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Polarization Reason for Country’s Governing Problems

Political polarization in American politics is widely seen as a major source of the country’s governing problems, said Jim Thurber, co-organizer of the conference on American gridlock and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, in introductory remarks. Congress, he said, has become so polarized that there has been a complete breakdown in the legislative process, preventing progress on issues that would normally gain widespread bipartisan support.

Republicans, he said, have redrawn congressional districts to protect their seats from challengers, making GOP House members less inclined to compromise with Democrats and to embrace ideologically rigid positions. The hyper-partisanship has upset decorum. Civility and comity, both hallmarks of previous Congresses, have eroded, further contributing to gridlock in the nation’s capital. The Senate filibuster, once used only in extreme cases, is now routinely used to obstruct and delay presidential nominees to important governmental posts, hampering the functioning of government.

Polarization has also infected the electorate. Voters have sorted themselves into one party or the other based on their values and beliefs, resulting in less cross-over support for the opposition party. Massive amounts of money have fueled a permanent political campaign. Governing and campaigns are blurred into an ongoing, never-ending war.

Thurber said that because the political parties are at parity, with either party capable of winning the White House or majorities in Congress, partisan polarization is as much strategic as ideological.

“Parties operate in their own world of party caucuses, state and local organizations, loyal partisans, campaign funders, sympathetic interest groups and super-PACs,” he said. “Redistricting, campaign finance and casting ballots are full of partisan conflict.”

Antoine Yoshinaka, a co-organizer of the conference and assistant professor of government, said that in the last few years political scientists have been able to explore the effectiveness of reforms in reducing the level of polarization with novel data from the states. While reformers often tout redistricting, primaries and the outpouring of unregulated money as major causes for polarization, systematic analysis at the state level offers, at best, weak support for the proposition that reforms in these areas provide an effective remedy.

"What we learned at the conference is that reducing polarization involves much more than tinkering with institutional and electoral rules," he said. "In fact, some of these reforms may even exacerbate polarization in some instances."

Polarization and the Media

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute, presented her research with Danny Hayes of George Washington University, “News as a Casualty: District Polarization and Media Coverage of U.S. House Campaigns,” during a panel discussion.

She said scholars typically examine whether the media environment leads to mass polarization, but they assessed whether district polarization affects media coverage. “It is a vitally important question because there are potential consequences for citizen knowledge and participation,” she said.

They conducted an analysis of local House campaign newspaper coverage in the month leading up to the 2010 midterm election. They analyzed 6,004 news stories from the largest-circulating newspaper in all 435 congressional districts, tracking the total number of stories about each race, the traits associated with each candidate, and the issues emphasized by the Democratic and Republican candidates.

They found a relationship between district polarization and media coverage. Lawless said that by shaping the competitive context of districts, polarization influences the “information environment” during House campaigns. District partisanship, they found, influences candidate emergence, campaign intensity and competitiveness. 

“These factors shape the newsworthiness of an election, which determines the amount of media coverage,” she said. “So, there is less, and less substantive, campaign coverage in lopsided districts than in more evenly split districts.”

Coverage in lopsided districts, however, does not reflect a different set of candidate issue priorities than in more evenly split districts. Regardless of how lopsided or evenly split the district, Republicans talk about the same things, as do Democrats. The campaigns reflect a national conversation.

Lawless said these findings are especially consequential as the sources of local political news continue to diminish. “If polarization is a fundamental barrier to the renaissance of local political coverage, then it is also one that is very difficult to overcome,” she said.