While members of Congress have continued to lean on their leaders, the resulting equilibrium is increasingly precarious. Congress is incapable of sustaining a stagnant status quo for long when its members, and their constituents, are dissatisfied. Indeed, past moments where members have effected institutional change illuminate the present potential for reform.
The political scientist E. E. Schattschneider asserted that “democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” But what exactly are political parties, and how do they matter?
Many people think that parties are strongest when their members’ views are most in sync. They see how powerful today’s party leaders are and infer that our current environment must be one characterized by an unusual degree of internal party cohesion.
As intuitive as this view is, it misses one of the central functions of political parties, which is to hide disagreement between their members and thus make them appear more unified than they really are. Strong leadership actually becomes more necessary as conflicting concerns within a coalition proliferate. Accordingly, to understand our current political environment, we need to reorient our view of what parties do.
In a subtle yet consequential shift, most members no longer see Congress as the pre-eminent venue in which to engage in politics on behalf of the people they represent in order to resolve their differences and compromise. In lieu of the conflict such a process would inevitably generate between members with different policy views, there appears to be bipartisan agreement that executive branch agencies and the federal judiciary are more appropriate venues for making controversial decisions.
Our recent piece, “Congress is Broken. But don’t blame polarization,” provoked a number of useful discussions about how political scientists should interpret the results of empirical models like DW-NOMINATE. When used improperly, these models distort our understanding of reality rather than illuminating it. Consequently, we believe that political scientists should not use the data produced by such models uncritically. These models should instead be seen as tools that can help foster a better understanding of Congress, but only when appropriate. To that end, we seek to clarify and deepen our original discussion in this post.
Mitch McConnell is a tough guy to figure out. Everyone agrees he’s one of the most consequential figures in American politics. Yet it’s not entirely clear why.
The six-term Republican senator from Kentucky and current majority leader has cultivated a reputation over the years as a master tactician and skilled legislative leader. Still, few can list his legislative accomplishments. Whether he’s squaring off against Democrats or his own party members, the outcome always appears to be the same: McConnell wins. Even so, it isn’t clear what winning means for Republicans or the Senate.
Perhaps because of this ambiguity, McConnell set a record this week as the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history. In doing so, he moved one step closer to eclipsing Mike Mansfield (D-MT) as the longest-serving leader of either party in the Senate.
Breaking Mansfield’s record would be the perfect capstone to McConnell’s career. He often cites the Senate legend as an example of the kind of leader he aspires to be. Unlike the ever-enigmatic McConnell, however, people know why Mansfield is important. From 1961 to 1977, Mansfield deftly guided the Senate through a thicket of domestic unrest, political assassinations, wars, congressional investigations, and a presidential impeachment controversy. And through all the controversy, the Senate managed to keep legislating — in large part due to Mansfield’s leadership.
While there are many similarities between today’s Senate and that of Mansfield’s time, the institution has, under McConnell’s leadership, proven largely incapable of legislating in the face of even the slightest controversy. This contrast is a testament to the impact a truly skilled leader can have. For that reason, comparing McConnell’s tenure with Mansfield’s can help us form an accurate assessment of McConnell’s record-breaking reign as Republican leader.
In “Great Expectations,” Mr. Jaggers counsels Pip, “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”
Like Pip, today we often take things on looks instead of evidence. This is especially true in politics.
Consider political dysfunction. Most Americans — including many scholars — base their understanding of what’s wrong with our politics today simply on how it appears. And who could blame them? Things look pretty clear.
According to social science data, polarization is the reason why politics is so dysfunctional. The data tell us that more polarized constituencies send more polarized members to Congress who, in turn, chose more polarized party leaders. These party leaders subsequently pursue a more polarized legislative agenda by exploiting congressional procedures for partisan gain. The practical effect? Congress is now more partisan and confrontational. And this leads to obstruction and gridlock, because the incentives for Democrats and Republicans to oppose each other in a polarized environment are greater than the incentives to bargain and compromise.
Social scientists tell us that we can expect this gridlock to continue as long as our electorate remains polarized. And so it seems that ending congressional dysfunction is inseparable from ending, or at least reducing, polarization. That is, if the ideological distance between the parties is what drives dysfunction, then our only hope is a public that somehow transcends current differences and elects candidates cut from a different mold — politicians more interested in solving America’s problems than are our current partisan warriors. Absent such changes in the electorate, reform-minded members seeking to make Congress work are left with no choice but to wall off the legislative process from the polarized conflict endemic in politics today and try their best to weather the storm.
Notwithstanding the apparent persuasiveness of such an argument, observers of American politics would do well to heed the advice Mr. Jaggers gives Dickens’ precocious protagonist: “Take everything on evidence,” he says. “There’s no better rule.”
On closer inspection, it turns out that the evidence on which the polarization thesis depends is hardly decisive. Rightly understood, polarization is more an optical illusion than a solid fact about American life. A better way to understand politics today is to focus on what members actually do in Washington.
The long-simmering debate over the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will come to a head in Congress this week as Republican leaders try to fend off a rogue effort to force the House to vote on a series of immigration proposals.
But lost amid the analysis of what this means for DACA recipients is what it reveals about how Republicans understand the relationship between individual representatives and the party to which they belong when their views are in conflict. In such situations, members are effectively forced to choose between complying with their party or heeding the wishes of their constituents. This inevitably creates tension within the majority party and makes it harder for it to address issues on which its members are divided.
There is a lot more to the Senate’s dysfunction than Democratic intransigence alone. The way in which Republicans have managed the chamber over the last year and a half has made it possible for lone members to single-handedly disrupt the Senate’s business without breaking a sweat.
The good news for Republicans is that while they are far more responsible for the gridlock on Capitol Hill than they would like voters to believe, they can change the status quo at any point in the limited time they have left in this Congress.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Senate’s rules empower majorities to legislate. The members composing those majorities just have to be willing to put in the effort required to do so over the minority’s obstruction.