Nice catch, Mr. President.

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Catch of the Day: Obama's Cool View of Polarized U.S.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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How about a Catch to Barack Obama? It’s about polarization. Here’s what the president said to Vox’s Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias:

So there's all kinds of structural things that I'd like to see that I think would improve this but, you know, there've been periods in the past where we've been pretty polarized. I think there just wasn't polling around. As I recall, there was a whole civil war — that was a good example of polarization that took place.

Right. There’s no reason to believe we’re particularly polarized right now.

But what is at an unusually high point is partisan polarization -- cleavages, no matter the issue, that run along party lines. There are many ways to conceptualize the Civil War, but one of them is as a rupture within the Democratic Party. The same is true of the intense conflicts in the 1960s over civil rights and the Vietnam War -- those, too, can be looked at as arising from deep divisions among Democrats. So while Obama is correct that polarization is nothing new, partisan polarization -- with relatively ideological parties and their standard platforms on issues -- is new.

Political scientists differ on how deep partisan polarization runs among voters themselves, but when we get to the behavior of elites (say, politicians running for and serving in Congress), it is extremely strong, almost certainly the strongest in U.S. history.

Still, when it comes to effects, Obama points out what is consistent over time:

Even during the so-called golden age where, you know, you had liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats and there was deal-cutting going on in Congress -- generally speaking, big stuff didn't get done unless there was a major crisis and/or you had big majorities of one party controlling the Congress and a president of the same party. I mean, that's just been the history. There have been exceptions, but that's often been the case in terms of big-muscle movements in the political system.

Landmark laws have been signed during times of divided government. A liberal Democratic Congress passed and Republican President Richard Nixon signed important environmental legislation, for example. The Americans With Disabilities Act passed a Democratic Congress with bipartisan support and was signed by Republican George H.W. Bush. A Republican Congress and Democrat Bill Clinton agreed on welfare reform.

But the Congresses that were standouts on the quantity and importance of legislation were during the first six years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the early days of Lyndon Johnson’s and the 111th Congress in 2009-2010 (the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the economic stimulus, along with other measures). 

The president says he would like to see fewer filibusters (see Josh Huder on the relationship between filibusters and partisan polarization). But that’s pretty modest. He calls only for an “elimination of the routine use of the filibuster,” not a specific reform such as making cloture easier, for example. This is an appropriate response if one believes that polarization (of one kind or another) is normal in U.S. politics and that it’s OK if legislation is frequently pushed back until a landslide creates something resembling temporary consensus.

So, nice job, Mr. President. And: nice catch!

  1. In the 19th century, parties were usually loose coalitions of convenience consisting of various local parties and groups that might have little in common. While they might have agreed on some issues, they didn't try to agree on all positions, the way current parties tend to do.

  2. Obama also, as Boris Shor points out, places too much emphasis on gerrymandering and the media as causes of congressional partisan polarization.

  3. Granted, many Democrats are shifting from anti-filibuster to pro-filibuster, so perhaps Obama’s moderation is just part of that process.  

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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