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Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies

Book cover, American Gridlock, and comment from Mickey Edwards: 'If we want government to work again, this is a very important book.'

American Gridlock: The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization

Jim Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University’s School of Public Affairs, has published a co-edited volume of essays that brings together the country's preeminent experts on the causes, characteristics, and consequences of partisan polarization in U.S. politics and government.

“If we want government to work again, this is a very important book,” says former Congressman Mickey Edwards about American Gridlock.

The book is the first to combine research on all facets of polarization, among the public (both voters and activists), in our federal institutions (Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court), at the state level, and in the media.

“Although there is a rich literature on polarization, especially on Congress, there is no single place to find the breath and depth of the research reported in American Gridlock,” Thurber explains.

This edited interview with Thurber examines the effects of polarization (positive and negative) and its influence on the 2016 elections, the relationship between Congress and the president in this era, and how we might overcome partisan gridlock.

What was the inspiration for this collection?

Although there is a rich literature on polarization, especially on Congress, there is no single place to find the breath and depth of the research reported in American Gridlock. We were inspired to bring together the best scholars to share their knowledge about the causes, characteristics, and consequences of polarization from a variety of viewpoints. Using different methods this volume focuses on voters, political parties, interest groups, state legislatures, the media, the judiciary, and Congress.

How can American political institutions overcome polarization?

Our democracy can overcome polarization by electing more moderate public officials who are willing to compromise and work together for the common good. American democracy needs public officials who are willing to bridge the ideological cleavages that dominate Congress, the parties, state legislatures, the media, and the judiciary. When the electorate becomes more moderate, less polarized, those governing will follow that trend.

Are there positive effects to polarization?

The primary positive effect of polarization is deliberation (balancing facts and values … knowledge and ideology) in the policy-making process. However, when that polarization leads to stalemate in congressional lawmaking and gridlock, it is ultimately harmful to democracy. Polarization to the extreme, as we have seen in the last two decades, can lead to an inability to make hard choices on important issues facing our democracy (e.g. tax policy, entitlement reform, immigration).

Some experts have noted the rise of tribalism, in which beating the other side becomes the most important outcome. Do you see this as a separate problem from polarization? Can you resolve one without the other?

“Tribalism” – if my tribe is for it, your tribe is against it – is an integral part of polarization. It has dominated Congress and has gotten worse over the last 20 years. Polarization and gridlock cannot be solved without increasing more comity and civility in Congress and in the electorate. Cross-party cooperation and marginalizing tribal behavior must be promoted in order for our democracy to function.

Is this inevitable result of polarization a more powerful executive branch?

Polarization in Washington weakens both Congress and the executive. It weakens democracy. It is difficult to move beyond legislative policy gridlock, thus the status quo or temporary solutions (e.g., continuing resolutions on the budget) often prevail. No change in policy becomes the norm. The president must act within constitutional authority, and the executive branch must promulgate regulations and administer programs within existing law even if Congress is polarized. With legislative gridlock, the president still must act using executive orders and administrative actions to push a policy agenda, thus gaining more power over Congress.

How will the 2016 election be influenced by polarization?

The 2016 presidential election campaign does not bode well for the future of polarization and gridlock. There is a major battle over the appropriate size of government that appeals to the extremes. With the continuation of the use of “wedge issues” (e.g., immigration, health care reform, response to terrorism), especially by Republican candidates, in combination with massive amounts of money supporting extreme positions that appeal to the base supporters of the parties, it will be very difficult to elect moderates to the House and Senate who will govern with moderation. No matter who is elected president, there will be continued divided party government with very few moderates. Appeals to a polarized electorate, especially on the right, will create continued “tribalism,” polarization and gridlock.

What would you suggest as the most important, concrete step that needs to be taken to address polarization?

There are two areas where reform may help alleviate the harm caused by partisan polarization: the way in which Congress works and the way in which elections are conducted. In the first area, we could investigate legislative procedural reforms; require members of both chambers to spend more time on their jobs in Washington; improve the congressional budget process; and we need a better definition of lobbying and better enforcement of the congressional rules and statutes. In terms of elections, the following could alleviate the problem of polarization: increase open, nonpartisan, and blanket primaries; remove redistricting from the hands of politicians; curb the influence of “dark” money in elections; restructure FEC membership and enforce campaign finance regulations more systematically; and the emergence of a third party could depolarize the electorate.

More about the book