I have to commend Ezra Klein for push, push, pushing everyone to understand the place of the presidency in the US political system. As he says, that system “is centered around Congress rather than the White House,” and he’s been doing terrific and incredibly valuable work explaining to people what this means in terms of the limits of what presidents can do. I do hope everyone reads his latest essay on the topic, from his Wonkblog on Friday.

That said, I continue to dissent from what Klein, Rick Hasen, and others say about polarization. Oh, there’s no question about the levels of partisan polarization: we all agree about that. The key points are well documented; it’s been the case for over a decade that the most liberal Republicans in the House and in the Senate are more conservative than the most conservative Democrats. Or at least that’s how they vote in Congress, which is basically the same thing. And I think there’s general consensus that polarization is probably pretty stable at these levels. Other than the emergence of some new and so far unexpected new ue area of public policy which cuts in a totally different way than current issues, there’s really no reason to expect significant change.

The question — and Hasen goes over this pretty thoroughly in his paper — is whether institutional change is needed for the political system to function with partisan polarization.

And I continue to believe that there’s nothing inherent in partisan polarization that makes Madisonian politics — separated institutions sharing powers — a problem.

It’s true that Madisonian institutions often yield gridlock; in my view, the strongest critique of the US system is that it is biased in favor of the status quo. Gridlock — situations in which issues lie unresolved for extended periods, often despite majority public opinion appearing to favor one side of the argument, or perhaps despite the availability of what appears (to the critic) to be obvious “common sense” compromises — is frustrating. But gridlock doesn’t depend on polarization. Current gridlock, I’d say, is nowhere near the problem of the gridlock of the era of the conservative coalition, and especially the period from 1959 through the Kennedy presidency, when liberals held large majorities in Congress and eventually the presidency but often couldn’t manage to get legislation out of committees in the pre-reformed Congress. Which certainly doesn’t mean reform isn’t needed now (after all, reform is part of what ended that era of gridlock), but does remind us that gridlock is a normal part of the system.

All that said: I agree with Hasen and Klein that we have a good deal of dysfunctional gridlock in the present system. Dysfunctional gridlock — the kind that not only delays “common sense” solutions but also does things like leaving executive branch and judicial positions vacant, threatening to default the government of the United States, and (perhaps) encourages and then allows a party which loses an election to attempt to undermine the economy in order to secure future electoral advantage. The question is whether that sort of dysfunctional gridlock is partisan polarization or not. They both believe that it is; Klein believes that institutional reform is the solution, while Hasen believes that moderate reforms will be ineffective and that it still premature to talk radical Constitutional reform, especially since effecting radical reform is unlikely anyway.

Where I differ with them is that I do not believe that partisan polarization makes dysfunctional gridlock likely. It’s not partisan polarization that’s the problem; it’s the broken, radical Republican Party. Essentially, party polarization isn’t nearly as important as the array of problems within the GOP — antagonism to compromise as an organizing principle; a closed information loop dominated by the Republican-aligned press; a conservative marketplace which blunts the electoral incentive for much of the party; and loss of interest in and capacity for public policy. Without those internal dysfunctions, even an extremely conservative Republican Party would be able to cut deals and allow the political system to function relatively smoothly even with divided government; with those internal dysfunctions, the current system works poorly but any other system would be equally disastrous or worse.

Again, I think that’s easiest to see on budget questions. The basic budget question, after all, is basically just about reaching a compromise between two numbers. That shouldn’t be difficult, and partisan polarization should actually make it easier, because it allows centralized negotiations. And yet Republicans during this and the previous Congress are stymied because, among many of their constituents, compromise — even on Republican terms — means that Republicans have lost, since compromise itself is seen as a disaster.

In my view, then, the real question isn’t so much how to change the system to accommodate partisan polarization; the system can handle polarization between two healthy political parties just fine (other than that status quo bias and perhaps other traditionally discussed problems). Instead, what’s really needed is some thought about what it would take to cure what’s broken with the GOP.

Now, some will argue that it’s a problem that’s self-correcting: a broken party will lose elections, and we do know that ideologically extreme parties tend to moderate after extended electoral loss. I worry, however, that the current GOP isn’t normal enough to follow that pattern. I worry about the conservative marketplace and the downgrading of the electoral incentive. I worry about the information loop, and the inability of even those Republicans who want to win elections to correctly diagnose what it takes to do so. I worry that those who do stay in touch with reality tend to be exiled from the party. And I worry that the electoral incentive for moderation simply isn’t great enough to overcome all of that.

Mostly, however, I worry that it’s not really just a question of ideological positioning. If Republicans really believe that compromise is evil, then it doesn’t really matter whether the ideological gap between their position and the Democratic position is narrow or wide.

Let me put it another way. If I’m correct that the Republican Party is really broken, then “fixing” the system to allow electoral winners to get their way easily is extremely dangerous because sooner or later that broken Republican Party will win but be incapable of governing well. That’s a recipe for disaster. Remember, in parliamentary systems, winning parties don’t simply impose the most extreme version of their platform; there are usually important institutional constraints (such as a strong bureaucracy, for example) that moderate change. But a reformed US system might not have those constraints — and if those constraints are system norms, the current Republican Party might simply trample over them.

If, however, the GOP can be “fixed,” then the traditional reasons for opposing strict majority party rule still apply, even at the cost of some gridlock. It’s still the case that democracy should be rule of the people, not just rule of majorities; it’s still the case that those who want voters to choose between two programs are asking for something that voting can’t really do, and at any rate something that most voters don’t seem particularly interested in.

So it seems to me that the real questions here are about the Republican Party. Has it in fact become dysfunctional? If so, what can be done to restore its health? Will it be self-correcting, thanks to electoral incentives? Or do we need to devise new incentives, and if so, what?

As for reforms to accommodate the current party system, it seems to me that the job of reformers is mostly about finding fixes for those institutions which have been trampled by the dysfunctional GOP, fixes which restore, in many cases, norms which worked fine but have been lost. So Senate reform should be about finding rules to restore what was good about the Senate before it became a 60-vote Senate.

Obviously, none of that is going to happen if people are focused on fairy tales about magic presidents. So what Ezra Klein has been doing is extremely valuable. The next steps, however, are a lot trickier; political scientists really disagree about this stuff, probably because (unlike the question of whether a presidential speech can get Congress to act) it’s not really something that can be determined through empirical research. Oh, I think that the questions I raise about the GOP are essentially empirical — we could determine whether or not electoral incentives are driving them — but not the questions of majority party rule. On that one, those of us who are with Ranney, with Madison, and with Arendt (at least as I read them) are swimming against the tide in the political culture. But if those thinkers are correct, then it would be a great tragedy indeed if the strengths of the US political system are abandoned.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.