Our political system is so plagued by polarization, it's difficult to move any legislation forward. In the late 1960s, significant overlap existed in votes cast by the most conservative Democrats in Congress and those cast by the most liberal Republicans. By the late 1980s, the common ground had diminished. Today, it has virtually disappeared.
What's causing this? Many people have said the problem is that Congressional districts have been redrawn to be as partisan as they can be, to keep politicians from each party in office as long as possible. (Optimizing the district lines in this manner is a harder problem than it may initially seem, as research by two Harvard economists has shown.) Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, for one, has blamed “the gerrymandering of political districts,” which made each one permanently Republican or Democratic, for “erasing the political middle.”
So, presumably, we could solve the problem by simply changing the rules on how congressional districts are drawn. A closer look at Congress, however, shows that redistricting isn't a major cause of our polarization at all.
Compare, for example, historical trends in the House and the Senate. Senate districts are states, so they aren't continually redrawn as congressional districts are. And yet the polarization patterns in the House and Senate have broadly tracked each other. (See accompanying chart: History of Congress.) Polarization between the two parties was relatively high in both houses for the first three decades of the 20th century. It dipped in the House and Senate alike from the mid- 1930s until the late 1970s, and then began climbing to record highs today.
If redistricting isn't the primary force behind polarization, what is? One crucial cause, as documented in “The Big Sort,” a path-breaking book by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, is increased residential segregation by political party. We are voluntarily separating ourselves into Republican and Democratic neighborhoods. Today's media and blogosphere, which increasingly filter news according to their point of view, exacerbate and reinforce the effect.
Two maps (see accompanying maps: 1976 Election and 2008 Election), taken from a recent paper by James Thomson of the RAND Corp., show the U.S. broken down by county (county lines have also not been redistricted). The dark-shaded counties are those that have swung hard one way or another in a presidential election, and so are considered polarized, while the light counties are politically mixed. The difference from 1976 to 2008 is striking: The number of light counties has fallen sharply. Roughly 25 percent more of the U.S. population now lives in a landslide county than did in the 1970s.
The consequences are far-reaching. The social psychology literature clearly shows that when like-minded people are put together, they move to extremes -- both because they rarely hear opposing viewpoints and because each person is at least somewhat inclined to prove he is the true believer in the group.
The behavior is observed even among people who otherwise strive to be quite objective, such as judges. Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar who is now administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, documents in his 2006 book “Are Judges Political? An Empirical Analysis of the Federal Judiciary,” that judges appointed by Republican presidents are more likely to vote in extreme ways if they are grouped with other Republican-appointed judges than if they are grouped with Democratic-appointed judges, and vice versa.
Red and Blue Neighborhoods
Why is this residential segregation happening? “The Big Sort” argues that when families choose where to live, they look for subtle signs that a neighborhood includes other people like them. The consequences of this manifest in a variety of ways. For example, certain cities now have growing concentrations of highly educated families. As my Bloomberg View colleague Ed Glaeser has shown, cities with a large proportion of college graduates in 1990 later experienced more rapid increases in the number of residents with college degrees than other cities did.
So Americans are voluntarily creating red and blue neighborhoods, and their divergent perspectives are reinforced by the right-left divide found on television (Fox News versus MSNBC) and online (Huffington Post versus Hot Air). The polarization that results makes our political system, which was never particularly good at dealing with any problem before it became a crisis, suffer even more inertia.
The best bet on what will happen in Washington is, therefore, nothing -- until and unless it has to. The Big Sort generates gridlock, making it increasingly difficult for lawmakers to tackle anything from climate change to budget balancing.
Clearly, redistricting reform won't help us much. Instead, we should try to create a new set of rules and institutions that can use legislative inertia to our benefit -- just as a growing body of tools in the private sector, such as automatic- enrollment 401(k) plans, are using inertia there to produce better outcomes.
The Independent Payment Advisory Board, created to constrain cost growth and improve quality in Medicare, without new legislation, is one example of trying to leverage legislative inertia. The key is that inaction by Congress allows the IPAB's recommendations to take effect.
Another example is the backstop fiscal trigger currently being discussed as part of the debt-limit negotiations. With this mechanism in place, congressional inaction would lead to automatic spending cuts and/or revenue increases (and, by the way, the trigger should include both). Here again, legislative inaction wouldn't mean failure to address a problem.
The era of gridlock government is unlikely to disappear overnight. We might as well figure out how to function with it.