Crisis Is the New Normal

The closed National Mall and Washington Monument Photograph by Michael Reynolds/EPA via Corbis

By every reliable gauge of public opinion, the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis have been a disaster for the Republican Party. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Americans blame the GOP for the shutdown by a 22-point margin. Gallup finds that Republicans have the lowest favorability rating (28 percent) it has ever recorded for either party. And multiple polls show that generic ballot questions about which party voters would like to control Congress (which correlates strongly with national election outcomes) now favor Democrats, after previously showing an even split between the two parties.

A year after Mitt Romney’s loss in the presidential campaign, the Republicans are in worse condition than ever. After their humiliating retreat from the budget crisis they instigated, a return to a less confrontational mode of behavior would make intuitive sense. But it probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

While the shutdown might look like the spectacular self-immolation of a band of bitter-enders, it’s better understood as the natural consequence of a decades-long shift in the American political landscape. Over the last century, and especially since the mid-1970s, Congress has grown steadily more polarized as the South has realigned from solidly Democratic to Republican. This process has continued through good economic times and bad, through Democratic administrations and Republican ones. Voteview, a tool devised by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal to measure partisanship, shows that congressional polarization is higher now than at any time since the late 19th century. “With the 2010 elections,” Poole says, “the South is almost completely aligned toward the Republican Party.”

In fact, Congress has become so intensely divided that there isn’t much room left at the edges of the ideological continuum. Far from being an aberration, crises are more like the new normal. Perhaps surprisingly in light of the shutdown, more respondents to an Oct. 15 Pew Research Center poll judged Republicans (42 percent), rather than Democrats (39 percent), better able to manage the federal government; by an even wider margin (44 percent to 37 percent), they thought the GOP was better suited to deal with the economy.

It’s not hard to envision a future that looks an awful lot like the present, with Republicans just strong enough to maintain control of the House but shut out of the Senate and White House, and Democrats unable to regain the unified control of Washington they enjoyed during Obama’s first two years. This is a formula for plenty of drama and few accomplishments.

What could jolt the country out of this rut and begin to undo this damaging stasis? “What you need to create change is either some kind of fairly cataclysmic event on the level of a depression or a world war—something that can fundamentally upset the party system—or some kind of new issue to arise that creates cleavages within the parties, so that we’re not looking at red and blue staring at each other across a chasm,” says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University.

Barring that, Congress could impose rules or procedures to curb the worst excesses of factionalism. The Senate could limit abuse of the filibuster. The House could abolish the debt ceiling. Both chambers could agree that if they fail to pass a budget resolution, the government would be funded at the level of the previous fiscal year, thereby eliminating the possibility of future hostage taking and shutdowns. “The problem,” Sides says, “is that those kinds of rule changes themselves fall prey to the same partisan conflict they’re seeking to mitigate.” And that’s why, when the dust settles and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, the smart thing to do will be to turn around and start preparing for the next crisis.

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