Democrats’ and Republicans’ spectacular inability to work together did not start when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
If anything, it only accelerated a longer-term trend. The last few years of gridlock and government by crisis have roots going back decades.
Americans’ hardening attitudes at partially to blame.
The Pew Research Center found last year that more and more Americans identify exclusively with one of the two major parties and see the other not just as a political adversary but a threat to the nation. It’s hard to find middle ground if you think the enemy lurks on the other side.
(Lefties who rightly complain about the anti-Obama vitriol coming from some on the right in recent years might want to remember the things they said about his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.)
Matt Grossmann, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, and David A. Hopkins, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College, write in The Washington Post that there is another, more structural cause; an asymmetry between the two parties.
They argue that the Republican Party is best understood as the agent of the American conservative movement. Republican voters are united by their devotion to limited government and “consistently seek a more conservative and uncompromising party.”
Reality may be a little more nuanced. According to the Pew polling data they cite, more than 40 percent of Republican voters favor compromise over ideological purity. But it is noteworthy that the numbers are almost perfectly reversed for Democrats.
The reason, according to Grossmann and Hopkins, is that the Democratic Party is best understood as a coalition of social groups seeking various forms of government action:
Most Democratic supporters in the mass public are attracted to the party for reasons of group interest or identity rather than a devotion to the principles of liberalism. Democratic leaders face a strong incentive to govern pragmatically in order to deliver concrete programs and benefits to their partisan constituencies.
When Americans are asked what they like and dislike about the two parties, Republicans tend to give answers that are informed by ideology, describing their own party as “conservative” or “for smaller government” while characterizing Democrats as “socialists.”
Democrats, by contrast, think in terms of group interests. They see their own party as caring about the “middle class” or “working to help women.” Republicans supposedly only “look out for the rich” or represent “old white folks.”
This tribalism is aggravated by the fact that left- and right-wing Americans increasingly isolate themselves in what Pew last year called “ideological silos.”
The polling agency not only found that the share of Americans who express consistently “conservative” or “liberal” views has risen in the last twenty years; it discovered that partisanship has become so strong that many ardent Democrats and Republicans literally no longer even talk to each other.
Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.
That does not bode well for compromise in Washington DC even if the description does not fit the majority of Americans. “Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation,” Pew noted.
Unfortunately, those in the middle tend to have other things to do than be politically active and are therefore easily overlooked — “while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”
It’s not hard to imagine that the more rancorous partisans on both sides get, the more Americans without fixed party affiliations will simply stop paying attention altogether.