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Inaugural Barbara Sinclair Lecture Focuses on Politics in a Polarized Society

Sarah Binder speaking

Public perception of gridlock in Washington is widespread, drawing the ire of everyday Americans and government officials alike. In a lecture on Nov. 27, political scientist Sarah Binder shared her insight on how lawmakers operate in the current polarized environment and her take on what’s ahead for Congress with its incoming freshman class.

The American Political Science Association's inaugural Barbara Sinclair Lecture commemorates the life and scholarship of renowned scholar of legislative politics, Barbara Sinclair. Speaker selection recognizes achievement in promoting understanding of the U.S. Congress and legislative politics. The lecture is co-sponsored by the AU School of Public Affairs' Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

Drawing on her research, Binder, a professor at George Washington University, discussed factors that contribute to the stalemate on Capitol Hill and put the challenge in historical context.

“It doesn’t matter whether one favors policy change in a liberal direction or a conservative direction. You need a functioning Congress to be able to do either,” said Binder, whose work focuses on the politics of legislative institutions. She is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In her remarks, Binder said congressional dysfunction can be traced, first, to representatives’ single-minded focus on staying in office.

“Re-election is always the proximate goal,” Binder said. “That re-election imperative shapes everything lawmakers do as well as leaders’ behavior.”

This means that members like to take credit when things go well, while avoiding votes on unpopular measures. Binder shared that voters tend to be myopic and reward positions representatives take and are not so keen on thinking through the policy outcomes. This can make it difficult to reach consensus on major legislation where the long-term benefits are uncertain.

Binder explained that there has been a significant rise in partisan polarization in Congress since 1960.

"As parties move further apart, few members operate in the middle, and it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve wide partisan support," said Binder.

In the past, deals were made on health care, Wall Street reform, and the budget, but both parties must view the cost of not negotiating as being too high.

“Those moments are few and far between because parties have different polarized bases, so they see those costs differently, and partisanship gives rise to differences of opinion on issues,” said Binder.

Are there any areas for bipartisan agreement? Binder suggested the federal budget, student loan rates, and prescription drug prices as possible issues of consensus. But in the wake of recent battles, and with little incentive for leaders to cooperate before the next election, Binder said, “It does not leave me terribly hopeful … it’s hard to think a lot more will get done.”