If you asked Americans to identify the most noticeable change in U.S. politics over the past two decades, they’d probably answer that politics has become more polarized and that this has made it harder for the government to address the problems the country faces.
To say politics has become polarized is another way of saying that the politicians we nominate and elect have moved away from the ideological center, that the Democratic Party has become more liberal and the Republicans more conservative, with little or no overlap. Liberal Republicans are all but extinct, and conservative Democrats aren’t far behind. Genuine bipartisan compromise has gone from standard practice to quaint anomaly. In Washington and increasingly in state capitals, once a majority of the party in control of a chamber decides what it wants to do, everyone else in the party is expected to line up behind it — and everyone in the other party lines up to oppose it.
Public opinion polls consistently report that Americans aren’t happy with these developments — they don’t like partisanship or gridlock — and that their views on issues are closer to the center than to the extreme positions in either party. And it’s not just the voters. Politicians themselves are frustrated at not being able to get things done; they chafe at their loss of independence and public respect; they loathe the endless fundraising needed to wage unending partisan warfare.
So if voters and politicians don’t like it, why does this polarization persist? In a democracy, like in any open market, having everyone pursue their own self-interest is supposed to generate the best outcome for society. What is causing this political market failure?
In the vision of politics that many of us carry around in our heads, it is the “median voter,” at the center of the ideological spectrum, who ultimately is supposed to determine the long-term course of government policy. In this model, the best way — the only way — for a party to increase its political market share is to moderate its views to attract such independent swing voters. When either party has tried a different strategy (Barry Goldwater in ’64, say, or George McGovern in ’72), it has failed.
But something fundamental seems to have changed in the political marketplace. The winning strategy is no longer to be more moderate than your opponent, to offer a bigger tent. Instead, it is to be more zealous and committed to your party’s ideology.
This transformation has its roots in what has become the dominant reality of American politics: the arms race in campaign finance. Candidates and parties now raise and spend enormous sums, well beyond what would reasonably be needed to provide for a well-informed electorate and well beyond what is raised and spent in other advanced democracies.
These days, the average Senate candidate raises and spends $9 million to win election, which works out to slightly more than $4,000 for each day of a six-year term. For the average House candidate, it’s $1.4 million, or just under $2,000 per day in office (including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays). These sums are several times what they were 25 years ago.