize the parties in an absolute sense. It depends on what issue you're talking about. I'm not sure how you go about averaging across all the diverse issues on the congressional agenda to say that the parties are farther apart ideologically than they used to be. I think it's clear that Republicans and Democrats are more partisan in their voting behavior, but what that means in terms of ideology is contested.
It sounds like one temptation we have is to associate stark differences in voting behavior with the legislators themselves believing very different things rather than the possibility that some are simply voting strategically, voting with their crowd, or for other reasons—perhaps getting through the primaries or something. Is that right?
Frances E. Lee:
That's right, absolutely. Of course, nothing produces more reliable partisan voting than questions of procedure—who's going to control the floor agenda? The majority party supports its leadership in controlling the floor and the minority party contests it, and that continually produces party line voting. But what does that mean in terms of the party's larger ideological agendas? It's not clear. It's this contest for power over the agenda.
There’s also positioning related to elections. Elections are zero-sum, so you can cast votes with an eye toward the stance that you want to portray your party as having on an issue, rather than expecting those votes to have any effect on public policy.
Right. We shouldn't confuse symbolic action in some cases with the essence of the matter and assume that people have lost negotiating space that may actually exist.
I feel like those of us who pay attention to Congress have read so many articles—of one sort or another—which say we are a way more polarized Congress or a way more polarized nation than ever before, or at least in recent memory. Based on what you’re telling me, that seems to be a bit of an overstatement.
Frances E. Lee:
Intense partisan conflict is not new to US politics. I think it's probably the normal state of affairs.
The decades after the Great Depression in which an internally divided Democratic Party enjoyed nearly continuous majority status for decades was a period that was lower in partisan conflict than is typical for the whole sweep of US history. It's probably an exceptional period rather than the norm, but it tends to be the period against which people tend to benchmark the present and they say, “Well, it's more partisan than it was in the '50s or the '70s or the '80s.” So those decades then become the comparison point.
My qualitative work looking at partisanship in Congress over time suggests that members of Congress virtually always say and probably feel and believe that things are worse now than they ever have been before. They've been saying that as long as far back as I can find. They said it during the Reagan era. They said it under Clinton. They said it under George W. Bush. They of course said it under Obama and under Trump. I even found members in the 1970s telling reporters that Congress had never been as partisan as it was then. Of course, the early '70s are the nadir of partisan conflict as far as roll call voting goes, but it didn't feel that way to embers of Congress at the time.
So I tend to take all these claims that things are worse now than they have ever been before with a grain of salt. Conflict is just endemic to Congress. I'm a political scientist, not a historian, but I haven't found a period in congressional history where there wasn't intense conflict on at least some dimensions in Congress.
Absolutely. During the New Deal era, many Republicans were accusing the President and Democrats of destroying the constitutional order, taking over the economy, being a dictator, and possibly ushering in a new kind of American version of socialism or fascism or some sort of strongmanism backed by a potent party. That language was out there, but I think we forget it as we think back to the greatest generation in all those glorious years.
Frances E. Lee:
I think we forget it as the issues that sparked such intense conflict fade. And so the current issues loom so much larger, and we say that it's so much worse now than it was then. But I think to a great extent, it's an illusion.
So we say we don't want to wave away polarization and just say doesn't exist. And it sounds like you say that it certainly does exist, but it is issue-specific as opposed to a general ideological parting of ways between the parties. Is that fair to stay?
Frances E. Lee:
Well, I'm just agnostic on that question because I really don't know how one goes about characterizing all the issues before Congress in a single abstract space. We see the parties move closer together on some issues and farther apart on others. We also know that they behave in more reliably partisan ways than in the past. So that's an objective fact about life in Congress today. But how we interpret it, and what it means for the policy stakes, I think we need to view that issue by issue.
Right, and I suppose the only thing that we can clearly point to and say, "Hey, this looks a little different than say 50 years ago," is the voting behavior. The days when conservative Democrats would work with Republicans and push some fiscal responsibility legislation or military buildup legislation seem to have disappeared for us, but maybe not.
Frances E. Lee:
Well, what we don't see today is a party able to pick off a handful of members of the opposing party to put together a small bipartisan coalition. But most everything that becomes law today has big bipartisan support. What you see today is that policy that becomes law is negotiated between both parties—the leadership of both parties. And so when something passes, it tends to command majorities of both parties, not a majority of one party and some moderate members or a handful of the other party. But on legislating, we see big bipartisanship today. That really hasn't changed.
And this gets to the crux of the issue. There's so much anxiety that Congress is broken, that it just can't get things done, and therefore all power is flowing to the executive branch and the judiciary and Congress is just this awful cacophony that's not making policy. Based on your research, this caricature sounds like it’s not even remotely true. In fact, Congress is working in a bipartisan fashion and on landmark and significant pieces of legislation too.
Frances E. Lee:
That's right. I think the congressional gridlock narrative has taken on a bit of a zombie status, and it persists in the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Recent congressional productivity has been quite remarkable. The COVID response in 2020 was historically vast—by far the largest crisis intervention in US history, larger in inflation-adjusted terms than the 2009 stimulus and the whole New Deal combined. You really can only compare levels of spending in 2020 with levels during war production in 1943. And this was passed in an entirely bipartisan manner.
And the 2020 Congress—so this is the Congress in the last presidential election year—did a whole lot more than COVID. It also passed an important energy environment package as part of the “Coronabus” at the end of the year, which was the most significant environmental legislation Congress had passed up until that point. It passed a large parks and conservation package, a new free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, and interestingly, a North American free trade agreement that had the support of labor. A paid parental leave package for federal civilian workers. That was 2020.
This Congress has continued with a frenzied lawmaking pace. It was kicked off with the American Rescue Plan—a huge package only exceeded by the CARES Act that had passed in 2020—a major infrastructure authorization, a huge science and technology competitiveness law—the CHIPS Act—a huge Ukraine aid package, a modest gun safety law, and then it managed to pass another big reconciliation bill—the multi-billion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act. So I ask: where is the gridlock here?
I think that commentators tend to mistake the difficulties that parties have with passing their programmatic agendas with gridlock. When they're frustrated that their party isn't able to deliver on its platform, they say Congress is gridlocked and Congress does have a really hard time passing partisan programs.
But that's often because majority parties cannot agree internally, not because of gridlock (the ability of a minority party to block). Obamacare repeal and replace failed because Republicans couldn't get their whole party on board. The same was true of Biden's Build Back Better package that failed. They salvaged a small piece of it with the Inflation Reduction Act because not all Democrats agreed.
Even if Congress isn't passing a partisan program, it can be accomplishing a lot legislatively, which is what we have been seeing. But these achievements tend to get quickly passed over by a news media that focuses primarily on conflict and...