Is the US Truly Polarized or Is the Division by Design?
By Jeanne Sheehan Zaino – Professor of Political Science and International Studies, Iona College; Bloomberg News Political Contributor
“America is more polarized than ever before.” “To address this division, we need to encourage bipartisanship.” Wrong on both counts.
Despite the near-constant focus on how divided we are, the numbers tell a different story. There are in fact a large number of issues on which Americans agree. Vast majorities favor lowering the cost of pharmaceuticals, paid family leave, common sense gun laws, higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy, making healthcare accessible and affordable, upgrading our infrastructure, and addressing climate change, among other things. The problem we face is not polarization but stalemate.
The question is not why are we so divided, but rather, why is the government incapable of acting on the issues on which there is consensus? Why is the federal government in a constant state of gridlock? Why is it not able to respond to the majority will? Why do minorities have such an outsized voice, while the super-majority is subjugated? The answer is the system.
The fact is, our constitutional system was purposefully designed to make it difficult to form the majorities in government necessary to get things done. As a result, responsiveness, except in times of crisis, is exceedingly rare. This is not an accident—it is by design.
The reason the Framers constructed the system is one that all small ‘d’-democrats can appreciate: an unwavering commitment to liberty.
The Philosophy Behind our System
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and his fellow Founding Fathers believed that the primary purpose of government was protectionism—specifically, protection of liberty. It is something they stated repeatedly, including in the Federalist Papers. Liberty is not freedom in general, it is a specific type of freedom—freedom from government.
Their commitment to liberty makes historic sense; after all, they fought a bloody war for independence from a king they characterized as a tyrant. After throwing off the bands that connected them with Great Britain, they adopted a new constitution, the Articles of Confederation & Perpetual Union. It was a valiant first attempt, but it eventually left them feeling vulnerable and oppressed. This time, as they saw it, they were subjugated to potentially tyrannical state legislative bodies.
It was the Articles that they intended to revise when they arrived in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1787. Instead, they ended up replacing it with a new government designed, above all, to protect liberty.
How best to do that was a challenge, but they had a terrific tutor in Montesquieu who, decades prior, had published The Spirit of the Laws. Not only did Montesquieu argue that the purpose of government was to ensure liberty, he reasoned that the best way to protect it was through trias politica, or separation of powers. As such, he proposed division between the three branches of government, which had been joined in a single entity at the time.
Madison learned this lesson well, perhaps too well from our modern perspective. Not content to merely separate powers, he went much further by adopting a system of checks and balances, federalism, bicameralism, and the like. The more division, he reasoned, the better our liberty will be protected.
Some Unintended Consequences
As is typical in life, however, there is another side to this story. The more power is divided, the tougher it is for the government to deliver—even when it comes to issues on which majorities and super-majorities agree.
One of the extraordinary things about the American system is that it has changed structurally very little since it was ratified. Remarkably, our political system today remains as Madison designed it; nothing structurally of significance has changed since the Framers adopted it. Whether this is the result of contentment, the lack of will to change, or something else, there is no question that it is also a by-product of Madison’s design.
The Framers were cognizant that future generations might wish to follow in their footsteps and reconstruct the government. As a result, they gave us a pathway for doing so—but intent on not making it easy, they littered the lane with obstacles the size of boulders. The Constitution is so difficult to amend that it has only been done twenty-seven times total—and just ten since the Civil War (discounting prohibition and its repeal).
Like so much in our political lives, this process is one that can be thwarted by a miniscule minority. As conservative jurist and committed originalist Antonin Scalia once calculated, less than 2% of the population could prevent a Constitutional amendment from passing. “It ought to be hard,” he said, “but not that hard!”
Unless there is some silent super-majority waiting to push for structural change via the regular Article V process—and rest assured, there is currently not one large enough to withstand the mighty 2%—then change of this kind is not in the offing any time soon.
This means we are stuck with the system in all its unresponsive glory. Barring structural change via amendment, our only option is to look for extra-constitutional strategies that encourage and incentivize governmental responsiveness. There are “constitutional workarounds” that allow us to moderate structural division, particularly between the legislative and executive branches, in addition to increasing responsiveness to the majority and lessening the outsized power of the minority.
Working Within the System
Proposals to this effect are numerous and date back centuries. They encompass everything from direct election of the president via the National Bonus Plan, or more recently, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, to institutional reforms affecting the filibuster and the veto. None alone will suffice, but each, in its own way, would help increase governmental responsiveness.
Of all the extra-constitutional means of encouraging responsiveness, there is one that deserves special mention as it would go further than any of the others to bridge structural divisions. It has a long and sordid history in the American psyche.
This extra-constitutional remedy is the political party.
The Framers had a love-hate relationship with this institution. George Washington famously warned about the dangers of parties in his Farewell Address. The first president was not alone in his fears. In Federalist #10, Madison described factions as the greatest threat to a free state. It was a theme echoed by almost all the Founders—in fact, contempt for political parties came across the pond years earlier and was rooted in 18th-century Anglo thought.
That said, the country had hardly been established for more than a few years when the Framers, who once spoke out against these institutions, eventually turned to them. They did so for the same reason a group of political scientists in the mid-twentieth century spoke out about their necessity: short of Article V structural reform, our only hope for addressing the critical challenges we face is either (a) crises, which we do not want to rely on to do the basic work of government; or (b) an institution like political parties, which incentivizes those in government to work together.
There is a reason that the Framers held their noses and turned to parties when the nation was in its infancy—they realized early that in a system this divided, they are a necessary evil. No one promoting them as a semi-solution should be under the misconception that they are either competent or responsible institutions today; nor should we assume they can do the job in the absence of real reform in the modern era.
That said, if all things remain equal structurally, and they look like they will at least for the short term, what are the alternatives? Find a better institution? So far none has come to pass. Interest groups? These and others have been explored and, in each instance, they have been unable to live up to their promise, failing to act as responsible parties with strong leaders above the influence of the fringe elements of their caucuses.
So as much as I would like to sing the praises of bipartisanship, I cannot, if only because it is a nothing burger given the current environment and structure of our political system. Barring some ability to change the system, our only option is to bandage the problem—and this requires responsible parties with strong leaders.
Partisanship is not a dirty word. It is a necessity in a system designed for stalemate and inaction. In the absence of structural change via regular amendment, it is the only hope we have of making the government responsive and actionable.
If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more Divided We Fall op-eds here.
Jeanne Sheehan Zaino
Jeanne Sheehan Zaino is a professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. She is the author of several books, her most recent entitled American Democracy in Crisis: The Case for Rethinking Madisonian Government was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Dr. Sheehan Zaino is a political contributor with Bloomberg Television and Radio where she appears regularly.