Government scholar examines changes in constituencies and Congress to reveal what’s behind the political divide
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress. —Mark Twain
The framers place the design of Congress first in the Constitution. But, many Americans rank the legislative houses of the people last among our democracy’s institutions. Last year, as citizens turned their attention to the presidential race, their approval of Congress dipped to 14 percent, the lowest in Gallup’s poll history. This season, 39 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing, which is more than at any time since feb. 2005.
Although the public’s appreciation of Congress ebbs and (relatively) flows, Sean Theriault’s affection never wanes.
The political scientist decidedly disregards Otto von Bismarck’s timeless advice—“laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”—to look beyond the headlines and the polls to examine Congress as an institution.
“I have a deep reverence for Congress and the good, albeit slow, legislative process that makes it difficult to make sweeping changes quickly,” Theriault says. “The criticism that ‘Congress doesn’t get anything done’ is in fact one of its virtues. real legislative changes require a sustained impulse from the people, which makes the U.S. Congress among the most stable national legislatures in the world.”
On the downside, the deliberative process sometimes breaks down into gridlock. Theriault says, “The process becomes bad when it gets in the way of solving america’s problems and when it becomes an excuse for inaction—or to be mean.”
And, when mean-spirited congressional debates make the news, students often ask Theriault, “Why can’t the democrats and republicans get along?” This is when the popular professor transforms their frustration into a teaching moment.
He reminds students about Congressional unity after Sept. 11, 2001, and the bipartisan help america vote act (hava) that authorized $2.65 billion to update voting equipment and recruit more poll workers in 2002.
“The public viewed hava as a bipartisan solution to one of the most highly partisan episodes in U.S. history—the con¬tested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore—but the political warfare was taking place behind the scenes using legislative procedures,” Theriault explains as he begins to examine one of the most pressing—and complex— issues in contemporary american politics: party polarization.
Self-sorting: a Balkanized America
At the turn of the 20th century, democrats and republicans were more polarized than they are today, Theriault says, but the ideological gap between the parties narrowed until the 1970s when the current period of polarization began.
In “Party Polarization in Congress” (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Theriault provides a comprehensive review of the changes among constituencies and Congress that have set the stage for the 35-year political divide.
When Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in the 1976 president election, almost 75 percent of americans lived in counties where votes were distributed fairly evenly between the can¬didates. By the time George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004, that percentage declined to about 50.
In “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of like-minded America is Tearing Us apart” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), Bill Bishop and robert G. Cushing, a retired professor of sociology at the university, argue that as millions of americans have relocated during the past three decades, they have begun to cluster around people who have similar beliefs and political views.
This local geographic clustering has changed the national political landscape, as well.
“As the electorate has sorted itself ideologically, voters have increasingly elected consistently ideological candidates,” Theriault says. “as ideological candidates gain ground, liberal republicans and conservative democrats are increasingly iso¬lated by both their ideology and their party.”
In addition, as political parties jockey for power through redistricting, they create more ‘safe’ democratic and republican districts, resulting in more polarized constituencies.
Finally, political party activists have become increasingly ide¬ological and extreme, supporting more polarizing candidates during the nomination process.
“Once in office, the ideological purer candidates are more accountable to the ideologically extreme constituents who helped to elect them,” Theriault says.
Inside Baseball: the Politics of Procedures
Once elected, representatives and senators discover changes in the electorate have given rise to and exacerbated changes in Congress itself, says Theriault, who has worked for the non-partisan Office of the legislative Counsel in the house of representatives.
To understand polarization fully, Theriault examines the inner-workings of the institution where even elected officials from marginal districts—in which constituents roughly divide their votes between democratic and republican presidential candidates—cast increasingly ideological votes.
When comparing members’ roll-call records from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, Theriault finds democrats who represent moderate constituencies vote almost 25 percent more liberally, while republicans in these districts vote 50 percent more conservatively.
“As voters sort themselves geographically, the democratic and republican caucuses have become more homogeneous, which means the interests of constituents and their parties have increasingly aligned,” Theriault says. “This alignment strengthens the majority party whose leadership begins to enact their legislative agenda in an efficient and electorally pleasing way—by using procedures to work their will.”
The disagreements between democrats and republicans about legislative procedures can begin to sound a little like inside baseball as the political power games rely on teamwork and the execution of tactical plays such as restricting the rules of debate or the proposal of amendments. rep. John dingell famously noted, “If you let me write the procedures and I let you write the substance, I’ll [beat] you every time.”