Just how far right has the Tea Party taken the Republican Party?
When future generations look back on our time, they will hear stories of wars, economic catastrophes and, perhaps most notably, deep partisan/ideological fissures within the American government. The media and politicos of all stripes tend to attribute the striking polarization in American politics to the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 or George Bush’s divisive eight years in the Oval Office.
While these two forces are certainly significant contributors to the unprecedented gridlock in Washington and the governance-by-crisis that we’ve seen in recent years, there are deeper historical roots than these alone.
The 2010 Election and the Rise of the Tea Party
First, I believe that we will be well-served by a short refresher of recent political history. For this, we turn to the 2010 election as not the origin but, instead, the most recent manifestation of the creeping political polarization that has gripped the United States in recent decades.
The 2010 midterm elections were a watershed for the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. Ostensibly propelled by “grassroots” opposition to the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s “socialist” intentions, Republicans experienced a massive reversal of their political fortunes after devastating losses in 2006 and 2008.
In the Senate, Republicans gained a total of six seats, biting deeply into the Democrats’ previous 59-seat majority. Elections in the House were even more devastating for Democrats; Republicans gained a total of 63 House seats and, as a result, recaptured control of the Chamber.
This wave of conservative successes was driven in part by opposition to President Obama’s policies like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus) and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The real roots of the Tea Party, however, matured out of the 2008 Financial Crisis and a popular misattribution of responsibility for out-of-control government spending to President Obama.
Regardless of this movement’s exact origins, its ascendancy has dramatically affected the nation’s political dynamics. Congress is passing fewer laws than at any time in recent history, struggles to perform its most basic functions like passing a budget, and finds itself embroiled in fallacious partisan-fueled investigations of executive branch corruption and malfeasance. Even worse, the two Chambers are at such loggerheads that previously rubber-stamped programs like the Export-Import Bank and the Highway Trust Fund now stir deep partisan controversy.
So this tells us where we are politically, but now we must answer another question: How the hell did we get here in the first place?
Characteristics of Political Polarization in the United States
Growing polarization between the two major political parties has been a steady phenomenon for decades, but in recent years it has reached previously unimaginable heights. There is general consensus among political scientists that polarization has grown dramatically since the early 1970s; however, there are numerous competing theories as to what factors are driving it.
First, on the consensus side, most astute observers agree that both parties have drifted toward their ideological fringes since the 1960s. However, the evidence is unequivocally clear that Republicans have drifted significantly more to the political right than Democrats have to the political left.
The notion that Republicans have drifted disproportionately to their extreme wing is not mere conjecture or semi-informed commentary; quantitative political science data prove it beyond any reasonable doubt.
Keith Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who studies polarization, has extensively documented the rising tides of hyper-partisanship in American politics in recent decades. In simple terms, Poole’s data measure voting records of Congresspersons and Senators over time to establish a “score” of their ideological leanings.
These scores range from -1 to +1, with a score of -1 representing perfectly liberal values and +1 representing perfectly conservative values. The two figures above, both obtained from Poole’s website, graph the mean scores of all legislators in each party over time to give a sense of how far apart Republicans and Democrats are. The evidence leaves room for only one conclusion—Republicans have veered significantly more to the right than Democrats have to the left.
Origins of Political Polarization in the United States
Diagnosing the factors that are causing this tidal shift in American political culture is a much more difficult task than merely proving that it’s happening. As a result, there are a number of competing hypotheses that attempt to explain why political polarization is increasing so dramatically.
There are so many competing ideas, in fact, that I do not have space to recount them all here. Briefly, however, some of the most prominent explanations include: the role of party primaries in the nominating process; partisan gerrymandering during the redistricting process; and, the changing regional and demographic makeups of each party’s supporters.
The Primary System
Party primaries in the United States have their origins in the early 1900s, arising out of the Populist movement’s demand for greater public participation in the choosing of presidential candidates. The primary process was revamped in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make Convention delegates bound to whichever candidate won their state, making these elections an even more powerful force in American politics.
The issue with primaries is nothing inherent to the elections themselves but, instead, it has to do with who participates in them. Primary electorates are, typically, largely composed of voters with more extreme ideological views than those that participate in general elections.
The basic idea is that these more polarized electorates nominate more partisan/ideologically extreme candidates than would be preferred by the larger group of general election voters. This process weeds out more moderate candidates who fail to make it past the primary election, leaving voters in the general election with a choice between two extreme candidates that have little incentive to collaborate with the other party, thereby exacerbating partisanship and polarizing the Congress.
Various studies have produced conflicting results about the role of primaries in driving partisan polarization, with some finding little to no connection and others finding that they play a significant role. On my reading of the current evidence, we must conclude that primaries are neither the main factor nor totally inconsequential but, instead, likely only part of the polarization puzzle.
Partisan gerrymandering has become an increasingly popular idea invoked to explain the growth of polarization. The basic logic is similar to that used to undergird the political primaries argument, and I am of the opinion that gerrymandering and primaries work in tandem to produce and perpetuate polarization.
This school of thought contends that many House districts throughout the United States are drawn in such a way as to ensure one party’s continued control of the district’s seat. This strategic redistricting then in turn leads the Congressperson occupying that House seat to act in a more ideologically extreme way than they otherwise would if they were in an electorally competitive House district.
The downside of this argument is that, in truth, there is little direct evidence that it is a major factor in rising polarization. Most studies looking for a linkage between gerrymandering and polarization fine little support for the claim; though others find that it has at least a modest effect and helps to explain the higher levels of polarization seen in the House relative to the Senate.
