“The two parties long ago ceased to agree on the policies that promote economic growth and the appropriate role for government in society,” said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. “It is this increasing divergence on fundamentals around which the American political system has reconfigured itself.”
Polarization on the rise
For many conservatives, the word “compromise” in Washington means a continuation of the direction government has taken since the New Deal, only a little slower. The tea party members in the House want to change course entirely.
In this battle, they are reinforced by a constituency now more powerful than party committees, or what is often called the party establishment. This new group includes conservative activists at home; talk radio and television hosts; and outside groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. They can threaten apostates with primary challenges, a danger of much more concern to incumbents in safe districts than a general election.
Divided government at a time of polarization frustrates governing and makes short-term fixes more difficult. The power of the most conservative faction in the House to create the current stalemate over funding the government underscores the risks of the new alignment.
The absence of a center in today’s politics significantly complicates coalition building. “How do you build a coalition from the center out when there’s no one in the middle?” Abramowitz asked. “Reaching across the aisle means reaching pretty far.”
There are some reforms to the political process that might bring modest improvements over time. Making redistricting less partisan would be one step but probably would not produce dramatic changes. Some advocate open primaries, though the jury is out on the significance of such a move. In the Senate, there has been talk of reforming the filibuster to prevent the abuses seen in recent years, but this change seems unlikely.
What the future holds is subject to debate. Depending on how the shutdown-debt ceiling battle ends, it could shake the status quo, creating a voter backlash — right now Republicans are more blamed for the standoff than Obama and the Democrats. It could help to resolve the intraparty GOP conflict that has been simmering since the 2012 election as Republicans argue over how to win back the White House. Or it could result in yet another lowering of confidence in government and political leaders.
Much lies in the hands of the public. If at some point enough Americans decide they no longer want a country as divided as it is now, they could vote to give one party overwhelming control of the machinery of government. That has happened before in the country’s history. Maybe the aftermath of the shutdown will produce that kind of decisive shift. If not, then the status quo could stretch through several more elections.