Is Gridlock Caused by Politicians or the Public?
Much has been written about the partisan gridlock in DC with the requisite amount of finger-pointing and vitriol, but all of it has been directed at the politicians and that might be the wrong place to look.
Last Monday the Pew Research Center released their annual (though they have skipped a few years here and there) report about Trends in American Values from 1987 to 2012. This year’s associated article is entitled Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years and is a lengthy but good read.
The report is very clear that the partisan attitudes of America based on political party are widening. In fact the gap between self-identified Democrats and Republicans is greater today than it has ever been. The average gap between members of the two parties across 48 values questions is now 18 points, but this is somewhat misleading since there are many of the issues where there is virtually no gap.
I reviewed the report thoroughly and excerpted six issues that have been most notable over the last 10 to 12 years. The charts depicting the gaps of two questions in three areas are shown below.
NOTE: The chart titles are paraphrased from the exact questions asked in the Pew survey and the values represent the percentage of members of each party who agree with the question.
The average gap in these six areas is more than 37% or twice the average across all 48 questions in the survey. Notable also is every one of these gaps has widened since 2001, some by a considerable amount. These are the mathematical statistics that define the polarization and acrimony that has occurred in the George Bush and Barack Obama presidencies but there is plenty of other evidence.
Take just a few minutes and flip through the “so called” cable news channels or talk radio stations, you’ll hear in a very short while a litany of acerbic and vitriolic rants against one set of ideologies or the other. Spend some time scanning Facebook, Twitter or the blogosphere and you can read even worse including threats of physical harm; vulgar slurs about race, creed, gender and religious beliefs; and messages of unbridled lunacy ranging from Obama’s birthplace to Romney’s wealth.
In short the left has come to despise the right and conservatives have come to detest liberals, and I’m not talking about the politicians on Capitol Hill, I’m talking about the American public.
So what does this increase in partisanship amongst the public have to do with gridlock you ask? Plenty once you grasp a simple concept about politicians and how they get where they are and do what they do. They’re where they are because the public put them there by electing them, and they do what they do because they want to keep their jobs by doing what their constituents demand.
Rockefeller Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats have gone the way of the Dodo bird, they’re virtually extinct and the few who are left are being targeted by extremists within their own party like they were the enemy. This is where the gridlock comes from and it can be seen graphically in the chart below.
Over the last six Congresses the percentage of legislation that has come to a vote has remained reasonably steady, and yes you could do an entire article about the deviations from one Congress to the next but I won’t here. What has dropped though is the percentage of legislation that actually makes it through the entire process and becomes law. In fact there has been a 72% reduction in that percentage between the 108th Congress of 2003-2004 and today’s 112th Congress.
Now obviously there can be some positives in that reduction such as lessened government regulations but as a measuring-stick it serves to emphasize the ineffectiveness of the US Congress due to the extremist attitudes that have prevailed and the lack of civil discourse that leads to compromise.
Surely Congress can, and should be, held accountable but they are not to be blamed for the entire breakdown of the system. They know all too well that if they fly in the face of their overtly partisan constituencies they are likely out of a job, and if they dutifully serve the people who elected them then partisanship is the only plausible result. This is the literal definition of gridlock and the American public is as much to blame for it as the politicians they elected.