Both partisan gerrymandering and primary elections are partial contributors to the growth of partisanship. Gerrymandering is only an intensifier of the underlying pattern of growing political polarization. Evidence of this can be seen in data suggesting that the House has polarized more intensely than the Senate, due to the fact that the Senate is never redistricted.
Electoral Realignment Stemming from the 1960s
The third and, I believe, most compelling hypothesis about what is driving the growth of polarization looks at the problem through the lens of a large-scale “electoral realignment” that occurred during the Civil Rights Era. The reorientation of the two parties around new issues and the staking out of new positions on old ones led many voters that had once split their tickets to now vote more consistently for their own party.
For a little historical background, we must first understand that the American political environment changed substantially after the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s like the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and similar legislative achievements. This contentious period of American history began a large-scale political realignment in the American electorate, the likes of which had not been seen since the early days of the Great Depression in which FDR’s New Deal Coalition was cobbled together.
The South was roiled by the passage of civil rights legislation, leading to a slow but significant migration of voters in the traditionally Democratic region toward the Republican Party. In attempts to explain this shift, many analysts point to factors like racial intolerance and a general angst among working-class whites that the Democrats were beginning to favor economic policies that benefited racial minorities over their more traditional—largely white—voting blocs.
Sensing an opportunity, Republicans began an effort to capitalize on these new fractures within the Democratic coalition. Through the now infamous Southern Strategy, Republicans began to energize white (especially Southern white) anger over the increasingly liberal social and economic policies of the Democrats, policies that typically benefited minority groups.
While this move eventually netted the Republicans near-total electoral control of the Southeastern United States and large parts of the rural Midwest and West, it also sealed the GOP’s path toward becoming an ever more conservative fringe party. Without the need to appeal to other regions of the country, the Republican Party began its evolution into the laughable obstruction-machine that it has become today.
Two-and-a-half decades of tug-and-pull between the parties eventually culminated in the 1994 Republican Revolution that delivered both Houses of Congress to the GOP for the first time in forty years. After this earth-shattering election, the electoral realignment that began in the mid-1960s was finally complete.
Since 1994, both parties have become increasingly ideologically obstinate with each election cycle that passes. This electoral realignment had deep repercussions for the American political system, and we are still feeling its reverberations today in our unprecedented gridlock and political polarization.
The Complicated Truth about Political Polarization
The truth is that no single factor fully explains the political polarization gripping the United States today. Primary elections, partisan gerrymandering, and the electoral realignment that began in the 1960s have all played a part in leading us to where we are today.
Gerrymandering became a serious problem in the 1960s and 1970s and political primaries took on greater prominence after the 1960 election. Interestingly, the increasing importance of these two factors also coincided with the apparent beginning of the growth in political polarization (both in Congress and the broader public).
The alignment of all of these facts leaves little doubt that these three things—the 1960s electoral realignment, gerrymandering, and the primary system—are contributing to our current political woes. The political shakeup begun in the Civil Rights Era was merely the first step in unraveling the fabric of moderation that for decades had bound the two parties to strategies of compromise and conciliation.
The modern primary system exacerbated the trend of polarization by putting the nomination of each party’s candidate in the hands of a radical and energized fringe. Making matters even worse, the growth in the use of partisan gerrymandering accelerated and exacerbated polarization in the House relative to the Senate.
This should not be taken to be a comprehensive account of why our nation is so politically polarized today. Various other factors, like the fragmentation of the media system caused by the rise of cable news and the internet, as well as the “liberalization” of campaign finance laws in the wake of the 2010 Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision, are also contributing to the problem.
There is also strong theoretical evidence that income inequality and political polarization are deeply intertwined. Throughout American history, periods of significant income inequality have been highly correlated with intensified political polarization, so there is little doubt that two are linked. The graph below shows this linkage quite clearly.
Nevertheless, this is the best account that can be offered in the space I have available. You may still be asking yourself what this all means for the United States’ political future, so I will offer a few suggestions before concluding.
Political Polarization in the Future
As bad as things seem today in Washington, it’s difficult to imagine that they could get much worse. Luckily, a number of current trends should give us some solace when we consider what our political future will hold.
The most important thing that will likely help clear the hyper-partisan environment in the Beltway is the unmistakable process of partisan dealignment that has occurred in recent decades and shows no signs of slowing in the near future. Millennials are even less likely to identify with parties than earlier age cohorts and, as shown in this image, they are also much more likely to lean towards the political left.
In addition to their electoral advantage among Millennials, Democrats also have a favorable chance with many other voting blocs in the near future. Women, Latinos, and other growing segments of the American population are substantially more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.
The Republican Party’s current vice-grip on the House of Representatives will likely continue through 2020 given the way that many seats were gerrymandered after the 2010 Census. After that, however, the Democrats will have a serious opportunity to redraw district lines more favorably for themselves (or, ideally, we could adopt a redistricting system like California’s on a nationwide scale).
There is also significant evidence that the polarization we see today has not permeated into the broader American public. The growth of polarization is not a symptom of a society-wide growth in partisanship; instead, it is driven largely by political elites and activists.
It’s impossible to say exactly how these trends will affect America’s political future, but I hold out hope that they will be forces of moderation that drive politics in Washington toward a more centrist path in which compromise is no longer a four-letter-word. If nothing else, they will at a minimum help to excise the political tumor that the Tea Party and other radicals have become on our political system.
If these things happen, perhaps future generations will read less about the crippling political dysfunction that now grips our governmental institutions. Historians could write of how Americans reached a tipping point of anger and demanded in a resolute voice that those in power work together.
All we must do is act. Vote, talk politics with your neighbors, attend rallies, and get involved. Our political future is in our hands, and we shouldn’t let it slip from our grasp while there’s still time.