Can Madison’s Constitution Survive Our Polarized Politics?

Eric Schickler and Sarah Binder
May 2, 2016

The potential conflict between America’s modern, polarized political parties and the country’s two-century-old constitutional system was the focus of a two-day conference April 29-30 organized by IGS Affiliated Faculty members Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler, two of the country’s leading political scientists. The Hewlett Foundation sponsored the event.

The conference included leading scholars from across the country, who gathered at the Faculty Club to examine the “mismatch between modern American political parties and the constitutional setting in which they operate,” in the words of IGS Senior Resident Scholar Tom Mann.

Much of the discussion focused on the fractured power and multiple veto points of the American political system, and how such a system interacts with modern parties, which have become more ideologically homogeneous, more ideologically distant from one another, and more closely divided in electoral support.

In the country’s separation-of-powers system, parties traditionally had to compromise to govern, engaging in cross-party coalition-building and cross-party voting in Congress. With a system in which voters can divide power and in which there are many levers for political minorities to exert influence – as distinguished from a parliamentary system in which the winners of an election have far more freedom to simply implement their policies – polarized parties make it hard to get things done, noted multiple panelists. The result can be many of the problems we see in modern American politics, such as policy gridlock, budgetary delay, a degradation of democratic discourse, and even a decline in the effectiveness of government, noted William Galston of the Brookings Institution. Sarah Binder of George Washington University presented data about the general increase in congressional gridlock from 1947 to 2014, and noted that polarization has shifted lawmakers’ priorities from institutional to partisan loyalty.

Part of the problem may stem simply from the intense electoral competition of the past 35 years, noted Francis Lee of the University of Maryland. Lee noted that the period since 1980 has been one of unusually even partisan balance in the battle for control of Congress and the presidency. Such even competition elevates the intensity of competition – almost every election could swing control of the country’s politics – and that in turn makes it less likely that the minority party will “get its hands dirty” and actually help to govern, Lee said. Rather, out-of-power parties will try to strike a clear distinction with the governing party, including the use of obstructionism and inflammatory rhetoric, in an effort to win the next election. Such close competition has also driven the nationalization of American political parties, Lee said, since individual congressional elections could sway control of the House or Senate.

Conference participants also focused on the ways in which polarization challenges the legitimacy of the American political system. Nancy Rosenblum of Harvard argued that there is now a “delegitimizing mindset,” which does not accept the legitimacy of the opposite party, refuses to let the opposition effectively govern, and essentially rejects the idea of agreeing to disagree. Rosenblum argued that this “delegitimizing mindset” is especially strong among Republicans, perhaps because they have isolated themselves more than Democrats through the creation of conservative media channels, a narrative of victimization, and a greater insistence on ideological purity within the party. She also speculated that Republicans may feel humiliated by what they see as American military setbacks overseas. Another possible explanation for the greater presence of a delegitimizing mindset in the GOP is Lee’s observation that the modern Republican Party has most often been a party of opposition.

Panelists differed somewhat as to the severity of the problem. No one believed that the current crisis approaches a true constitutional crisis such as the run-up to the Civil War, but Francis Fukuyama of Stanford did see the potential for a “slow and steady decay in the effectiveness of government.” Galston said he believes that the worst condition for the American political system is the presence of parties that “deeply divided and closely divided,” a description of the current situation

Several participants noted that the discussion of current polarization often compares today’s parties to those of the era after World War II, a time of what John Ferejohn of Stanford identified as the “textbook Congress” in which a strong seniority system ensured the existence of powerful and independent congressional committees. Historian Robin Einhorn of Berkeley went farther, noting that so much of modern American thinking – about more than just politics – uses the postwar era as a baseline, when in fact that period was “so unusual” because “all other claimants to power in the world had committed suicide twice in the first half of the 20th century.”

The conference opened with a comparative panel, noting the rarity of two-party presidential systems among developed nations. Most of the world’s richest nations employ parliamentary systems of government, and most of the presidential systems in mid-level economies have more than two parties, panelists noted.

There was relatively little discussion of specific amendments to the constitutional system, but one proposal was outlined by Terry Moe of Stanford. Responding not to polarization but to the inherent weakness of the presidency, Moe suggested that the constitution be amended to give presidents “fast-track” authority, under which the chief executive could propose items to Congress and force Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on the president’s proposal. Other conference participants generally thought that Moe’s proposal would not be adopted, relied too heavily on the wisdom of presidents versus that of Congress, or at least needed significant revision.

Other conference participants included John Carey of Dartmouth, Zachary Elkins of the University of Texas-Austin, Jonathan Rodden of Stanford, Richard Bensel of Cornell, Daniel Schlozman of Johns Hopkins, and Nolan McCarty of Princeton. In addition to Pierson and Schickler, panel chairs included Sarah Anzia, Sean Farhang, and Terri Bimes, all of Berkeley.