What does polarization mean for our Congress?
The factions that form within large societies are competing philosophies, in theory en route to the realization of a mutual objective, which, through immense simplification, can be reduced to the sustenance of an absolutely free and fair American democracy. Competitors, whatever a nuisance they might be to one’s agenda, invite the possibility of collaboration, and are the fundamental players in the difficult game that lawmaking was intended to be. They must thereby be distinguished from enemies, which, when present in the arena, have a tendency to obstruct the type of rational discourse necessary for collaboration and effective legislation, as they manage to transform lawmaking into a zero-sum game.
This warfare mentality has come to encapsulate party relations for the political elite and it is ultimately the source of the policy gridlock that has become synonymous with Congress. Acknowledging how infuriating the unreasonable, irrational, immoral members of the opposing faction must be for legislators, it is the electorate that truly loses.
On the very first page of Polyarchy, Dahl defines a key characteristic of democracy as government responsiveness to the preferences of its constituency. By that logic, the American legislative body must be in direct contrast with a fundamental democratic principle. But America remains an electoral democracy, and despite the fact that gridlock is the top reason Americans disapprove of Congress, they continue to electorally compose a Congress that toes party lines over 90 percent of the time.
Does this mean that the public is as polarized as the extreme politicians it appoints?
Therein lies the answer to the question of polarization’s compatibility with democracy. Presumably if the public were so polarized, legislators are moving according to the will of their constituency and being rewarded with reelection for weighing the preferences of the people in governance, just as Dahl requires of a good democracy. The lack of legislative responsiveness inherent in gridlock would merely indicate a gap in Dahl’s highly-structured system, which does not consider the possibility of a volonté générale so fragmented as to halt productivity.
Indeed, the question of mass polarization divides political scientists, who cannot come to consensus on the question of its very existence, let alone the causal relationship that may exist between mass and elite polarization. Lilliana Mason’s paper, “I Disrespectfully Agree,” offers an interesting addition to the literature. She concludes that social polarization is a distinct phenomenon, related but not necessarily aligned with issues-based polarization.
She argues that there is a recent trend in alignment of partisan and ideological identity, motivated by group identity rather than policy preferences. This has in turn increased the emotional and psychological attachment to the in-group as well as bias and anger directed towards the out-group. Thus, inter-group incivility and disdain increase even without a change in public opinion on policy issues.
Mason’s data supports her argument, providing a more accurate encapsulation of the American divide, which must extend beyond policy preference to have forged the antagonism that exists between those members at either end of the aisle. While she does not come to a conclusion as to the ultimate existence of polarization in the electorate, I believe her insight rejects the notion.
In the same year that Mason’s article was published, party identification was at a near-historic low, with self-identification as an independent just shy of a historic high. If polarization in the electorate is to be mostly thought of as a social phenomenon driven by powerful political identities, as Mason suggests, then polarization cannot now be a driving force in mass behavior.
Instead, social polarization is thus likely to be a phenomenon existing mostly among these outskirt party adherents, whose partisan and ideological identities are “properly” aligned.
So is Congress doing its job?
Party adherents (or otherwise, dissenters) are the most likely to signify their preferences to the government, as Dahl requires of a responsible democratic electorate. Congressional candidates need only a modicum of self-interest to lean into the trend of their base. Elected and prospective officials move further towards their respective ideological poles to ensure they are not challenged by a more ideologically pure candidate in the primaries. In this process of positive reinforcement, moderates and nonideologues are relatively stripped of their right to meaningful choice in elections.
The responsibility of a democracy to present the electorate with serious options extends beyond simply providing distinguishable alternatives, to providing alternatives that genuinely appeal to voter ideologies. A healthy democracy, after all, is one that encourages public participation, as it is better equipped to perform its functions as a representative institution with as much input as possible. There seems to be little room for moderate voters in the democratic process as it stands, offering only relatively radical sentiments.
Polarization, thus, has the effect of unintentionally disenfranchising people, or at least, improperly franchising them. Due to the variety of differences between the two parties, and the fervor with which these convictions are upheld, it is often the case that one party’s image of the other is not simply unfavorable, but grounded in a sincere confidence that the other party is dangerously injudicious. Given this antagonism, moderates and nonideologues are likely to feel morally obliged to a party whose values don’t necessarily align with their own, as their only other viable option feels threatening.
Milan Svolik’s paper, “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue,” addresses the dilemma voters face in polarized societies when their partisan desires are incompatible with democracy. His research demonstrates that supporters of anti-democratic incumbents often value democratic principles but conflate punishing their party leader for manipulation/subversion of the democratic process to supporting the insupportable challenger.
In the American context, the danger is not directly anti-democratic behavior but political extremism. Where moderates can prioritize their respect for democratic norms in Svolik’s case studies, moderates in America must make choices that contrast directly with their identities as moderates. Thus, through polarization, Congress is failing to be responsive to the goals and demands of the citizenry, which has proven to be a largely moderate body.