Friday, December 25, 2009


Seth Masket makes some good points here, but I want to toss in a bit of a caveat.  It's correct that partisan polarization is the norm in Congress, and that the Conservative Coaltion era of the 1930s through the 1970s was historically unusual.  However, what's happening now is unusual.  Congress is much more polarized now than it was in the 1980s, and more polarized now than it was in the 1990s.  It's more polarized than it was in the 1920s, and even more polarized than it was during the era of very strong Speakers around the turn of the last century.  In fact, thanks to McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal, we know that the last few Congresses have been the most polarized since (at least) reconstruction

I know a lot less about earlier Congresses, but there's variation during the 19th century, too.  To get a visual sense of it, go here, scroll to the bottom, and watch.

Back to Seth's post...I agree with him that political parties are a good thing, and that there's nothing wrong with partisanship -- in fact, it's generally (but not absolutely) a good thing..  However, I don't think it's a good thing if Members of Congress can't stand each other; as long as the Constitution survives, there's going to be a need for American politicians to work together across party lines.  I don't know if there's some ideal level of partisanship, but if there is one I'm sure it's higher than the levels from the 1940s, but lower than where it is now.  We've moved pretty far to a world preferred by the "responsible party" school of party scholars, and in my view it's showing a lot of the problems that those of us who oppose that school would expect.

(I'll add further explanation of this to my list of topics I really should write a careful post about in the future...)

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