Yes, Elections are Cultivating Polarization. But…

Competition for power, gerrymandering, disappearing marginal districts define Congress’s electoral landscape. Today, the American electorate is both closely divided and increasingly uncompetitive. In other words, partisan majorities are narrower today than at any time since the Civil War but congressional districts are also safer – there are fewer competitive seats.
It has been argued that this has a significant effect on polarization. Several political scientists argue that this is a somewhat dubious claim. However, Francis Lee and Sarah Binder wrote maybe the best case for why competitive elections undermine bipartisanship. They argue competitive elections effectively reduce leaders’ incentives to reach across the aisle. Because the parties are more competitive today, they have little incentive to give the other team a win.

This also explains the nasty procedural tactics of recent decades. Filibusters, shutting out minority amendments and dilatory motions are strategies tied to this stiff electoral competition in recent decades. The parties do everything in their power to win on their terms. As a result, bipartisan agreements only emerge after calamity hits (shutdown), or just before (debt ceiling).

My qualm is that these accounts largely ignore the institutional contexts. What often goes unsaid is that the current legislative processes also facilitate partisan competition. Particularly in the House, partisan competition feeds off of the legislative process. For example, a major reason bipartisanship flourished in the mid-20th Century is because Republicans had allies on the Rules Committee. They did not hold the majority (except a few instances), but they could count on conservative Democrats on the Rules Committee to bring bills to the floor that served their interests. Therefore, there was an expectation that bipartisan agreements could be met.

This occurred even in years where electoral competition was tight. For example, in 1952 Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act. Despite a narrow Democratic seat advantage of 235 (with only 225 seats occupied at the time) the bill passed the House, and later overrode Truman’s veto, with more minority than majority votes – 107 Democratic votes and 170 Republican votes. In 1953 a Republican House passed a rule with a Democratic majority to consider a tax exemption bill – 120 Democrats and 71 Republicans.  And in 1955, with a Democratic majority of 232 to 200, the House passed a bill that exempted natural gas producers from utilities regulation by a margin of 209-203. The vote was won with 123 Republican votes and 86 Democratic votes. The ability of minority members to attain floor votes was one reason polarization dipped throughout the mid-20th Century.

Conversely, today partisanship thrives because the institution is designed for it to thrive. Examples like those listed above are unfathomable given the current legislative process. The power of party leaders and their incentive to protect their party brand outweigh incentives to advance bipartisan agreements. In other words, elections and the institution together undermine bipartisan negotiations. Tight electoral competition feeds legislative strategies that are enabled by the legislative process.

Without the current process, the partisan tactics we see today are not as viable. For example, if the Rules Committee were a more independent panel, it would be more difficult for the Speaker to block bills with a chamber majority. Put more directly, the Senate’s immigration package or the clean CR, which was never voted on during the shutdown, would have a better shot of passing the House.

Congressional tactics are the result of an interactive relationship between the institution itself and electoral competition. Lee and Binder give an implicit nod to procedural factors in their APSA chapter. However, throughout political science research this is an underlying factor that is not often brought to the forefront. Deals negotiated in Congress are just as heavily influenced by the process as they are by elections.  In a different institutional context, party leaders would be increasingly unable to protect their party’s brand to the extent they do today.