EAST LANSING, Mich. — It may not be so hard to believe during this murky political landscape, but a new study finds the divide between Democrats and Republicans is the worst it’s ever been, more so than many people may even think.
The research, conducted by Zachary Neal, an associate professor of psychology and global urban studies at Michigan State University, is among the first to measure polarization not only by examining the frequency of parties working together, but also by demonstrating how they’ve grown more distant than any other time in modern history.
Neal points out that neither side is to blame for the growing rift. Regardless of the party that holds the majority in Congress or controls the White House, the political divide has widened all the same.
“What I’ve found is that polarization has been steadily getting worse since the early 1970s,” he explains in a university release. “Today, we’ve hit the ceiling on polarization. At these levels, it will be difficult to make any progress on social or economic policies.”
For the study, Neal examined the legislative networks of every U.S. Senator and Representative between 1973 and 2016. He also reviewed bills presented before Congress during the period, specifically looking for bipartisan legislation that was co-sponsored by members from both parties. He found that while polarization was still strong in the 1970s, it’s continued to worsen, particularly since the early 1990s.
Neal defines polarization in two ways: weak polarization, which occurs when parties simply don’t work together; and strong polarization, which occurs when a party not only shuns the other side, but also outwardly attacks opponents or paints them in a negative light. He showed that strong polarization actually dipped in the early and mid-1970s, only to take a steady turn for the worse by 1980. In effect, fewer lawmakers are coming together to co-sponsor attempts at bipartisan bills, and instead, more are taking time to rail against the other side of the aisle.
For example, Neal points to the icy relationship between Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who, according to a Politico report cited in the study, have “developed virtually no rapport in a body where trust and relationships are essential. To the extent they’ve engaged, it’s mainly been to launch political — and at times, personal — attacks.”
If you think things couldn’t possibly grow any worse, Neal contends they probably will, particularly if the margin between the majority and minority remains thin. Of course, we saw this in full play with the Affordable Care Act that passed as Democrats barely held the majority — only to be amended when Republicans took charge, after several attempts to repeal it.
“This study raises new questions about the future of Congressional politics,” he says. “In truth, the only thing that is bi-partisan in Congress is the trend toward greater polarization.”
Neal suggests electing more centrists to Congress could be one solution, but Americans typically stick to the candidates that wholly represent their party affiliation. Thus our democracy, Neal argues, will continue fall victim to this continued political impasse.
“[T]he threat that strong polarization poses to lawmaking may not be the implementation of extreme policy, but rather may be dramatic swings from one partisan extreme to another that prevent the long-term implementation of any policy,” he concludes.
The full study was published on September 24, 2018 in the journal Social Networks.