United States: Why Is Congress So Polarized?

Washington: The issue was about shutting down the government. It ended up shutting down Congress. The recent removal of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, reflects a policy conflict and shows a serious institutional flaw.

The controversial policy is the public debt. The United States’ national debt reached nearly 100% of GDP, prompting Congress to suspend its debt ceiling months ago. Last month, Congress failed to reach an agreement for the annual budget. Ultras in the Republican party wanted to scrap certain expenses, in particular those regarding the supply of weapons and aid to Ukraine.

A last-minute agreement avoided shutdown for a few weeks, but the wacky little wing of the Republican caucus accused Speaker McCarthy of betraying the party and triggered a motion to remove him. The episode is not completely new, as the past three Republican speakers of the House were pestered by their own side and resigned or retired before being ousted. But this is the first time in history that they’ve succeeded in actually firing the Speaker.

A conflict over policy

The policy conflict should not be dismissed as simply the result of acrimony. Bipartisanship and cooperation in Congress flourished during several decades of foreign tension through World War II and the Cold War as external existential threats triggered national unity. But when the mortal external risk became paltry, it looked like there were no limits to internal confrontation.

Over the last thirty years, the public agenda of controversial issues has grown enormously. With just a little exaggeration, one could say that the international Cold War was replaced with a domestic political war. Right now, it is not coincidental that the most aggressive Republicans spurn US aid to Ukraine. A focus on external conflict would reduce the space for domestic policy and make internal confrontation less easy. The new war in Israel may increase their malaise.

A conflict caused by institutions

The institutional flaw is that the framework based on the separation of powers with only two parties incentivizes and exacerbates political animosity. With pervasive partisan antagonism, the filters and “checks” between the House, the Senate and the presidency do not produce fair balances as expected. Actually, mutual checks between institutions boost parties’ hostilities and preclude effective governance.

The two major political parties in the US encompass a range of policy proposals and ideological orientations comparable to the typical European system with multiple parties: There are liberals and socialists within the Democratic Party, conservatives and populists within the Republican Party, and the minor Greens and Libertarians flanking each side. The system has produced factional candidacies and long disputes within each party to select its candidates. There is ideological plurality within parties, but not at the level of competitive bidding for public office. This forces political polarization, as I analyze in my book, Constitutional Polarization: A Critical Review of the U.S. Political System.

An additional factor is the system of primary elections to select candidates. In traditional closed-party primaries, low participation heavily skews the vote toward extreme positions on issues with no social or political consensus. The participants in primaries are typically the most active and ideologically motivated people in the entire electorate, so they often favor candidates prone to foster antagonism.

In congressional primaries, only about a fifth of eligible voters tend to participate. On many occasions, the winner in a primary for an open seat, which tends to attract multiple candidates, wins only a plurality of the vote. Thus, many candidates for House seats have been selected by less than a tenth of their party voters. Closed-party primaries can select minority-supported candidates that might not be most preferred by the general public. This is how the House of Representatives is formed and why some of its members sometimes behave like firebrands.

It may be significant that none of the eight Republicans who voted to overthrow McCarthy were elected in any of the five states that select their representatives by top-two open primaries or by ranked-choice voting, alternative systems to closed party primaries that favor more moderate and consensual winners (Louisiana, Washington, California, Alaska, and Maine).

The immediate consequence of the current calamity is the blockage of legislation for the next few weeks. Yet even if the House resumes its activity soon, the threat of a government shutdown in November remains on the horizon.

(Courtesy : Fair Observer)