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Party polarization is not the same as ideological polarization


Ruth Marcus's column defending the filibuster turns on what I think to be the strongest argument in favor of the filibuster. It goes something like this: Yes, the filibuster has become constant. And yes, that's a new development. But there's a reason for that: "the increasing polarization of politics." And the filibuster is the only bulwark against that polarization.

There's a problem with this argument, though, and it turns on an ambiguity about the word "polarization."

There's a difference between partisan polarization, in which the two parties find it more difficult to cooperate, and ideological polarization, in which the society's range of political opinion is stretched. In Marcus's conclusion, she implies we're suffering from both, decrying "excessive partisanship and ideological extremism."

But is that true? Take the health-care bill. "It is no accident that the Senate health-care bill is better than its House counterpart," Marcus says. Putting aside whether the Senate bill actually is better than the House bill -- the House bill is certainly better on coverage and regulation than the Senate bill -- what's striking is how close they are to each other, and how far they are from past efforts. Medicare, which passed with more than a dozen Republican votes at a time when a majority was sufficient, was far more ideologically pure than the House health-care bill -- or anything that Democrats ever considered proposing.

What no one doubts is that we have more partisanship. But that's a fairly simple story: Where the parties were internally riven by racism in the 1950s, they've realigned along ideological lines in the years since. That's meant that they act more like parties, which means uniting and manipulating the rules to trip the other guys up and win elections. And this is the relevant dynamic: Republicans aren't lockstep against Democrats because Democrats are more liberal than they were in the ’60s. Democrats are not more liberal than they were in the ’60s. Republicans have a political strategy to win the next election and that strategy is undercut by helping the majority party pass legislation. And who can blame them? The strategy is clearly working to improve their electoral position, even if it's not resulting in good governance of the country.

David Leonhardt put this neatly: We are "politically partisan and substantively bipartisan." That is to say, Congress is very partisan, but not very extreme. Would allowing majority rule really be such a terrible experiment under those conditions?

It's hard to see how. The alternative, of course, is unending gridlock. But Marcus, like me, believes this country has problems it needs to solve: Health-care spending, the long-term budget deficit, global warming. Unending gridlock is simply not an option. Given all that, there are two potential ways to break the paralysis: End partisanship or change the rules of the Congress. I have never heard a convincing proposal to end partisanship. And it will be even harder after Republicans gain seats in 2010 atop a strategy of relentless obstruction -- much as Democrats did in 2006, and Republicans did in 1994. Conversely, I have heard plenty of proposals to change the rules of the Senate -- many of which would preserve the right to lengthy debate.

The alternative is a system that simply doesn't work, even -- or possibly especially-- when it needs to. And that's scarier even than majority rule.

Photo credit: Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  January 27, 2010; 4:37 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: The radicalism of majority rule


Especially true when you consider that our politicians are already naturally disinclined to address long term problems, as there's short term gain to a strategy of kicking the can down the road vs. dealing with costs now.

Posted by: etdean1 | January 27, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Exactly. This reminds me of political scientist Morris Fiorina's argument in his book "Culture War?". His point is that although political parties and party elites are polarized, the opinions of individual citizens are not. The evidence is more from traditional "wedge" issues than issues like health care reform, but I would bet that ordinary Americans have more nuanced views on hcr than we give them credit for. Politicians have incentives to be polarizing and radical and, unfortunately, they're the ones who make the decisions too. Link to the book below:

Posted by: zbsavage | January 27, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Until the Republicans are punished for their bad behavior (that is, soundly defeated at the polls or universally called out as nihilists by the mainstream media), they will continue to act this way.

Why is that a surprise? Next question.

Posted by: daveb99 | January 27, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Our 3rd Vice President shot and killed our first Secretary of the Treasury. By party or ideology I don't think that the country is more polarized than it used to be. If the filibuster was truly a tradition then the South would have never seceded from the Union because they could have simply blocked every bad think Lincoln proposed. That course of action was so far from tradition that war made more sense.

The House used to allow filibusters. A tiny majority stopped the practice because the minority members were acting like jackasses and generally gumming up the works. In the Senate they are proud to be jackasses gumming up the works. Lead paint was around for a long longer than the US Senate. That don't make lead paint a good idea.

Posted by: jamusco | January 27, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Maybe you and Marcus could go on bloggingheads and hash this out... Oh, wait, that's right... she's one of the anointed few over at Hiatt's clown show, and therefore is never expected to defend anything she writes.

Posted by: antontuffnell | January 27, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse


A very interesting post.

You are right that Democrats are not ideologically extreme. Far from it. They are much less liberal than they were in the 1960s.

But today's Republicans are ideologically extreme. In the 1990s, moderate Republicans were driven out of the party.

This is why Republicans can achieve such party discipline: they are agreed on a set of ideas driven by ideology.

In many ways Healthcare reform would help red states more than blue states, but Republicans from red states are ideologically opposed to reform, so whether or not it would help their state is of little interest.

Finally, consolidation of enormous wealth at the top of the economic ladder goes a long way toward explaning Republican extremism.

As everyone knows, we now live in an economy where the gaps between the poor, the middle class, the upper-middle class and the rich have widened--and the rich, at least, recognize their class interest.

It is in their interest to accumulate, consolidate and preserve wealth at the top of the economic ladder. It is in their interest to resist tax increases or any redistribution of wealth, goods and services.

This is a major reason why they oppose health care reform.

With real unemmployemnet at 17% and 30% of the nation living below twice the poverty level (around $23,000 joint income for a family of 4) the wealthy are scared that there will be some kind of economic or populist revolt demanding wider distribution of wealth and services.

Because they are scared, they refuse to give an inch.

Posted by: mahar1 | January 27, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

antontuffnell wins the thread!

Posted by: JEinATL | January 27, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: "I have never heard a convincing proposal to end partisanship. And it will be even harder after Republicans gain seats in 2010 atop a strategy of relentless obstruction -- much as Democrats did in 2006, and Republicans did in 1994."

I'm not sure what you mean here. Clinton and the Republican Congress did reach compromises once the Republicans gained control in 1994; namely, the 1996 welfare reform and the 1997 budget deal, which led to the budget surplus.

Posted by: counterfactual | January 27, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

I heard an interesting discussion of the filibuster on Teri Gross' show on NPR Tuesday. The guest, whose name and qualifications I didn't get, said that the Democratic leadership could jettison the filibuster anytime it wants to. The irony is that it only takes 51 votes to change the rule.

But it stays in place because the filibuster remains a useful tool for the Democratic party leadership to maintain discipline among DEMOCRATS, which, when the Republicans were in charge, was not a problem since they have tended to be more monolithic in their positions and disciplined in their voting.

In other words, if we weren't such a big tent, with Senators from such differing positions as, say, Ben Nelson and John Kerry, we wouldn't need the filibuster.

Posted by: Rick00 | January 28, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Ok, I finally got around to reading the Marcus column.

I'm short on time, but there are some important things I'd like to crank out.

1) "The filibuster makes the process -- take a deep breath, Democrats – fairer" – If you consider majority rule, with strong minority rights in the constitution, unfair. I don't.

2) "It enhances the opportunity for real debate." – First, this is the modern world. Senators and other interested parties can debate these issues anywhere in the world at any time, not just in the Senate Hall, all physically together, like in 1776. By the time a bill is up for vote its issues have normally been debated for many years, thoroughly, in academia, in the traditional media, in the blogosphere, in party meetings both formal and informal, in election debates and forumns, in casual discussions, in many, many places. Also, if a majority of Senators think there has not been enough debate, then they can just vote no until there is more debate.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 30, 2010 12:15 AM | Report abuse

3) "On the major legislation for which its use was meant, the filibuster tends, overall, to create a better end product, one more likely to gain wide acceptance among voters." – Absolutely not. It gives special interests much more leverage against the majority. The health care bill would have been far superior if only 50 votes were required. True, Republican bills would be even worse, but then there would be an outcry to change them. They would be exposed through try and see. But the good ideas once tried would be permanent like universal single payer would have been permanent, and like Medicare and Social Security were permanent.

4) "Overall, however, a product that can secure the votes of 60 senators is more likely to be one that can achieve a national consensus as well." – This completely misses an understanding of representative democracy. People very often don't have the time to fully understand complicated new bills and programs, especially in today's far far more complicated world. A consensus is often best achieved by try and see, something that the filibuster makes possible only about once every 50 to 100 or more years for big changes. This causes us to advance very slowly as a nation. It wasn't like this in the past, because the filibuster was very rarely used. If it had been used like today, would we even have a new deal yet? Would seniors still be by far the biggest group in poverty because we still wouldn't be able to try and see Social Security so the Republican scare tactics would still be working? Do you really want to risk planetary devastation by waiting 50 to 100 years for strong climate change action because that's about how often everything will allign just skillfully and luckily enough that we can beat a Republican filibuster for a strong bill?

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 30, 2010 12:16 AM | Report abuse

5) " A more polarized Senate, with almost no ideological overlap between the parties, has accompanied, and most likely produced, a more fractious process. Changing the rules would treat one symptom -- delay and gridlock -- at the cost of exacerbating the underlying disease: excessive partisanship and ideological extremism." – This is exactly wrong. Try and see is what ends extreme partisan polarization, and it's what is not possible with the recent elevation of the filibuster to a regular supermajority rule. With try and see the public eventually tries the policies of one side; if they turn out to be very well liked in spite of what the other side said about them, then that side wins and the other side is forced to move not so far from it or be decimated in future elections. This is exactly what happened with the New Deal. The Democrats and Republicans were extremely polarized before it, with the Republicans using all kinds of false scare stories. But the New Deal was tried, and people saw that the Republican stories were not true. It made their lives much better and it was widely popular. As a result the Republicans were forced to move from their extreme opposition to a position not too far from the Democrats just to survive, and the result was a generation of little polarization.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 30, 2010 12:17 AM | Report abuse

For more why I favor abolishing the filibuster, please see:

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 30, 2010 12:18 AM | Report abuse

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